The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas de Quincey 
by Grevel Lindop.
Dent, 433 pp., £12, July 1981, 0 460 04358 7
Show More
Show More

Hech, sirs, yon bit opium Tract’s a desperate interesting confession. It’s perfectly dreadfu’, yon pouring in upon you o’ oriental imagery. But nae wunner. Sax thousand draps of lowdnam! It’s a muckle, I fancy, as a bottle of whusky. I tried the experiment mysel, after reading the wee wud wicked work, wi’ five hunner draps, and I couped ower, and continued in ae snore frae Monday night till Friday morning.

Opium and its effects here receive the jawgrinding judgment of James Hogg, the ‘Ettrick Shepherd’, in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1823, soon after the appearance of Thomas de Quincey’s celebrated Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Hogg delivers what might be called the Scottish verdict on this awesome substance, a substance full of Eastern promise, but also one which, having been invited to the banquet of the senses, stays on too long, becoming both dull and menacing, in the way such guests do. Opium has come to be affiliated to that mysterious force, the ‘Romantic imagination’, particularly as manifested in the work of de Quincey and Coleridge, and can be cited as both explanation and excuse for the output – or lack of it – in these writers. It is also possible, and Grevel Lindop suggests this in his new biography, that the drug is wryly irrelevant to the work: that it doesn’t explain very much. And doubting drugs need not be confined to doubting their part in the creative life. Like Hogg, another grinder of literary molars, Carlyle, doubted opium altogether: ‘Better, a thousand times better, die than have anything to do with such a Devil’s own drug.’

Opium, the congealed juice of the seed-heads of Papaver somniferum, had had many literary advocates. Jean Cocteau called it the ‘least stupid’ thing that he knew of. But in this instance, as so often, literary people are more like everybody else than they sometimes like to think. In the 19th century, opium use was widespread throughout the social order, usually in the liquidised form known as laudanum. It was particularly prevalent in East Anglia, as an aid against the anxiety-inducing flat landscapes of that country, and the aches and pains that this marshy world visited on the population. Working-class women used opium routinely, to sedate themselves and their children. For the more exotic figure of Samuel Taylor Coleridge, addiction started while he was at the great university standing on the edge of the sad East Anglian plain. The Trojan horse in Coleridge’s case was his teeth, which ached relentlessly. A certain sympathy must extend to him, since dentistry was a hazardous business, and the prospect of losing your teeth for wooden dentures – like George Washington – was not a pleasing prospect. But narcotics lurk everywhere in the literature and experience of the 19th century, and not necessarily as a special ally of Romanticism. Opium stopped children crying, as well as providing a metaphysical escape route for Oxbridge drop-outs. It is even possible to see Tennyson’s In Memoriam as a courageous, repetitive mantra, whose poetic rhythm permits, precisely in its weary inventiveness, an alternative to reaching for the little bottles filled with the colourful waters of oblivion.

Thomas de Quincey takes his place in the opium story for one famous reason: he confessed. He confessed for reasons familiar down the ages – it brought relief and celebrity. It’s a question, not of ‘kicking the habit’, but of writing your way out of trouble, on lines laid down by St Augustine and kept alive by Rousseau. Grevel Lindop points out that the last full study of his subject appeared in 1936, and that it is time for another look at this strange, diminutive figure. His book is bound to raise a number of questions, not merely about de Quincey as an individual, but about Romanticism itself. It has to be said that, in an eerie way, he keeps off any attempt at a new approach, and confines himself (particularly odd with this subject) to the most conventional kind of biographical description.

De Quincey was born in 1785 at Greenhays, in Manchester, the fifth child of a successful merchant. The beginnings of his career are visible in his parental influences and their fate: his father died when Thomas was seven, leaving a gap in nature that de Quincey would spend many anxious years trying to fill. The experience of death, which also took his sisters Elizabeth and Jane, was decisive for Thomas, and not healed by the simultaneous experience of having a cold mother. Elizabeth de Quincey was Evangelical, rather aloof, and able, in the manner of Evangelicals, to shield her dislikes and enmities behind an apparently impersonal language of moral disapproval and disdain. Thomas, who seemed small and effeminate, particularly beside his fierce brother William, was bound in early life to seek for love elsewhere: in a landscape, or in literature. It is, one might say, the old story.

When the father died, his family became itinerant, shepherded by the cold mother. They went to Bath, where Thomas started to reveal genuine linguistic powers while at the local grammar school. At this very moment, Mrs de Quincey withdrew Thomas from the school. The reasons for this are obscure, although Leslie Stephen, in his entry for the Dictionary of National Biography, stresses that she felt Thomas had become ‘vain’ in his learning. It was clearly a damaging thing to do, and may have contributed to de Quincey’s opting, in his mature prose style, for the florid sentence, as a kind of revenge for the interruption of his linguistic training. Thomas was henceforth cast from tutor to tutor, and his only consolation was that he had made contacts among the youthful aristocracy, especially with the young Lord Westport, who could take him on free holidays. A visit to Ireland, in this company, produced an early example of a historically-informed, slightly perverse sentence: ‘As to the rebellion [of 1798] in Ireland, the English I think use the amplifying, and the Irish the diminishing hyperbole; the former view it with a magnifying glass, the latter with a microscope.’ The rhythms of the wandering life begin to roll through de Quincey’s early years. Sent to Manchester Grammar School, he determined to dislike it. With that serious-mindedness that has almost disappeared from social relations, to the detriment of many things, Mrs de Quincey and her son exchanged letters on the nature of Thomas’s objections to Manchester and its famous school. But de Quincey showed real determination at this stage, and ran away.

His flight from Manchester was courageous, and delivered him into the hands of poetic tradition. The Romantic period is often discussed through images of escape, of ‘confinement and flight’, but what remains striking is how relatively comfortable the flights seem to have been for those engaged in acting out the myths. Shelley always seemed to know where the good hotels were for his entourage, and his persecution fantasies were always well-housed. Coleridge spent his life being looked after, by friends, doctors and aristocrats. He got money out of people without difficulty, including the very large sum of £300 from de Quincey, who wished to keep the gift anonymous. De Quincey was different. He became a tramp, uncushioned by private finance, a man who knew how to sleep in fields, how to keep dry in the winds and rains of mountain walking. And, for such a traveller, there was only one real place to aim for: that country called Wordsworth.

The effect of Wordsworth’s early poetry on a wide range of readers is well-known, but it remains a remarkable fact. For people like de Quincey, Wordsworth proved that poetry could stand in loco parentis. Wordsworth, particularly before he was encountered in the flesh, was a place, a landscape, a father, a teacher. De Quincey did not go straight to the Lake District, it is true, but it was only a question of when. His metropolitan escapades, which came to form a central part of the Confessions, were, in every way, a prelude. Like Freud circling Rome before deciding he could at last enter the great city, de Quincey circled the Lakes, waiting for the right time.

Soho came first, and here de Quincey both met and invented the figure of the prostitute Ann, to whose kindness he owed his life. Ann, in the Confessions, became the dreamy substitute for de Quincey’s lost sisters, and the absent maternal love – no doubt the absent lovers too. Soho, where he slept in a deserted attorney’s office by night and wandered the streets by day, was not an educational centre for other proponents of Romanticism, and shows de Quincey genuinely on the dark side of the road. He was also to keep his first date with laudanum there, dispensed to him in 1804 by a friendly druggist ‘on a rainy Sunday afternoon’. The story may be apocryphal, but one knows the feeling. It would be wrong to see de Quincey’s departure from this world for an erratic studentship at Worcester College, Oxford as evidence of a young man playing at being the tramp before safely entering into family estates. Educational institutions had lost their charm for him, and he was to leave Oxford in 1808 without completing his degree; he later said: ‘Oxford, ancient Mother... I owe thee nothing.’ The state of the ancient universities at the time gives credence to at least some of his bitter remarks about the kind of education available in them, remarks that an autodidact would almost be bound to make against an institution not anxious to press its pedagogic claims on students.

De Quincey had already found his ‘invisible college’, even if he had yet to meet its leading spokesmen. This was rectified in mid-1807, at Nether Stowey, in Somerset: ‘his eyes were large, and soft in their expression; and it was from the peculiar appearance of haze or dreaminess which mixed in their light that I recognised my object. This was Coleridge.’ After spending the day with him, de Quincey walked home over a distance of 40 miles, alone, at night. He met no one on this journey, passing through the silenced tollgates, his mind filled with thoughts of ‘the greatest man that has ever appeared’.

Gradually de Quincey entered the Coleridge family circle, and this secured his visit to the Lake District and his meeting with Wordsworth. A slow culmination of all intellectual hopes had combined with a more troubling realisation. In ways reminiscent of other recognitions in Romantic writing, de Quincey had seen into Coleridge’s opium addiction – mon semblable – mon frère. Even at the first meeting, he sensed the depression at the heart of S.T.C., a depression which de Quincey related to Coleridge’s marriage, and its discontents. In spite of this, he had arrived at the heart of the matter and, for all the uncertainties, felt ‘dazed’.

In the early stages of his time in the Lakes, de Quincey acted as literary assistant to Wordsworth, and as an avuncular presence to the Wordsworth children. He saw Wordsworth’s pamphlet, ‘The Convention of Cintra’, through the press in 1809. He also settled in the neighbourhood, and discovered a deep paternal impulse in himself, evoked by the Wordsworths’ little daughter, Catherine. He was at the time a moderate user of opium, a local observer of originality and skill (he wrote on the Danish origins of much of the Cumbrian dialect), and a willing helper to his heroes.

This could not last. The Wordsworths in particular could easily feel put upon, especially by Coleridge. De Quincey had also cut down some trees, and dismantled a ‘moss-hut’, near the cottage he was renting, and this was too much for the pastoral fastidiousness of Dorothy Wordsworth. She never really forgave him: the Wordsworths had a deeply possessive attitude towards their landscape, of which many fell foul. Worse was to follow. The daughter whom de Quincey loved, Catherine, died, to join the gallery of lost women which had his sisters at its head. As Grevel Lindop admits, it is hard to be sure about the timing of this, but it was round about now that de Quincey’s use of opium became extensive. And with this came powerful, dreamy images, and fierce nightmares. On a coach journey from Manchester to Westmoreland, in either 1816 or 1817, de Quincey sat up top, next to the driver, completely spaced. As the coach made its furious way, he realised that everybody else on board, including the driver, was asleep. His muscles leaden, his mouth immobilised, de Quincey saw the lights of another coach coming straight down the road. A head-on collision was only just avoided, and the images of terror stayed with de Quincey for years. He also had a bizarre dream about being followed around the hills of Cumbria by a Malay opium-head, a vision of purest incongruity.

The end of the Lakes idyll combined with a deepening addiction to narcotics, and with a final judgment from the Wordsworths. For de Quincey courted, and eventually married, a local girl called Margaret Simpson. The Wordsworthian response, which had been territorial in the case of the ‘moss-house’, now became directly censorious. Like Hazlitt in a later incident, de Quincey had brought libidinousness to a terrain dedicated to the ideals of Tory, paternalist austerity, and could not be forgiven. Like Wordsworth, de Quincey had fathered an illegitimate child, but for Wordsworth this was no doubt part of the bad dream of the revolutionary fantasy of the 1790s. De Quincey had acted against the deliberate sexlessness of the Wordsworthian ideal, in the frontyard of its original parents, and paid the price. The severity of Wordsworth’s response is well shown by Lindop and illustrates just how seriously Wordsworth took the part of the protector of the Chaste Sublime.

The time spent among the Lakeland intelligentsia was the middle of the journey for de Quincey, although it is interesting how much less important it came to seem than the courageous exit from an empty family history in his early years. De Quincey seems to move from adolescence to late life with little in between, as if his dream of the sages of his era became an illusion: they had turned out to be either grand but oblivious, like Coleridge, or impressive but over-interested in moral cosiness, like Wordsworth. The disheartened and now heavily-addicted de Quincey had to face his life as a father both disillusioned and impecunious. Was there any support – any marketplace – to which he could now turn?

De Quincey owed his semi-salvation to the healthiness of the reviewing culture of 19th-century literary life, and especially its Scottish versions. It is true that he wrote in other places, especially for the London Magazine, and that the Confessions first appeared there, in serial form, in 1821. And it is also true that he met literary London thanks to the Confessions’ success, even making a temporary enemy of Thomas Carlyle, by casting doubts on Goethe, as translated by Carlyle in Wilhelm Meister’s Apprenticeship. But by the end of 1824, the London Magazine had been taken over by a new editor. De Quincey came to see that it was Edinburgh where he had to make his mark, with John Wilson, editor of Blackwood’s, Professor of Moral Philosophy at Edinburgh, and de Quincey’s contact and pal. (In his study of The Rise and Fall of the Man of Letters, John Gross describes Wilson as ‘a pest’.) De Quincey also wrote for Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine and the relatively minor Tory journal, the Edinburgh Saturday Post. It was from Edinburgh that de Quincey replied to the Lakeland culture that had not fully accepted him; from Edinburgh that he began the tradition of literary gossip that would come together in his Recollections of the Lake Poets. This act of literary revenge must have been complicated by the fact that his wife and family were beached in the Lakes, unable to move away because de Quincey could not afford it.

De Quincey gave vent to some of his political ideas as well. His contributions, to the Post particularly, show this ‘Romantic’ as an easily recognisable extreme Tory, denouncing even moderate reformers. He particularly favoured the retention of slavery in the West Indies. And in literary terms – if a real distinction can be made – he could even find Wordsworth’s Excursion too soft on Jacobinism. When his range of writing is examined, which Grevel Lindop does not sufficiently do, de Quincey takes his place as one part of Tory reaction in early Victorian Britain.

The Edinburgh years were not easy, and it was typical of the once-estranged Carlyle to seek de Quincey out and encourage the opiated hack-writer in windy Edinburgh, to lend him books and suggest they start up, in the ‘grim hills’ of Dumfriesshire, a ‘Bog School’ of poetry, to answer back at the Lakes. De Quincey kept writing, and eventually managed to move Margaret and his children to the city, in 1830, to 7 Great King Street. But he was never really out of trouble, ending up more than once in the Canongate Tollbooth, for debt. The pattern of death and loss among children which had shaped his early years came back to repeat itself, with the death of his son William, in gruesome circumstances, in 1834. If de Quincey had to fuel his industriousness on a certain amount of inter-male literary bitching, which the Recollections, with their charges of plagiarism against Coleridge suggest, then the straitened circumstances under which he was working explain some of his zeal. It must have been easy to see Coleridge and Wordsworth as superannuated, and out of danger.

De Quincey managed to look after his family, even after his wife’s death from typhus fever in August 1837. Lindop shrewdly suggests that de Quincey felt divided about this event, and that a story that he wrote for Blackwood’s the following year, called ‘The Household Wreck’, about the false imprisonment of a young wife, contains secret aggressions. De Quincey did seem peculiarly drawn to morbid phenomena, especially murder trials. He carried on writing, kept up appearances while looking dreadful. He received assistance from John Pringle Nichol, Professor of Astronomy at the University of Glasgow; moved his family to a house at Lasswade, outside Edinburgh; and wrote, even when near unconsciousness. He was one of those writers who abandoned lodgings to his manuscripts, which grew around him and took possession, wherever he was.

In his sixties and seventies, he began to enjoy some reputation, and in 1848 received a visit from Emerson, de Quincey walking ten miles in the rain to keep the appointment. His final literary saviour, in the midst of all the walking, dreaming, writing and collapsing, was James Hogg. Hogg suggested a collected edition of de Quincey, to improve on an existing one that had been backed by American money. Hogg steered the crazed author through the exasperating business of editing and collecting, with the persistence that de Quincey had come to depend on from his Scottish contacts. When he died in December 1859, the obituaries reflected the divisions of literary judgment between different parts of the Kingdom: the London Athenaeum spoke of a ‘sad and almost profitless career’. The Scotsman of 10 December wrote: ‘With his departure almost the very last of a brilliant band of men of letters, who illuminated the literary hemisphere of the first half of our century with strange lustre – differing each from each in glory, but all resplendent – is extinguished.’ De Quincey wrote (not talked) himself out of trouble, again and again. Damaged in every way, he kept the pen moving across the paper, to the end. And this is what makes Grevel Lindop’s biography so queer. It is meticulously researched, and partisan without being crass. But there is virtually nothing in it about what de Quincey wrote, or about how to place him. The biographical form has almost robbed the book of a serious purpose, and given how careful a study it is, this omission, intentional or not, is very strange.

First, de Quincey makes an interesting opponent of the 18th century and almost all its works. Some astonishing remarks are made in this connection, the opinion that Dr Johnson ‘read nothing’ being the most spectacular. Richard Brinsley Sheridan is another plagiarist; Pope was a complete hypocrite; Kant was another who ‘had never read a book’; Goethe was simply no good. De Quincey, in the words of a genuine student of his, John Jordan, was interested in transcending this literature by ‘mining the German vein’. The metaphysics of the Germans could then be tied in with the acceptable grandnesses of Milton and Shakespeare to form a conservative sublime that need pay no attention to liberal realism, or the merely empirical social novel.

Germany and its literature was indeed a mine of some kind for de Quincey and his contemporaries. For Coleridge, who had made the great journey with Wordsworth to hear the anthropologist Blumenbach at Güttingen, this culture was a source of literary ostentation. With a thin grasp on its language, grand notions could be entertained and, if the story is right, used to impress whoever happened to be in earshot. That de Quincey knew his German, and therefore its literature, in a real way, seems plausible particularly when one remembers his annotated translation of Lessing’s Laocoön, which appeared in Blackwood’s in 1826 and early 1827. De Quincey, as a critic, defended the claims of the ‘grand style’ against the (supposed) illiteracies of the Enlightenment. Milton could be joined to Wordsworth in a renewed centre of English literary feeling, open to a sparky, dialectical criticism. For, however quirky, de Quincey could say some dazzling things. ‘Whosoever looks searchingly into the characteristic genius of Wordsworth,’ he wrote, ‘will see that he does not willingly deal with a passion in its direct aspect, or presenting an unmodified contour, but in forms more complex and oblique, and when passing under the shadow of some secondary passion. Joy, for instance, that wells up from constitutional sources, joy that is ebullient from youth to age, and cannot cease to sparkle, he yet exhibits, in the person of Matthew, the village schoolmaster, as touched and overgloomed by memories of sorrow.’ He felt obliged – an obligation which was part of the pretention of his epoch – to call such insights ‘evidence of the law of antagonism’. But they are shrewd, for all that. Another example of his skill as a critic, episodic though this is, comes with the discussion of femininity in Shakespeare, and the case he makes for Shakespeare’s skill at portraying women. He is also interestingly troubled by Alexander Pope, whose technique is so impressive but whose morality is non-existent.

All of de Quincey’s criticism is answerable to the charge of being minor, and eccentric, but for the historian of criticism, his place in the reaction, via German metaphysics, to the claims of the Enlightenment should be studied further. This biographer avoids any such project. And by avoiding such a task, however daunting it may be, Lindop loses an opportunity to add his voice to a genuinely interesting issue in English studies: the attempt to discover whatever it is that Romanticism might be. A good case can be made, after all, for its non-existence, particularly in England. A concept like the ‘sublime’, say, both antedates the Romantics and succeeds them – in Arnold, for instance. An equally interesting case can be made for seeing the ‘Romantic reaction’ as a literary addition to mainstream Tory opposition to secular materialism and liberal politics.

Take Coleridge, the proverbial leader of the intellectual Tory response. The issue here is clouded by drugs and madness, but a useful way of seeing Coleridge is as a figure (like de Quincey) writing his way out of early difficulties and then preparing, on the margins of his existence (by reading late at night or writing a long letter), for the transition into a governing Christianity. Coleridge’s Christianity is, contra his many detractors, the coherent project, firmly pursued, of a mind otherwise doomed to insanity. In terms of early 19th-century psychiatric practice, when lay members of the public, as well as friendly doctors, could house mental patients, the Hillmans at Highgate were effectively private-asylum keepers for S.T.C. This is far from simply being a ‘Romantic’ experience: it was true for Christopher Smart, and true for William Cowper. The difference, with Coleridge, is not in the psychological novelty of the experience, but in the degree of ideological importance which members of the intelligentsia had come to accord to the disasters of their waking lives. Coleridge, with what has to be called a magnificent self-importance, believed that the powers that had carried him through the darkness were also the reasons why he and his kind should be accorded a legislative position within the constitutional apparatus of the state. A number of distinct currents of feeling – intellectual and practical – converge into a new claim for the social importance of the intelligentsia, or ‘clerisy’, to use the Coleridgean word.

The possibility of seeing Romanticism as a literate Toryism has of course been suggested before, but de Quincey’s place in this story has been left undecided. It must be recalled how proud de Quincey was of his writings on political economy, a subject that he planned vast treatises on, but, in good addict fashion, left undone. He did, however, enter into the Malthusian and Ricardian debates, and his ‘Logic of Political Economy’ was reviewed by John Stuart Mill in the Westminster Review in 1843, in favourable terms. De Quincey developed a political economy that sought to deflate the claims of liberal Toryism, and however shallow these efforts might have been, they are the context of his other literary and creative efforts. A reverence for the rhetorical tradition in English prose, and for the Miltonic and Germanic sublimes, could be used to stand against any vestige of 18th-century realism. Wordsworth, who can be seen as an 18th-century figure, is not seen by de Quincey in this way. He forms part of the anti-liberal elect, alongside Milton and Shakespeare.

This biography sets itself more modest aims, which are admirably and painstakingly managed. But the interest starts as the book ends. For de Quincey was the gossip-columnist at the birth of the modern idea of the intelligentsia. He was also an addict, whose unhappiness drove him into an idiosyncratic learning and a persistent habit of production that opium did not, in any obvious way, foreshorten. One might almost go so far as to say, that if opium had not come to claim de Quincey, he might never have made a place for himself in English letters at all. Like many people of his position and place, he had to replace, within himself, the parents he never had, and to seek for their replacements either in paternal sources that he came to dismiss – this is almost Wordsworth’s function in English literary life – or within a self-created idea of literature. De Quincey wrote himself into authority, partly as a form of confession, partly as a way of staying sane. His career, seen against the background of the periodical press, the arrival of Germanic thought, the creation of the Anglican sage, is excellently displayed here. He is, without doubt, a minor figure, in these terms. But nothing is done to break with an utterly conventional biographical approach, or to see de Quincey inside that most fascinating aspect of our cultural history: which is that we inherit a conservative tradition of great power in our literature, and still seem to believe its claim that anywhere else, madness lies.

Send Letters To:

The Editor
London Review of Books,
28 Little Russell Street
London, WC1A 2HN

Please include name, address, and a telephone number.

Read anywhere with the London Review of Books app, available now from the App Store for Apple devices, Google Play for Android devices and Amazon for your Kindle Fire.

Sign up to our newsletter

For highlights from the latest issue, our archive and the blog, as well as news, events and exclusive promotions.

Newsletter Preferences