Drink it, don’t eat it or smoke it

Mike Jay

  • The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey by Robert Morrison
    Weidenfeld, 462 pp, £25.00, November 2009, ISBN 978 0 297 85279 7

The film Confessions of an Opium Eater, shot on a shoestring by Albert Zugsmith in 1962 and starring Vincent Price, opens with Vaseline-fogged images of a Chinese junk and a delirious Price voice-over (‘I am De Quincey … I dream … and I create dreams … out of my opium pipe’). This is Gilbert De Quincey, a presumed descendant, who wanders the seas as a captain for hire, searching for ‘well, what every man searches for’. The film demonstrates two points very clearly. The first is the remarkable persistence of De Quincey the Opium-Eater as the archetype of the modern drug-taker. The second is that this archetype doesn’t depend on any element of either De Quincey’s life or his work beyond his name and the title of his most celebrated book.

De Quincey’s status as the first modern drug-taker isn’t simply a matter of hindsight. It formed almost immediately on the publication of his Confessions in the London Magazine in 1821, where he pronounced himself ‘the only member’ of ‘the true church on the subject of opium’ (by the time of the revised edition of 1856 he had promoted himself to its pope). He published it anonymously, but within weeks his flimsy cover had been blown, and ‘The Opium-Eater’ became a transparent and self-advertising pseudonym that he cultivated for the rest of his improbably long life. By 1840 the Opium-Eater had taken on a cosmopolitan life of his own. Gogol adapted his London dream-wanderings to St Petersburg in Nevsky Prospekt; in America the Confessions were praised by Emerson and pilfered by Poe; in France, Musset’s eccentrically elaborated translation inspired Gautier and Balzac to create their own versions of the drug-taking hero, and Berlioz to transpose its nightmare fugues to his Symphonie Fantastique.

But this eager congregation makes it all the more puzzling that De Quincey should see himself as opium’s first and only celebrant. There was, after all, no mystery about the drug itself, perhaps the best-known medicine of its day and available in any high-street pharmacy. It was a recourse for pain of all kinds, a sedative, a specific against diarrhoea, coughs and fevers; laudanum, its tincture in alcohol, had been a standard preparation since at least the 17th century and the time of the London doctor Thomas Sydenham, after whom its most familiar recipe was named. It was not taboo to use it habitually, or even to celebrate its mind-altering effects: had it been, De Quincey could hardly have parlayed his fame into a column for the vigorously Tory Blackwood’s Magazine, a platform from which he would defend ultra-establishment causes for many years. He wasn’t staking a precious reputation on his confession either: after a decade of false starts, it was among the first pieces he published. Robert Morrison observes that another of his trademark habits, riding on the top of carriages rather than inside, became a vogue among the dashing ‘Oxford sparks’ of his day; but opium-eating didn’t apparently hold similar thrills for the dandy culture. What was it precisely, then, that De Quincey was the first to do – and, given the instant popularity of the Confessions, why had somebody else not already done it?

The familiar answer – that his new church was that of the ‘recreational’ drug-user – will not entirely do. The label would not have been understood at the time; De Quincey himself would be instrumental in sharpening the distinction between drugs taken for medical use and those taken for pleasure, but he would also resist any such neat demarcation of his own motives. Furthermore, the notion that opium had the power to confer pleasant states of dream and reverie was already familiar. As far back as 1701, the doctor and opium enthusiast John Jones said of the intoxicated (and intoxicating) state it brought about that ‘people do commonly call it a heavenly condition, as if no worldly Pleasure was to be compared with it’; and indeed Jones went further than De Quincey ever would in describing its effects as ‘a permanent gentle Degree of that Pleasure, which Modesty forbids the naming of’. Nor was De Quincey the first to push its use to extremes: by the time he was born, it had been championed for all manner of conditions, notably by the Edinburgh doctor John Brown, whose controversial medical theory elevated it into an elixir that directly stimulated the life-force; Brown himself was observed to down 50 drops of laudanum in a glass of whisky four or five times in the course of a lecture.

Brown’s theories were questionable, and his personal habits more so, but he was not alone by this time in recognising that opium was the most potent and effective medicine in the doctor’s bag, and its use for nervous conditions among the leisured classes was generating a more sophisticated understanding of its psychic hinterlands. Its euphoric qualities were celebrated by Erasmus Darwin in his popular verse epic The Loves of the Plants (1789): Papaver nods in luxurious semi-consciousness on silken sheets, while

Faint o’er her couch in scintillating streams
Pass the thin forms of Fancy and of Dreams

Darwin’s colleague Thomas Beddoes, though he recommended the use of opium widely, saw its effects on the imagination in less benign terms. For him, it was becoming a symptom of a broader malaise: the hypochondria of the new middling sort. This ‘derangement of the sensitive power’ was encouraged by the overuse of euphoriants such as opium and ether, which led the unduly fastidious or introspective to create ill health out of self-indulgence. The likes of Darwin and Beddoes – both poets as well as doctors – were well aware that opium’s effects could be anything but anodyne.

We learn little of such precedents from De Quincey, who wishes to stress his own originality and paints the ignorance of the medical profession with a broad brush, making it easy to mistake his tone and miss his ironies. The mystique that he cultivates around opium isn’t very different from the situation today, where it has (in the West) become a quasi-mythical substance, evoked as the ne plus ultra of decadence by mass-market perfume ads but never encountered in reality. The famous passage of the Confessions in which De Quincey buys his first dose of opium from a mysterious Oxford Street druggist, ‘unconscious minister of celestial pleasures’, has the illicit buzz of the modern drug deal, but to his contemporaries, it would have read as a bathetic parody of his own Romantic pretensions, an early taste of his facetious Tory wit. The joke is on the prosaic laudanum-drinker who little suspects that his palliative is a secret key to paradise; but it is also on De Quincey’s younger self who, like the hashish-eaters of the Arabian Nights, has mistaken a hovel for a palace.

There is broad humour, too, in the epithet ‘English’, intended to raise a guffaw at its oxymoronic absurdity as well as indicating the central and original conceit of the work. If Morrison finds humour in De Quincey’s writing he doesn’t share it, but he is attentive to the point that an opium-eater was essentially foreign, usually Turkish or Persian: a figure instantly recognisable from exotic fiction and travel literature who uses the drug to while his life away in reveries (like Homer’s lotus-eaters, in whose image he was conceived). He seeks oblivion and is released only by death; but the English opium-eater, De Quincey proposes, is of a superior type: ‘I question whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the Paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had. But, indeed, I honour the barbarians too much by supposing them capable of any pleasures approaching to the intellectual ones of an Englishman.’

Although De Quincey did eat his dose on occasions, sometimes carrying a snuffbox of small opium pills, he typically drank it, as most English people did: by identifying himself as an opium-eater, he was appropriating a despised foreign habit and deliberately courting the reader’s disapproval, even disgust. Later in the century, a similar complex of meanings would coalesce around the habit of opium-smoking, which was explicitly Chinese, social and (to Western eyes) hedonistic; but they are already audible in John Wilson’s exasperated riposte: ‘Hang you, De Quincey! Can’t you take your whisky toddy like a Christian man, and leave your d——d opium slops to infidel Turks, Persians and Chinamen?’ By announcing himself as the English Opium-Eater, De Quincey was not so much breaking a taboo as deliberately creating one by recasting a familiar practice as transgressive and culturally threatening. It was a Byronic double game: baiting the moralists and middlebrow public opinion while delighting the elite with the invention of a new vice.

This wasn’t, however, the type of literary prank that could have been pulled off by any ambitious young provocateur: the key to the Opium-Eater’s genesis, and to his decision to make his habit a badge of pride, is to be found in his relations with his mentor, Coleridge. An avid reader of John Brown and friend and patient of both Erasmus Darwin and Thomas Beddoes, Coleridge was deeply immersed in current medical theory but reluctant to consider the effects of opium on himself. It was an open secret that the drug lay behind his most eloquent dinner-party performances: everyone recognised the signs De Quincey enumerates, the ‘shining countenance’ and ‘insensible perspiration which accumulates and glistens on the face’. But De Quincey was among the inner circle who were equally familiar with the drug’s effects on Coleridge’s productivity: its ability to support brief bursts of inspiration while defeating ‘the steady habit of exertion’; the revulsion provoked the following morning by the words choked out under its influence the night before; its gradual suffocation of his poetic voice, overwritten by opaque and clotted metaphysics.

Others despaired at Coleridge’s weakness, but De Quincey believed the drug’s most pernicious effects resulted from his self-deception, his refusal to acknowledge that opium was a ‘source of luxurious sensations’. It is in his accounts of Coleridge, rather than of his own case, that De Quincey makes his most clinical and censorious distinctions between medical and ‘luxurious’ use. Coleridge protested that ‘my sole sensuality was not to be in pain!’ but in De Quincey’s judgment he was medicating not pain but ‘ennui (which it is, far more than pain, that saddens our human life)’.

Once again, the clue to De Quincey’s originality is in the Confessions’ title. ‘You will think, perhaps,’ he teases the reader, ‘that I am too confidential and communicative of my own private history’; but he was well aware that self-exposure was his selling point. His youthful worship of Coleridge and Wordsworth had been a symptom of a new kind of fascination with the figure of the writer, by his own account a stalker’s obsession. From the moment in his mid-teens when he first encountered Lyrical Ballads – ‘the greatest event in the unfolding of my own mind’ – he had set his sights on winning the authors’ friendship. In 1807 he had tracked Coleridge to Somerset and, finding him in financial difficulty, had anonymously made over to him a large part of his inheritance (a favour he tried in later years to recall, without success). He had agonised for years about writing to Wordsworth, and after making contact had twice journeyed up to the Lakes to visit him, only to lose his nerve and turn back within sight of Dove Cottage. When the three men finally met in 1807, De Quincey installed himself as the poets’ worshipper in residence, running secretarial errands for them and moving into Dove Cottage when the Wordsworths moved to a roomier property nearby. It was a species of appreciation that was by turns flattering and puzzling to those on the receiving end: a young man possessed of great ability and learning, but apparently no ambition for anything beyond their intimate company.

In a sense then it was his own curiosity that he was now offering to gratify with his narrative, confident in the existence of a new readership who would wish to get under his skin in a similar way. And the story he had to tell them was a remarkable one. Finding the passions awakened in him by the poets were tolerated neither by his devout mother nor by the scholastic grind of Manchester Grammar School, he had fled at the age of 17 to wander the back roads of rural Wales. As his funds shrank to nothing, he slept rough and lived on berries rather than return home. He pressed on to London to find a money-lender from whom he could borrow against his expected inheritance; here his privations became still more extreme, yet he starved and froze in abandoned buildings in the Soho slums for most of a winter before walking to Eton to beg a loan from a schoolboy acquaintance.

This was a life story in the raw, one that placed him beyond class divides just as opium-eating set him apart from Englishness. When he returned to London ten years later, his Saturday-night opium debauches in Covent Garden were overlayed with these youthful scenes, tender and grotesque, spilling unbidden into his solitary wanderings. Listening to an opera from a five-shilling gallery perch and eavesdropping on the poor in backstreet taverns, he was in the crowd but not of it, both aristocrat and outcast. His vagrancy and his opium were games that he played fearlessly: to his readers they were a guarantee that, unlike other authors, he was prepared to offer them their pound of flesh. In the sense that his fame and his addiction stood for one another, he prefigured the modern celebrity as much as the modern drug-taker.

It was a role he maintained to the end, though its rationale became increasingly confused. He could hardly be accused of soft-pedalling the pains of opium: his harrowing portrait of the labyrinth of addiction, far in advance of the medical understanding of the day, remains unsurpassed. It was integral to his story that these pains were inseparable from opium’s pleasures, and bound in time to outweigh them; yet for eight years, from 1804 to 1812, his use was ‘temperate’ and occasional, by his own account all pleasure and no pain. He attributes the dependence that set in from 1813 to medical necessity, with the Coleridgean plea that ‘I could not have done otherwise,’ while admitting in the same paragraph that ‘I hanker too much after a state of happiness’ to face the miseries of life without it. The more he revised and recycled his writings on opium, the more contradictions piled up; by the 1840s and 1850s, although he could still achieve such sublime moments as the mythic terrors of Suspiria de Profundis, the drug was having the diminishing effects on his vision that it had on Coleridge’s.

His failure to break the addiction, Morrison suggests, lay to some extent in the alcohol content of his laudanum: in his periods of heavy dependency, it must have amounted to a bottle or two of strong spirits a day, and accounted for many of the pains he suffered when he tried to give up (in this regard, the opium-eater had better prospects than the opium-drinker). But Morrison also argues convincingly that De Quincey’s addiction can be seen to serve a purpose. He was, in modern terms, a high-functioning addict: the drug enabled him to cope with the self-inflicted stresses of debt, illness and overwork; to persist in a chaotic hand-to-mouth existence and ignore his paternal responsibilities; to play the perpetual victim and indulge an endless drama of persecution.

Many of the tendencies that came to characterise his addiction were present long before opium entered the equation. From the age of seven he had hopelessly overspent his book allowance, the first instance that Morrison notes of ‘the perverse logic of addiction … which demanded that he negotiate an insatiable consumption that he both craved and loathed’. Cramming every available inch of his living space with books he couldn’t afford was a habit he never renounced; by the same token, the defiant, self-sabotaging brinkmanship that had characterised his teenage adventures became his mature way of life. It drove him to Scotland, where the law protected him from imprisonment for debt, though he still spent decades dodging creditors with assumed names and false addresses, and rarely ventured far from the debtors’ sanctuary of Holyrood that offered a final recourse before jail or the street. On the rare occasions he had money, he stopped writing and lived the life of leisure he believed to be his birthright; it was his expenditure on opium that forced him back to work, along with his need for fame. The life of the Opium-Eater ensured his immortality.

Morrison’s biography is the first to draw on the 21-volume edition of De Quincey’s works that emerged in 2000-3, to which he contributed under the general editorship of Grevel Lindop. But the problem with cradle to grave biographies of De Quincey has never been paucity of material; rather, it’s the way it’s distributed across his long and often tedious life. On the crucial formative episodes, his youthful adventures in Soho, for example, there is still precious little to corroborate or contradict the unreliable narrative of the Confessions; it’s the paper trail of his mature years that has expanded, becoming a forbidding mountain of bills, begging letters, warrants for debt, demands and receipts for advances and loans. When Morrison pauses to focus on a single strand of the narrative – for example, the back and forth with Wordsworth over the publication of his pamphlet on the Convention of Cintra in 1809 – he can expose a miniature drama full of insight into both correspondents. But there are few opportunities for such detailed observation: after all, there are still another 50 years to go, and a vast and convoluted output to untangle. Yet the contours of the larger story are familiar, and the descent into self-imposed cycles of drugs, debt and dependence as numbingly repetitive as they are in the life of any addict.