JANUARY 18, 2017
ON DECEMBER 7, 1811, a grisly crime occurred in a house on London’s seedy Ratcliffe Highway: a family of three and their apprentice had their throats cut. There was no apparent motive, and nothing seemed to have been stolen. Two weeks later, a sailor named John Williams was arrested, but before he could be put on trial, he committed suicide in his cell. The case went forward anyway: Williams was pronounced guilty, after which his body was paraded through the streets and past the site of the crime, where his head was turned so that he would confront his heinous deed. Finally, a stake was driven through his heart. The murders and their aftermath riveted the whole nation.
Among those transfixed was Thomas De Quincey, who was then living up in the Lake District. English literature has no shortage of eccentrics, but the author of Confessions of an English Opium Eater must rate among the strangest. Measuring only 4 foot 11 inches, De Quincey was described by Thomas Carlyle thus: “When he sate, you would have taken him, by candlelight, for the beautifullest little child; blue eyed, sparkling face, had there not been something, too, which said, ‘Eccovi – this child has been to hell.’”
His voice was as “extraordinary, as if it came from dreamland,” noted the Germanist R. P. Gillies, and his conversation ranged “at will from the beeves to butterflies and thence to the soul’s immortality” and on to Plato, Kant, Schelling, Milton, Homer, and Aeschylus.
Hell and dreamland is what Frances Wilson’s exquisite biography, Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, is all about. She follows De Quincey’s own approach of skipping “the hackneyed roll-call” of a person’s life “chronologically arranged,” and instead focuses on key incidents that shaped and obsessed him, many of these being “scenes of terror, deluge and sudden death.” And William Wordsworth, of course.
The spectacularly precocious son of a Manchester merchant, De Quincey grew up in a country mansion just outside Manchester. The central tragedy of his life occurred at the age of six, when his sister Elizabeth died from hydrocephalus, or water on the brain, for which her brothers always felt he was somehow to blame. Having crept into her room and kissed her, he “slunk, like a guilty thing, with stealthy steps from the room.” Her passing, coupled with that of his father the following year, made him associate death with “the endless days of summer,” which made it seem even crueler. And forever after, he carefully cultivated what he would call — in a slight twist on Wordsworth’s famous phrase — “terror recollected in tranquility.”
From the very start, books were his passion. At the age of seven, he bought a multivolume history of ocean navigation, on credit. The Arabian Nights and the gothic novels of Ann Radcliffe were favorites, and these steered the boy toward the sublime, which Burke had associated with the vast and the terror-inducing. Unsurprisingly, he identified strongly with the poet Thomas Chatterton, the archetypal Romantic figure who had swallowed arsenic at the age of 17.
To De Quincey, Lyrical Ballads, published anonymously in 1798 and featuring figures on the edge of society, were “an absolute revelation of untrodden worlds, teeming with power and beauty.” On learning who the authors were, he became desperate to befriend Wordsworth, but his shyness made him turn around every time he got close to the poet’s home in Grasmere in the Lake District.
Narcotics eventually came into the picture. When suffering from rheumatic pains in his face as a student, he entered a chemist’s in London’s Oxford Street and obtained his first supply of “elegant opium,” or rather, laudanum, its liquid form: “Here was the panacea … for all human woes. […] [H]appiness might now be bought for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket,” he writes in the Confessions. “De Quincey tried to return to the experience of this rainy afternoon for the rest of his life,” writes Wilson.
In his erratic quest to meet Wordsworth, he first linked up with Coleridge, a fellow laudanum addict, who introduced him to Giovanni Battista Piranesi’s series of proto-surreal prints, Le Carceri d’Invenzione (Imaginary Prisons), which, De Quincey claims in the Confessions, he later found replicated in the nightmarish visions of his own dreams. Indeed, as Wilson astutely observes, “His whole world was a stage set designed by Piranesi.”
Finally, on November 4, 1807, after four and a half years of aborted attempts, he showed up at Dove Cottage, which Wordsworth had described as “the loveliest spot that man ever found,” and which De Quincey was to turn into “literature’s most famous opium den.”
Initially, everybody was charmed, especially Wordsworth’s sister, Dorothy; only Coleridge had gauged that, behind De Quincey’s meekness and what Wilson calls his “porcelain manners,” there lurked a tempestuous mind. Soon De Quincey’s idolatry turned into disenchantment. He worked as Wordsworth’s amanuensis on a pamphlet on the Peninsular War, essentially reduced to the poet’s Man Friday, and received no thanks for his efforts. Wilson writes that it never so much as occurred to Wordsworth that De Quincey might have had ambitions of his own.
A major rift occurred when De Quincey, who had taken over as the tenant of Dove Cottage, fell into a fit of gardening frenzy and axed the holly and hackberry bushes, as well as Wordsworth’s cherished moss hut. Wilson describes this as “an act of tremendous symbolic importance.” Dorothy refused to speak to him afterward. As his life continued to spiral deeper into chaos, forcing him to move continually to avoid the debt collectors while his family starved, he began to blame Wordsworth’s “meanness” for his woes, rather than look where the fault really lay: in his own addiction and erratic behavior.
Wilson chronicles De Quincey’s descent with admirable acuity, and her treatment of his literary output is equally sharp. The Confessions, which appeared in two parts in London Magazine in 1821, were supposed to be “useful and instructive,” but Wilson finds that intention rather undercut by De Quincey’s simultaneous designation of opium as “the true hero” of the story. And his claim to be the first to detect the drug’s intellectual power is false, she says, since it was common knowledge that Coleridge’s “Kubla Khan” was the product of an opium vision.
De Quincey’s need for literary revenge over Wordsworth finds an outlet in the Lake Reminiscences, which Wilson sees as “a black comedy about a Messiah who rejects his disciple,” and hence “a parodic inversion of Boswell’s Life of Johnson.” But she also views the dominant emotion in Lake Reminiscences as being “not so much vindictive hatred but disappointed love.”
Some find De Quincey’s overcharged style off-putting. Where Wordsworth had described the mountain behind Dove Cottage as “a little domestic slip of mountain,” in his Lake Reminiscences De Quincey turns it into a “vast and seemingly never ending series of ascents.” But the man’s legacy is substantial. In the art of character assassination, says Wilson, Lytton Strachey’s Eminent Victorians is thoroughly indebted to De Quincey. And as a modern example of the practice, she cites Paul Theroux’s skewering of V. S. Naipaul in Sir Vidia’s Shadow.
With his essay about the Ratcliffe Highway murders, “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts,” De Quincey fed and fostered, if not created, an appetite for bloody crime among readers. As Wilson notes, his focus was not on the victims or on fancy detective work, but on “the mind of the murderer.” Dickens, Dostoevsky, Stevenson, and Poe all drew on his pioneering work. And the Confessions laid the groundwork for two genres, claims Wilson — the recovery memoir and what has been called the “pharmo-picaresque,” later exploited by the likes of William Burroughs and Hunter S. Thompson.
As to De Quincey’s stated intent of expounding on the evils of opium, that never happened, so one is forced to draw one’s own conclusions from the story of his life. And one might also recall Clifford Mortimer’s wonderfully wry, off-hand warning to his son: “Oh, never smoke opium. Gives you constipation. […] Take a look at Coleridge, he was green about the gills and a stranger to the lavatory.” For Coleridge, substitute De Quincey.
Henrik Bering is a graduate of Oxford University (Pembroke College) and has been a Professional Journalism Fellow at Stanford. He is the author of Outpost Berlin: The American Forces in Berlin 1945-94 and of Helmut Kohl, an authorized biography.