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Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: and…

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: and Other Writings (Oxford World's… (1821)

by Thomas de Quincey

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The final piece ("Dream-Fugue," included in "The English Mail-Coach") grew especially tiresome, but I enjoyed the experience overall. ( )
  KatrinkaV | Nov 9, 2016 |
Confessions maybe, but not by any means complete contrition. De Quincey rhapsodises on the pleasures of Opium eating (Laudanum tincture) at pains to dissipate the image of oriental men smoking their life away in opium dens. Opium makes us feel like the diviner part of ones nature is paramount, with moral affections in a state of cloudless serenity. For De Quincey, opium taken in small quantities sharpened him up, invigorated his senses; he tells us how it is so much more effective than alcohol in producing a feeling of well being and a feeling of being in tune and in control of oneself :

"For opium (like the bee that extracts it's materials indiscriminately from roses and the soot of chimneys) can overrule all feelings in compliance with the master key"

My first thoughts were "where can I get some". It would not have been a problem in 1822 when the "Confessions" were published as Laudanum could be bought over the counter at many chemist/drug stores. It was quite popular and De Quincey says that many people he knew regularly took it and he goes on to tell how many people in the upper echelons of society were habitual opium eaters. The issue for some people would have been the expense, it was never very cheap although well within the reaches of the working classes. Today of course it can only be got legally by prescription and because of the impure nature of the drug is only rarely prescribed.

De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium eater when published as an essay in Blackwood's magazine was an instant success. It was one of the first pieces that dwelt on the positive effects of drug taking and while it would be inaccurate to say that it launched a genre of drug culture literature, it certainly opened the way for others to follow. It was successful at the time because it was in tune with the thoughts and ideas of some of the Romantic writers. De Quincey hero worshipped William Wordsworth and while this was not reciprocated by the great man of poetry, nevertheless De Quincey was able to refer to his poems liberally in his essays.

The Confessions of an English Opium Eater is much more than just a peon to the pleasures of opium; it is an essay written by an intelligent, well educated, sensitive human being who does his duty in pointing out the addictive nature of the drug and points out the pain that it can bring to those people who overuse it. It can easily lead to depression, a withdrawal from daily life, nightmares, anxiety, and a darkness of the soul and these are all well described so as to give the essay some balance. Before we get to the pleasures and pains of taking opium we have to read an autobiography of De Quincey's early life which takes up over half the essay and serves as reasons for his taking of opium in the first place and then reasons for his refuge in the drug itself. The essay ends with De Quincey almost giving us words of warning, saying that although he was able to escape from addiction his nightmares still persist.

The longest essay in the collection is Suspira de Profundis where De Quincey revisits and expands much of the ground that he covered in the Confessions. While the reader can believe that the Confessions were written by a man not under the influence of opium, this is not the case with "Suspira" which contains some genuinely druggy writing and would have served as an inspiration to many writers of that genre. The essay is uneven and incomplete, but is does contain some sublime sections. Although we have to follow De Quincey again through an expanded autobiography he is much more inclined to wander off at a tangent, there are brilliant passages on how opium makes time elastic; stretching out immeasurably, there is a long section where he dwells on the wording of the funeral service with references to Christianity and to Agrippa's "Natural Magic", he talks lovingly about his classical studies and his collection of books that he holds so dear. This essay like The Confessions is written in the first person and the reader becomes more aware of the personality of the writer, his passions and his feeling of being out of step with the world in which he lives and his need for a sort of privacy, a refuge where he can be alone with his thoughts. This is a man who is coming to terms with his childhood ordeals through his dreams and/or nightmares induced by his opium eating. He uses the extended metaphor of a palimpsest to explain how the opium can blast through the veils that have attached themselves to his memories, his personality, but he is aware of the dangers that this can bring. Another section tells of a fantasy he has on seeing apparitions on top of the mountain; Brocken in North Germany in some fine Romantic prose. Finally we are left with a feeling of how incomplete and disjoined is the "Suspira" that has come down to us, but it is still a marvellous reading experience.

In perhaps my favourite essay in the collection "The English Mail Coach". De Quincey takes us into the world of riding the mail coaches in the mid nineteenth century. Again it is in the first person and we experience the thrills of riding one of the mail coaches as it carries to the people of England the news of Napoleons defeat at Waterloo. De Quincey is still taking opium and he says he fortified himself with some before embarking on a night time ride to the lake district where he watched helplessly as the driver of the carriage fell asleep and they were on collision course with a carriage coming the opposite way. "I am miserably and shamefully deficient in that quality as regards action" he tells us and this is an over weaning theme to his personality. De Quincey is a dreamer, with or without opium, repeatedly he tells us the modern world is moving too fast for him, he looks backwards to a more natural world, the coming of the railways is an anathema to him. He says:

"Some people have called me procrastinating. Now you are witness, reader, that I was in time for them. But can they lay their hands on their heart, and say that they were in time for me? I, during my life have often had to wait for the post office: The post office never waited a minute for me"

Yes, there is plenty of humour and amusement in the writing of this intelligent man, who, while well aware of the deficiencies in his character that hinders him in day to day business, can still make a case for his world view. It was in some respects in tune with the Romantics and today will strike a chord with some disaffected people. The confessions can often be seen listed among the genre of fantasy and even science fiction, but I would not put it there at all. These are the writings of a man with both feet firmly planted in the 19th century, looking backward rather than forward and while his drug induced dreams could be seen as fantasies; to De Quincey they were essential parts of his very being that he was keen to explore. De Quincey was a prolific writer of essays, as that was how he earned his living and I am keen to read some more, but I would not hesitate in recommending this collection to all readers. 4.5 stars. ( )
8 vote baswood | Jun 14, 2014 |
I've just finished writing my undergraduate dissertation on De Quincey's 'Confessions', and - you know what? - the whole process damn near broke my head open. The more you think you understand about the text, the more you see in it, and more it just keeps unravelling in front of you. De Quincey was a very intelligent man - I fully believe, should he not have been hindered by his terrible addiction, he would have written some great, explorative philosophical texts. His life was all but defined by his addiction though, and we are left with what he did manage to write (of which the 'Confessions' are of course the most famous), and we have to tease out whatever we can from them. The 'Suspiria de Profundis' that is also included in this edition is worth spending a lot of time over too - in a way, I think it is in fact more interesting than the 'Confessions.'

Enjoy this book, and try not to let De Quincey drive you too crazy. ( )
  incandescentsmile | Apr 12, 2013 |
I didn't really finish all of the essays but I consider this one read because I finished the essay I wanted to read. Maybe I'm just not into 19th century writing but I found the eponymous essay interesting but ultimately meandering and somewhat bland. Actually I quite liked it until he got to the dreams segment, and then I pretty much lost all interest. I guess the saying about dreams only being interesting to the dreamer is true even for Thomas de Quicey. ( )
  lemontwist | Jul 14, 2010 |
De Quincey's unusual tale about his opium exploits was a real surprise, and a delight to read. It was in turns funny, bleak and always maintained a laconic style that I found extremely pleasurable to read. If only all modern celebrity memoirs were written with this level of care and detail. ( )
  Wubsy | May 16, 2009 |
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includes essays "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth," "The English Mail-Coach," and "Suspiria de Profundis" please do not combine with editions containing other combinations of essays or with "Confessions..." alone.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 0192836544, Paperback)

This selection of De Quincey's writings includes the title piece--his most famous work--as well as "On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth," "The English Mail-Coach," and the Suspiria de Profundis.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:24:45 -0400)

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In 1804, while a student at Oxford, Thomas De Quincey was looking for relief from excruciating pain when a college acquaintance recommended opium. ?Opium!? De Quincey wrote. ?Dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it as I had of manna or of Ambrosia, but no further: how unmeaning a sound it was at that time!? Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, De Quincey's best-known work, is an account of his early life and opium addiction, in prose that is by turns witty, conversational, and nightmarish. The Confessions involve the listener in De Quincey's childhood and schooling, describing in detail his flight at age sixteen from Manchester Grammar School, his wanderings in North Wales and London, and his experiences with opium, which developed into a lifelong dependency.… (more)

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