Sunday Book Club

Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
26 April 2020
This article is part of HERO Dailies – Essential culture, curated daily and also part of Sunday Book Club

HERO DAILIES: Essential culture, curated daily
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Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey

Before Byron and Branwell Bronte, before the beatniks and Hunter S. Thompson, there was Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, the literary blueprint which inspired countless confessional, drug-fueled memoirs. This autobiographical novel was first published anonymously in 1821 (don’t bother with the updated 1856 version) in the London Magazine, which championed the likes of Wordsworth and Keats, and follows De Quincey’s lifelong opium addiction in Victorian London. 

Beginning with his childhood and early adolescence, De Quincey recounts how he ran away from school at a young age and became a nomad, wandering through Wales and spending several years homeless in the area around Oxford Street. From there he travels to Oxford itself – befriending Wordsworth and Coleridge on the way – and experiences his first taste of the drug. This signals the beginning of the book’s second half, which De Quincey splits into “The Pleasure” and “The Pains” of opium (with significantly more weight afforded to the former). 

At his most extreme, De Quincey took between 8000 and 12000 drops a day – enough to paralyse a large rhinoceros – and his poetic ramblings are enough to make you consider a hit yourself. Consider the below, for example. “thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood.” Later on, things are not so rosy for De Quincey, who begins to suffer from night terrors, paralysis and a sensation he equates to, “rats gnawing at the coats of one’s stomach.”

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