The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey by Robert Morrison - review by Tom Paulin

Tom Paulin

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The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey


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Thomas De Quincey was born on 15 August 1785. His father, Thomas Quincey (De Quincey later added the aristocratic ‘De’), was an upright and prosperous Manchester linen draper who vehemently opposed the slave trade and forbade his family to eat sugar. De Quincey grew up in the country outside Manchester. He was a small, shy child, often ill with the ague, who excelled at Latin, Greek, German and French. At the age of seventeen De Quincey ran away to London, where he lived rough for sixteen weeks and later became famous for his ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, in which he fondly remembers the prostitute Ann of Oxford Street, who shared an empty house in Soho with him (he had frequently visited prostitutes in Manchester). Of his time in London, Robert Morrison writes that he became the ‘first flâneur’. After his return in 1803 he wrote an admiring letter to Wordsworth, who wrote back, so beginning their friendship. Later that year he went to Worcester College, Oxford, where he was known as one of the cleverest students in the university, but, though he was very happy there, he left without taking a degree. His politics were formed by now – he hated Napoleon, whom he called ‘that gilded fez of Corsica’, and he admired William Pitt and, oddly, the great Whig leader Charles James Fox. He began taking opium as a cure for toothache and was subject to extraordinary dreams and nightmares, including one involving a classical goddess, Levana.

In 1807 he travelled to Somerset, where he encountered Coleridge, whose talk, he said, was like ‘a great river’. He lent Coleridge £300, which he could ill afford. Soon afterwards he met Wordsworth and Dorothy at Grassmere, whom he describes:

Her eyes … were wild and startling

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