*De Quincey, Thomas

Thomas De Quincey



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De Quincey, Thomas

British, 1785–1859
With William Hazlitt and Charles Lamb, Thomas De Quincey takes his place as one of the most influential and prolific essayists in Britain in the first half of the 19th century.
His Collected Writings (1889–90) edited by David Masson comprises 14 volumes, and includes his autobiography, Confessions of an English Opium Eater (182,2.), a small number of short stories, the novel Klosterheim (1832), and a dissertation on David Ricardo’s economic theory, The Logic of Political Economy (1844). By far his largest output, however, are his essays on topics ranging from philology to astronomy, from ancient history to political affairs, from literary reviews to works of political economy.
De Quincey’s literary reputation, as the master of a lyrical and digressive prose style, was established through the Confessions, his first work, published initially in four parts in London Magazine. In it he told the story of his peripatetic, bohemian youth, alongside breathtaking accounts of his opium dream visions. In his lifetime his name came to be synonymous with a lavish and poetic prose style, named by himself as “impassioned prose,” but also with an eccentricity and disorderliness held to be characteristic of an opium addict. Less well known is the fact that after the success of the Confessions he became a major contributor to the periodical press, notably for the Edinburgh magazines Blackwood’s and Tait’s, writing essays on a strikingly broad range of subjects. Although his astute but eccentric intelligence gave an unusual slant to many of the topics he dealt with, he nevertheless played a significant role in the dissemination of contemporary ideas to a more general reading public. He was an enthusiast for German idealist philosophy, and an early translator of Kant and of German Romantic fiction; he had an interest in contemporary linguistic scholarship, in Ricardian economic theory, in new developments in astronomy, and in the new historiography of Barthold Georg Niebuhr. De Quincey was an eccentric polymath and hack journalist, and his works amount to an uneven but unusually broad corpus.

Thomas De Quincey

Thomas De Quincey

Much of his best prose is to be found in his autobiographical writings: Confessions, and its sequel, Suspiria de Profundis (1845). The latter is a series of reminiscences from his infancy, interspersed with passages of a lyrical and mythic character, such as his short piece on the palimpsest, which for De Quincey acts as a metaphor for the human memory. It is significant that in his autobiographical works he lingers on his childhood and adolescence, playing into the Romantic fascination for the state of childhood as a period of enhanced sensitivity and creativity. His own recurrent documentation of his childhood years has been in part responsible for the somewhat anachronistic estimation of De Quincey as an English Romantic writer, rather than the Victorian he properly is: he published from the 1820s to the 1850s and, moreover, was based in Scotland rather than England. This misplacing of his work has been exacerbated by his early association with the Wordsworths. From 1809 for a period of about II years, De Quincey was part of the Wordsworth coterie, a close companion of Dorothy Wordsworth, and intensely involved with the Wordsworth children. Through Wordsworth he was made editor of the provincial newspaper, the Westmorland Gazette—an appointment which, although shortlived, launched his journalistic career. As relations with the Wordsworths soured, he accepted an invitation from John Wilson, editor of Blackwood’s, to write for that journal, and eventually moved with his family permanently to Edinburgh in 1830. Notoriously impecunious, spending long periods in a debtors’ sanctuary, De Quincey was nevertheless a well-respected figure among Scottish intellectuals and academics, including among his friends Robert Chambers, the philosophers Sir William Hamilton
and J.F. Ferrier, the classicist E.L.Lushington, and the astronomer John Pringle Nichol. These contacts account for many of the interests revealed in his journalism. Recent historicist criticism of De Quincey has paid attention to the Scottish context of his work, which for earlier critics had been eclipsed by his Wordsworthian connections.
Noteworthy among his contributions to Blackwood’s are the three essays “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1827, 1839, 1854). The first two essays explore the ambiguities of Kantian philosophy, and expose the absurdities of contemporary interest in the lurid and the grotesque. While the jokes are often obscure, these essays nevertheless provide good examples of De Quincey’s wit, presenting absurd situations matter-offactly, and literalizing metaphors to comic effect. The moral ambiguities of the essays give a sense of decadence characteristic of De Quincey’s work, and anticipate later Victorian writers such as Oscar Wilde. The final essay in the series provides a chilling and suspenseful account of two recent murder cases, and was influential in the developing trend of crime writing. Also published in Blackwood’s was “The English Mail Coach” (1849), a fine example of De Quincey’s “impassioned prose.”
Less critical attention has been paid to his political commentaries. The essays on the collapse of the Wellington government and on the 1830 revolution in France give clear demonstration of his high Tory affiliations. Seemingly at odds with his political sympathies are his essays on political economy, “The Dialogues of the Three Templars” (1824) in London Magazine and “Ricardo Made Easy” (1842) in Blackwood’s, designed to popularize the works of the Whig economist David Ricardo.
In 1833 De Quincey began a series of anecdotal essays for Tait’s, which would include his “Autobiographical Sketches” (1834–41), “Lake Reminiscences” (1839), and three essays on Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1834–35). The essays on Wordsworth and his circle were particularly popular, as they incorporated frank discussion of the personal lives of these well-known figures, including the revelations of Coleridge’s drug addiction and his plagiarisms. Although they widened the rift between the Wordsworths and De Quincey, they nevertheless enhanced his literary reputation, and have been frequently republished as important documents of English Romanticism.

Born 15 August 1785 in Manchester. Studied at Worcester College, Oxford, 1803–08; entered Middle Temple, London, 1812. First took opium, 1804, and later became addicted for life. Met William Wordsworth, 1807, and became associated with him, Dorothy Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Robert Southey. Settled in Grasmere, Westmorland, 1809. Married Margaret Simpson, 1817 (died, 1837): five sons (three died) and three daughters. Editor, Westmorland Gazette, 1818–19. Moved to Edinburgh, 1830.
Contributor to various journals, including London Magazine, Edinburgh Saturday Post and Evening Post, Edinburgh Literary Gazette, Blackwood’s, and Tait’s. Contributor to the Encyclopaedia Britannica of entries on German and British writers, from 1837. Died in Edinburgh, 8 December 1859.
Selected Writings
Essays and Related Prose
Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1822; facsimile reprint, 1989; revised edition, 1856; edited by Malcolm Elwin, 1956, and Alethea Hayter, 1971
China: A Revised Imprint of Articles from “Titan”, 1857
Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, 1862; edited by Edward Sackville-West, 1948, and David Wright, 1970
Suspiria de Profundis, with Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1871; edited by Malcolm Elwin, 1956
The Uncollected Writings, edited by James Hogg, 2 vols., 1890
Posthumous Works, edited by Alexander Japp, 2 vols., 1891–93
New Essays by De Quincey: His Contributions to the Edinburgh Saturday Post and the Edinburgh Evening Post, 1827–1828, edited by Stuart M. Tave, 1966
Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Other Writings, edited by Aileen Ward, 1966
Thomas De Quincey as Critic, edited by J.E.Jordan, 1973
Confessions of an English Opium Eater, and Other Writings, edited by Grevel Lindop, 1985
Other writings: the novel Klosterheim (1832), short stories, and works on political economy.
Collected works edition: Collected Writings, edited by David Masson, 14 vols., 1889– 90.
Dendurent, H.O., Thomas De Quincey: A Reference Guide, Boston: Hall, and London: Prior, 1978
Green, John A., Thomas De Quincey: A Bibliography, New York: Franklin, 1968 (original edition, 1908)
Further Reading
Abrams, M.H., The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of De Quincey, Crabbe, Francis Thompson and Coleridge, New York: Harper and Row, 1970 (original edition, 1934)
Barrell, John, The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism, New Haven, Connecticut and London: Yale University Press, 1991
Baxter, Edmund, De Quincey’s Art of Autobiography, Edinburgh: Edinburgh University Press, and Savage, Maryland: Barnes and Noble, 1990
Hayter, Alethea, Opium and the Romantic Imagination, London: Faber, and Berkeley: University of California Press, 1968
Leighton, Angela, “De Quincey and Women,” in Beyond Romanticism: New Approaches to Texts and Contexts 1780–1832, edited by Stephen Copley and John C.Whale, London and New York: Routledge, 1992:160–77
Lindop, Grevel, The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey, London: Dent, and New York: Taplinger, 1981
McDonagh, Josephine, De Quincey’s Disciplines, Oxford: Clarendon Press, and New York: Oxford University Press, 1994
Maniquis, Robert M., “Lonely Empires: Personal and Public Visions of Thomas De Quincey,” in Mid-Nineteenth Century Writers: Eliot, De Quincey, Emerson, edited by Eric Rothstein and Joseph Anthony Wittreich, Jr., Madison: University of Wisconsin Press, 1976
Russett, Margaret, “De Quincey’s Gothic Interpreter: De Quincey Personifies ‘We Are Seven’,” Studies in Romanticism 30 (1991): 345–65
Rzepka, Charles J., Sacramental Commodities: Gift, Text, and the Sublime in De Quincey, Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1995
Snyder, Robert Lance, editor, Thomas De Quincey: Bicentenary Studies, Norman: University of Oklahoma Press, 1985
Whale, John C., Thomas De Quincey’s Reluctant Autobiography, London: Croom Helm, and Totowa, New Jersey: Barnes and Noble, 1984

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