The American Cyclopædia (1879)/De Quincey, Thomas
DE QUINCEY, Thomas, an English author, known as the “English Opium Eater,” born at Greenhay, a suburb of Manchester, Aug. 15, 1768, died in Edinburgh, Dec. 8, 1859. He was the fifth child of a merchant who at his death in 1793 left to his family a fortune of £1,600 a year. His childhood was chiefly passed in rural seclusion, with three sisters for playmates. He was sent to various schools, and early distinguished himself by proficiency in Greek. After vainly entreating his guardian to send him to the university, he ran away from school in 1802, and wandered about the country until he reached London, where he suffered terribly from exposure and hunger. Long afterward he wrote sketches of his life at this perind; how much of these is true, how much fiction, it is impossible to say. According to his own account, he had in vain resorted to a Jew for an advance of money on the strength of his expectations, when at length an opening was made for reconciliation with his friends; and he attended school and visited in different parts of England and Ireland till he went to Oxford in December, 1803, where he remained till 1808. He first resorted to opium on a visit to London in the autumn of 1804, to dull the pains of rheumatism, and afterward took it habitually. He says that for ten years he “lived on the earth the life of a demiurgus, and kept the keys of paradise.” It was his custom at this time to drink laudanum either on a Tuesday or Saturday night once in three weeks. On Tuesday night he went to the opera, where in the elaborate harmony and scenic display he saw unfolded the whole of his past life, with its passions exalted, spiritualized, and sublimed; not as if recalled by an act of memory, but as if present and incarnated in the music. On Saturday night he used to wander through the markets of London, and listen to the consultations of family parties on their ways and means, making himself familiar with their wishes, difficulties, and opinions. In 1809 he took the cottage at Grasmere which Wordsworth had occupied before him, and lived there constantly till 1819. Among his associates were Wordsworth and Coleridge at Grasmere, Southey at Keswick, Charles Lloyd at Brathay, and Wilson at Elleray. He afterward passed much of his time in London, Bath, and Edinburgh; his most intimate friend in London being for many years the celebrated peripatetic known as “Walking Stewart.” He was occupied especially with the study of German literature and philosophy, made translations from Lessing and Richter, and was among the first in England to interpret Kant, Fichte, and Schelling. In 1813 an irritation of the stomach, the consequence of his early sufferings, returned with a violence which yielded to no remedies but opium. From this time he became a regular and confirmed opium eater, taking sometimes as much as 320 grains a day. It had been the aim of his whole life to construct one single work, to which he proposed giving the title of an unfinished work of Spinoza, De Emendatione Humani Intellectus. The studies of many years had laid the foundation, but he could not command the efforts to rear the superstructure. In what he terms his state of imbecility he turned his attention for amusement to political economy. He welcomed the treatise of Ricardo as the first profound work on the subject, and it roused him to an activity which enabled him to draw up his “Prolegomena to all Future Systems of Political Economy.” Yet opium paralyzed his efforts to complete even that short work. He failed to accomplish the preface; the arrangements for its publication were countermanded, and it first appeared in the “London Magazine,” in 1824, under the title of “Templars' Dialogues.” It is one of the most thorough as well as briefest exhibitions of the Ricardian theory of value. After two unsuccessful trials, he overcame his besetting habit, though it cost him a long and terrible struggle. In 1821 he went to London, and, as collaborator in the “London Magazine,” became at once associated with Charles Lamb, Hazlitt, Allan Cunningham, Hood, Gary, and other writers. His “Confessions of an English Opium Eater” appeared in that periodical in 1821, and in a volume in 1822, and immediately obtained for him a high reputation. He contributed frequently to British periodicals, chiefly to “Blackwood's Magazine,” “Tait's Edinburgh Magazine,” and the “North British Review,” furnishing autobiographical sketches, literary reminiscences, miscellaneous essays, and historical, philosophical, and critical discussions. He also furnished several articles to the “Encyclopædia Britannica,” including the memoirs of Shakespeare and Pope. All his works show a wide range of learning and speculation, a delicate and subtle critical faculty, and a felicitous selection of words. He divides them into three classes: 1, papers whose chief purpose is to interest and amuse; 2, speculative, critical, and philosophical essays; 3, prose-poetry. His highest and most peculiar merit is in this third class, the best examples of which are his “Confessions” and “Suspiria de Profundis.” In 1843 he removed to Lasswade, a village about 12 miles from Edinburgh. Here he returned to some of his earlier studies, and produced a volume entitled “The Logic of Political Economy.” The first collective edition of his works was issued in Boston (21 vols., 1851-'9); it probably included a few things not written by him. A selection from this American edition, with notes by the author, was commenced in Great Britain, of which nine volumes had appeared at the time of his death.