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Thomas De Quincey | British author | Britannica.com


De Quincey was considered one of the greatest prose stylists of the English Romantic era, otherwise best known for poetry, and his imaginative, convoluted prose style, best exemplified in Confessions of an English Opium Eater but also on display in a great variety of other works that were widely read in 19th-century England and America, exerted a vast influence on later literary radicals such as American mystery pioneer and experimentalist Edgar Allan Poe and the French poet Charles Baudelaire.

De Quincey was educated in private schools and quickly showed a gift for language in general. When he was about eight, he impressed a local bookseller by translating a book of a Latin-language copy of the Bible into English at sight, and by the time he was 15 he could speak, read, and write ancient Greek fluently. One teacher at the Bath Grammar School remarked to a visitor that De Quincey could have given a better oration in front of an ancient Athenian mob than he, the teacher, could have done before an English one.

Eventually De Quincey worked out his problems with his family, and he enrolled in Oxford University's Worcester College in 1803. It was while he was a student there that his opium addiction began. At first he took the drug in the form of laudanum, a liquid tincture (an alcohol-based distillate) that he sought out for toothache relief. De Quincey's career at Oxford was mercurial; he was a brilliant student in English literature and in the Greek, Latin, and German languages. Embarking on his final exams in 1808 he started out strongly but left school before finishing, and he never received his degree.

In 1817 De Quincey married Margaret Simpson, the daughter of a farmer in the Grasmere district of northern England. They eventually had eight children. By the time of the marriage, De Quincey had burned through much of the money he had coming from his family, and his opium usage had ballooned to a massive 340 grains daily—more than 20 grams. Periodically he tried to give up the drug, but he succeeded only in lowering his intake and keeping it at a consistent level.

De Quincey was equally eloquent in describing the depressive states that came with drug usage. "But for misery and suffering, I might, indeed, be said to have existed in a dormant state," he recalled. "I seldom could prevail on myself to write a letter; an answer of a few words, to any that I received, was the utmost that I could accomplish; and often that not until the letter had laid weeks, or even months, on my writing-table. Without the aid of M. [his wife], all records of bills paid, or to be paid, must have perished; and my whole domestic economy … must have gone into irretrievable confusion."

De Quincey suffered anew from the deaths of family members in the 1830s. One son, Julius, died at age four; another, William, suffered from a brain disorder and died at 18; and De Quincey lost his wife to typhus in 1837. His opium dosages increased sharply. By this time he had moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in whose environs he spent most of the rest of his life. The aging writer once again was forced to juggle creditors, but things changed for the better when his oldest daughter, Margaret, took charge of the household.

A ‘medical view’ of De Quincey's case by Dr. Eatwell, appended to Page's life (vol. ii. 309–39), gives an interesting investigation, tending to show that his opium-eating was due to his sufferings from ‘gastrodynia,’ and that opium was the sole efficient means of controlling the disease.

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De Quincey was considered one of the greatest prose stylists of the English Romantic era, otherwise best known for poetry, and his imaginative, convoluted prose style, best exemplified in Confessions of an English Opium Eater but also on display in a great variety of other works that were widely read in 19th-century England and America, exerted a vast influence on later literary radicals such as American mystery pioneer and experimentalist Edgar Allan Poe and the French poet Charles Baudelaire.

De Quincey was educated in private schools and quickly showed a gift for language in general. When he was about eight, he impressed a local bookseller by translating a book of a Latin-language copy of the Bible into English at sight, and by the time he was 15 he could speak, read, and write ancient Greek fluently. One teacher at the Bath Grammar School remarked to a visitor that De Quincey could have given a better oration in front of an ancient Athenian mob than he, the teacher, could have done before an English one.

Eventually De Quincey worked out his problems with his family, and he enrolled in Oxford University's Worcester College in 1803. It was while he was a student there that his opium addiction began. At first he took the drug in the form of laudanum, a liquid tincture (an alcohol-based distillate) that he sought out for toothache relief. De Quincey's career at Oxford was mercurial; he was a brilliant student in English literature and in the Greek, Latin, and German languages. Embarking on his final exams in 1808 he started out strongly but left school before finishing, and he never received his degree.

In 1817 De Quincey married Margaret Simpson, the daughter of a farmer in the Grasmere district of northern England. They eventually had eight children. By the time of the marriage, De Quincey had burned through much of the money he had coming from his family, and his opium usage had ballooned to a massive 340 grains daily—more than 20 grams. Periodically he tried to give up the drug, but he succeeded only in lowering his intake and keeping it at a consistent level.

De Quincey was equally eloquent in describing the depressive states that came with drug usage. "But for misery and suffering, I might, indeed, be said to have existed in a dormant state," he recalled. "I seldom could prevail on myself to write a letter; an answer of a few words, to any that I received, was the utmost that I could accomplish; and often that not until the letter had laid weeks, or even months, on my writing-table. Without the aid of M. [his wife], all records of bills paid, or to be paid, must have perished; and my whole domestic economy … must have gone into irretrievable confusion."

De Quincey suffered anew from the deaths of family members in the 1830s. One son, Julius, died at age four; another, William, suffered from a brain disorder and died at 18; and De Quincey lost his wife to typhus in 1837. His opium dosages increased sharply. By this time he had moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in whose environs he spent most of the rest of his life. The aging writer once again was forced to juggle creditors, but things changed for the better when his oldest daughter, Margaret, took charge of the household.

De Quincey was considered one of the greatest prose stylists of the English Romantic era, otherwise best known for poetry, and his imaginative, convoluted prose style, best exemplified in Confessions of an English Opium Eater but also on display in a great variety of other works that were widely read in 19th-century England and America, exerted a vast influence on later literary radicals such as American mystery pioneer and experimentalist Edgar Allan Poe and the French poet Charles Baudelaire.

De Quincey was educated in private schools and quickly showed a gift for language in general. When he was about eight, he impressed a local bookseller by translating a book of a Latin-language copy of the Bible into English at sight, and by the time he was 15 he could speak, read, and write ancient Greek fluently. One teacher at the Bath Grammar School remarked to a visitor that De Quincey could have given a better oration in front of an ancient Athenian mob than he, the teacher, could have done before an English one.

Eventually De Quincey worked out his problems with his family, and he enrolled in Oxford University's Worcester College in 1803. It was while he was a student there that his opium addiction began. At first he took the drug in the form of laudanum, a liquid tincture (an alcohol-based distillate) that he sought out for toothache relief. De Quincey's career at Oxford was mercurial; he was a brilliant student in English literature and in the Greek, Latin, and German languages. Embarking on his final exams in 1808 he started out strongly but left school before finishing, and he never received his degree.

In 1817 De Quincey married Margaret Simpson, the daughter of a farmer in the Grasmere district of northern England. They eventually had eight children. By the time of the marriage, De Quincey had burned through much of the money he had coming from his family, and his opium usage had ballooned to a massive 340 grains daily—more than 20 grams. Periodically he tried to give up the drug, but he succeeded only in lowering his intake and keeping it at a consistent level.

De Quincey was equally eloquent in describing the depressive states that came with drug usage. "But for misery and suffering, I might, indeed, be said to have existed in a dormant state," he recalled. "I seldom could prevail on myself to write a letter; an answer of a few words, to any that I received, was the utmost that I could accomplish; and often that not until the letter had laid weeks, or even months, on my writing-table. Without the aid of M. [his wife], all records of bills paid, or to be paid, must have perished; and my whole domestic economy … must have gone into irretrievable confusion."

De Quincey suffered anew from the deaths of family members in the 1830s. One son, Julius, died at age four; another, William, suffered from a brain disorder and died at 18; and De Quincey lost his wife to typhus in 1837. His opium dosages increased sharply. By this time he had moved to Edinburgh, Scotland, in whose environs he spent most of the rest of his life. The aging writer once again was forced to juggle creditors, but things changed for the better when his oldest daughter, Margaret, took charge of the household.

A ‘medical view’ of De Quincey's case by Dr. Eatwell, appended to Page's life (vol. ii. 309–39), gives an interesting investigation, tending to show that his opium-eating was due to his sufferings from ‘gastrodynia,’ and that opium was the sole efficient means of controlling the disease.


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