Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey

Penguin Popular Classics, 1997, 265 p, including Original Preface (7 p,) Preface to the Collected Edition (4 p,) The Daughter of Lebanon (6 p,) Appendix (9 p.) First published 1821-22. One of the 100 best Scottish Books.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater cover

I doubt I would have read this had it not been in that list of 100 best Scottish books but what place it has in such a list I have no idea. While describing the author’s peregrinations through England – taking in Manchester, London and the Lake District – and Wales there is nothing at all to indicate any sense of Scottishness within it. The only mention of the place is in a footnote which states that from Hammerfest in Norway in the north to Naples and Gibraltar in the south “Glasgow … is the one dearest place for lodgings known to man.” What in Edinburgh “could be had for half a guinea a week, in Glasgow cost one guinea.” De Quincey did spend the latter part of his life living in Edinburgh but I’m not sure that allows this work, even if it is a seminal piece of autobiography, to be claimed as Scottish.

The footnotes are copious and include the information that filibustier is the original and, De Quincey asserts correct, spelling of filibuster and that the word objective in the sense of dispassionate was almost unknown in 1821. (This last must be a footnote to the collected edition of 1856.)

The prose is of its time and to modern eyes appears long-winded. As with Walter Scott it takes getting used to but once attuned is straightforward enough.

The main interest lies I suppose in the author’s use of opium which he took originally in order to relieve a toothache and the effects of which he asserts were not addictive – to him at any rate. He takes issue with Coleridge over the suggested drawbacks of opium use and contrasts the drug with alcohol. “Whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in the proper manner) introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation and harmony. Wine robs a man of his self-possession, opium sustains and reinforces it ….. most men are disguised by sobriety, and exceedingly disguised; and it is when they are drinking that men display themselves in their true complexion of character.” However discussion of opium does not begin until more than two-thirds through, the early parts of the book giving a blow by blow account of his schooling – and dropping out – and his penniless sojourns in the streets of London.

Other concerns intrude at times, “If in this world there is one misery having no relief, it is the pressure on the heart from the Incommunicable,” which is of a piece with sentiments expressed both in Time Was and I Capture the Castle which I read immediately prior to this.

However, De Quincey’s implicit reproof of others in his statement that, “at no time of my life have I been a person to hold myself polluted by the touch or approach of any creature that wore a human shape,” sits uneasily with his aspersions elsewhere on those who did not adhere to Christian beliefs or did not live in these islands – and even some of those: “Wales, as is pretty well known, breeds a population somewhat litigious. I do not think worse of them for that.” To which I immediately posed myself the question, what does he think the worse of them for, then?

A historical curiosity. But one more struck off that list.

Pedant’s corner:- Due to the book’s antiquity 19th century spellings are fairly prevalent; eg Shakspere for Shakespeare. Most page numbers are in large print at the top left (even pages) or right (odd pages) margin but pages 13 and 249 are in small print centred at the bottom,) “the whole race of man proclaim” (the race proclaims,) “the household at the Priory were released” (the household was released,) “the brother Talbots” (the brothers Talbot,) “by-the-bye” (by-the-by,) an opened but unclosed parenthesis on page198, parantheses (parentheses.)

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