De Quincey's best-known work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, was published in 1821, and it is characteristic of certain oddities in the pattern of his life and writings that both the date and the title give misleading impressions of his place in English literature. The date suggests that he was a Romantic of the second generation, to be placed with Byron, Shelley and Keats; but in fact he was thirty-six sears old when he wrote the Confessions, and had been for the past twenty years an admirer and friend of Wordsworth and Coleridge. In literary taste and outlook, he belonged to the first generation of the English Romantics, not to the second. The title is no less misleading, with its suggestion of Byron and Keats, the sensational and the exotic; for the book itself is of a sobriety in subject and treatment which owed nothing to Byron or Keats, and much to Wordsworth.
The same date divides De Quincey's life into two parts almost equal in length, but in every other respect utterly different. Before it, he had written nothing; after it, he wrote the fourteen closely printed volumes which make up his collected works.( The standard edition is that edited by D. Masson, 1889-90. Page references will be given as in this edition. They are often needed, because De Quincey rarely divided his long essays into sections or chapters which might be used to identify references.) In the first part of his life, he moved in society, was the friend of literary men—the intimate friend of the greatest writers of his time. In the second part, he dropped out of all society, was cut off from all his friends, living almost as an exile from his own past. 'The years came', he wrote of his later life, 'for I have lived too long, reader, in relation to many things! and the report of me would have been better, or more uniform at least, had I died some twenty years ago—the years came in which circumstances made me an Opium-Eater; years through which a shadow as of sad eclipse sate and rested upon my faculties; years through which I was careless of all but those who lived within my inner circle, within "my heart of hearts".' In this second, eclipsed part of his life, he was almost entirely cut off from external experience, save that of writing for a living under a crushing weight of debt, and he came to depend, for mental and emotional sustenance, on his memories of the first and happier part. It was in this exploration of his own earlier life, in his study of the role of memory in the human personality, that he most closely resembled Wordsworth. And as the reader of Wordsworth's poetry finds himself inevitably involved in the events of his life, so the student of De Quincey's prose must become to some extent his biographer.
He was born in 1785, the second son of a Manchester merchant who died in 1793 after many years of ill-health, leaving a modest fortune to his widow and family. These were at once the happiest years of De Quincey's life, and also those, he came to believe, in which he had been marked out for ultimate misery. He was a small, gentle child, preferring the company of his sisters to that of his turbulent elder brother, and winning from them, rather than from his sternly dutiful mother, the warmth of affection which he so much needed. Their manner of life was peaceful, but rich in imagination. Like the Brontes a generation later, all the children of the family were writing long novels about elaborately conceived private worlds of their own. But this early happiness was broken up, first by the death of his most dearly loved sister, and then by the removal of the whole family after their father's death from their large house Out-side Manchester. Mrs. De Quincey went to Bath, and it was there that she first sent Thomas to school. He showed at once a remarkable aptitude for Latin and Greek, and tasted the dangerous pleasure of being obviously the cleverest boy in a small school. After a short experience of a private school conducted by a clergyman, where he learnt nothing, but fortunately forgot nothing either, he was sent to Manchester Grammar School. From the point of view of his mother, and of the guardians appointed by his father's will, the choice was a good one. The school was then, as it is now, outstanding among the older Grammar Schools, and it had the further advantage that three years' study there would gain him an Exhibition to Oxford. But De Quincey disliked it from the first, for reasons which never emerge quite clearly, either from his long letters to his mother written at the time, or from the later accounts of his school life. There was hard work, but no question of ill-treatment, and in many ways he enjoyed special privileges. Perhaps the most persistent source of irritation was that his favourite exercise, walking, could only be indulged in through the streets of a city which showed, perhaps more clearly than any other place in Britain at that time, the immense brutalisation of the physical conditions of life, and of intellectual and emotional standards, then being effected by the Industrial Revolution. In one of his letters to his mother, he wrote:
I am living in a town where the sole and universal object of pursuit is precisely that which I hold most in abhorrence. In this place trade is the religion, and money is the god. Every object I see reminds me of those occupations which run counter to the bent of my nature, every sentiment I hear sounds a discord to my own. I cannot stir out of doors but I am nosed by a factory, a cotton-bag, a cotton-dealer, or something else allied to that most detestable commerce. Such an object dissipates the whole train of romantic visions I had conjured up, and frequently gives the colouring to all my associations of ideas during the remainder of the day.
(Bairdsmith MSS., quoted in H. A. Eaton, Thomas De Quincey (1936) the most fully documented biography of De Quincey yet written.)
It is easy to imagine with what force Wordsworth's Lyrical Ballads must have struck such a temperament, so situated. De Quincey seems to have read them in 1802, and at once became one of Wordsworth's earliest and most devoted disciples. They suggested to him the kind of life which he really wished to lead, and by contrast, brought his dislike of Manchester to a crisis. He fled from the school in the middle of the night, resolved never to return. It was the first of those flights from the stress of unpleasant realities which were to become a repeating pattern in his life, and its eject was to plunge him into difficulties in some ways greater than those he sought to escape.
His mother, deeply shocked by his rebellion, and fearing his influence upon her other children, agreed that he should set off on a walking tour. His first intention was to go to Wordsworth, with whom he was already in correspondence, but a kind of shyness overcame him, and instead of going to the Lakes, he went to North Wales. The allowance made to him was so small that he had to lodge in the humblest inns and farmhouses, and often he slept in the open, with no better shelter than a primitive tent, for which his walking stick served as a pole. As winter came on, this mode of life became impossible, but he was afraid to return home, lest he be sent back to Manchester. He fled again, breaking off all communication with his mother and guardians, resolved to lose himself in the anonymous vastness of London, and to live by borrowing; money on the security of his expectations under his father's will. His negotiations with the moneylenders were tortuous, and ultimately unsuccessful, but they kept him in London for five months, in destitution and near-starvation, which nevertheless gained for him what was to prove more valuable than money—some of the most vivid and profound experiences of his early life.
Early in 1803, he seems to have received an assurance that he would not be sent back to Manchester, and he returned to his mother's home. Later in the year, he went up to Oxford, the poorer by the Exhibition which he might have had from Manchester Grammar School, and on an allowance which proved to be much too small. For the next five years, he kept his terms there, reading avidly within the official syllabus, especially in Latin and in Greek, but even more widely outside it, in German philosophy and above all in English literature. In 1808, he sat for his final examination, wrote a few papers which are said to have been brilliant, and then fled, as abruptly and more inexplicably than he had fled from school Now, however, there was no question of returning home in disgrace. He was in possession of the small fortune left to him by his father, and he believed that it would be enough to enable him to lead the kind of life he had chosen for himself, that of a scholar and a gentleman, living in some remote and picturesque place, with a large library, and even larger but leisurely literary ambitions.
At Oxford, he seems to have had few friends, if any; perhaps there were few worth his making, for it was one of the less distinguished periods in the University's history. But he had made friends elsewhere, and distinguished ones. While still at Oxford, he had come to know Coleridge well, and soon after leaving it, he visited Wordsworth for the first time, though they had been in correspondence for some years. For several months, he lived at Dove Cottage with the Wordsworths, as an intimate friend, almost as a member of the family, and remained as tenant of the Cottage when they moved to a larger house nearby. For a few years, it seemed that he had succeeded in living the kind of life he had chosen, amid splendid scenery, in close friendship with the writer he admired above all others. But it was not to last. In 1813, De Quincey suffered an access of grief and illness, from which he sought relief in massive doses of laudanum. He had first became acquainted with the drug in London, in one of his vacations from Oxford, and had continued to use it—so he assures us—in moderation. But now it took hold of him with the ineluctable strength of an addiction, and the Grasmere idyll was over. His relations with Wordsworth and his family grew more distant—they had already seen what laudanum could do to a man, in the case of Coleridge. De Quincey himself grew irritable and touchy, resentful of their disapproval, and of what he took —perhaps rightly—to be a certain loftiness in Wordsworth's attitude to him. Matters were made worse when he courted the daughter of a small farmer, and married her after she had borne him an illegitimate child. Dorothy Wordsworth, until now his intimate friend, thought the marriage unsuitable; though hardly a snob, she was sensitive to the special social hierarchy of the Lakes and its almost unique structure of peasants and small farmers. In a sense, De Quincey had let the gentry down by his marriage.
Worst of all, by ill-management and extravagance, above all in the purchase of books and in a generous but injudicious gift to Coleridge of several hundred pounds, the inheritance upon which De Quincey depended had been wasted away to almost nothing. Debts, bills and creditors crowded in on him, and the leisurely literary ambitions of his youth were transformed into an urgent need to write for ready money. In 1819 he went to Edinburgh, in a desperate and unsuccessful attempt to write for Blackwood's Magazine. In the following year he was in London, and by a great effort finished his first and perhaps his greatest work, the Confessions. Back at Grasmere, he and his family lived as if besieged —'shut up as usual', Dorothy Wordsworth wrote, 'the house always blinded—or left with but one eye to peep out of—she probably in bed—we hear nothing of him'.( Letter to Quillinan, 19 November 1822, in E. de Selincourt, Dorothy Wordsworth.(1933).)
The first, and happier part, of De Quincey's life was at an end. From that time onward, his old friends 'heard nothing of him'. In 1825, his growing financial troubles drove him finally from Grasmere, from the last semblance of his life as a leisured scholar. He moved to Edinburgh, and became at last a contributor to Blackwood's Magazine frequent, but not regular—regularity was, and always remained, beyond him. The next twenty years were spent there, or in Glasgow, hunted from one lodging to another by furious Scottish creditors, sometimes living with his family, but often alone, in hiding, without books, with little food, sometimes without clothes. The lives of literary men have all too often been burdened by financial worries and follies, but it is impossible to read a detailed account of this second part of De Quincey's life without feeling that there was never one more harassed, more pitilessly borne down by adversity and confusion.
In the last few years of his life, he was more at peace. His daughters took over the management of his affairs, his position as a writer was assured, and he was largely freed from the struggle to write day by day for his living. In 1850, he began to bring together his scattered papers into a collected edition, re-writing and adding much. He died in 1859, seventy-five years of age. Whatever opium had done for him, it had not much shortened his life.
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