Thomas De Quincey

(1785—1859) essayist

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ran away from Manchester Grammar School to the homeless wanderings in Wales and London which he was to describe in Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822). He afterwards went to Worcester College, Oxford, and—having made the acquaintance of Coleridge and Wordsworth—settled at Grasmere. In 1804, while at Oxford, he had begun to take opium, and from 1812 he became an addict. He earned a precarious living, mainly in Edinburgh, by tales, articles, and reviews, mostly in Blackwood's and Tait's including Klosterheim (1832), Recollections of the Lake Poets (1834–9), ‘Sketches… from the Autobiography of an English Opium Eater’ (1834–41, later entitled Autobiographic Sketches).

Since nearly all De Quincey's work was journalism, written under pressure to support his family, it is more remarkable for brilliant tours de force such as ‘On the Knocking on the Gate in “Macbeth” ’, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, and ‘The Revolt of the Tartars’, than for sustained coherence. Eclectic learning, pungent black humour sometimes degenerating into facetiousness, a stately but singular style, distinguish all his writings. His impressionistic reminiscences both of his own childhood and of his literary contemporaries are memorably vivid. His greatest, though never completed, achievement was his psychological study of the faculty of dreaming in ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ (1845) and ‘The English Mail Coach’ (1849) in which he traced—25 years before Freud was born—how childhood experiences and sufferings are crystallized in dreams into symbols which can form and educate the dreamer's personality, and can also give birth to literature, either as poetry or as ‘impassioned prose’. His influence, both on writers such as Poe and Baudelaire and on ordinary readers tempted to experiment with opium, has been immense.

Subjects: Literature.

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