The English Opium Eater, By Robert Morrison

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The Independent Culture

Though he wrote much else of great interest, by far the best-known work by Thomas De Quincey (1785-1857) is Confessions of an English Opium Eater. The book that made his name when published in 1822 retains its potency due to both his accessible prose and its subject matter, so relevant in our own intoxicated era.

In this readable, perceptive and illuminating biography, Morrison explains why the Confessions were so innovative and influential: "In them, he invents recreational drug-taking, not because he is the first to consume opiates or alcohol for non-medical purposes, but because he is the first to memorialise his experience in a compelling narrative that is aimed at a broad commercial audience."

The title of his masterpiece is misleading. De Quincey was not an opium eater but an opium drinker. Like his friend Coleridge, he consumed this Turkish import in the form of laudanum, a tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol. Morrison explains that opium was cheap, uncontrolled until 1868, and sold not only at chemists but also by "bakers, grocers, publicans, tailors, rent collectors...".

De Quincey started taking it at the age of 19 when afflicted by toothache. His description of the initial effect is reminiscent of the special effect evoking the heroin high in Trainspotting (an endlessly soft and deep bed): "That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes – this negative effect was swallowed up in the... abyss of human enjoyment suddenly revealed."

De Quincey never matched this ecstasy despite his devotion to opium, which peaked at 12,000 drops of laudanum per day. It was not a happy habit: "Opium battered De Quincey." On at least four occasions, he tried fiercely to overcome his addiction. All failed.

His simple explanation: "I am a Hedonist; and if you must know why I take opium that's the reason why." Morrison notes that the writer was "fighting not just opium but a toxic blend of opium and alcohol."

In a revealing account of De Quincey's blighted childhood, Morrison explores the wellsprings of his addictive personality. Yet (as with Coleridge), it is not opium that makes De Quincey exceptional but that he produced work of such outstanding quality and in so many fields while in thrall to addiction. Having consumed a good inheritance, he turned to journalism to support his large family. The results were brilliant, original and prescient.