Thomas De Quincey: Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1822)
Cors de chasse
Notre histoire est noble et tragique
Comme le masque d'un tyran
Nul drame hasardeux ou magique
Aucun détail indifférent
Ne rend notre amour pathétique
Et Thomas de Quincey buvant
L'opium poison doux et chaste
A sa pauvre Anne allait rêvant
Passons passons puisque tout passe
Je me retournerai souvent
Les souvenirs sont cors de chasse
Dont meurt le bruit parmi le vent
- Guillaume Apollinaire, Alcools (1913)
Jean Cocteau: Guillaume Apollinaire (1917)
Our story's noble and tragic
like the deathmask of a tyrant
no drama sparked by chance or magic
no insignificant detail
can render love like this unreal
and Thomas de Quincey drinking
the sweet chaste poison of opium
dreamt all along of his poor Anne
pass on pass on everything passes
but I'll return here often
memories are hunting horns
whose sound dies softly in the wind
- trans. JR
Jean Cocteau: Opium (1930)
It's easy to forget that Thomas De Quincey is as significant a figure for French readers as he is for English ones. In fact, like Edgar Allan Poe, one could argue that they admire him more than we do: his peculiar distinction perhaps appeals more to a European audience than an Anglo-Saxon one.
Be that as it may, De Quincey (rightly or wrongly) is famous for one thing, and one thing only: his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, originally published anonymously in the London Magazine in September-October 1821, and then in book form (still anonymously) the following year.
The Opium-Eater (1822)
I still remember the excitement in my house when my eldest brother finally bought a copy of the Confessions. It was a tiny World's Classics edition, and my other brother and myself were queued up to read it as soon as he finished it. It didn't take long. He said that the whole thing was totally boring, and mainly consisted of a long slanging match in which he denounced Coleridge as a mere dabbler and amateur in opium-consumption beside himself, with long computations of their respective consumption per day. There wasn't a single opium dream to be found in it, he concluded.
I had to acknowledge that he had a point when I did finally get my hands on the book. There was an awful lot of build-up before one got anywhere near the subject of opium, some of it autobiographical background, but most of it arguments with various critics, conducted with maximum pedantry and minimal good humour.
The whole thing, I concluded, was a swizz. Until I got my hands on a Penguin reprint of the first, 1822 edition, that is. Then I began to see what people had been talking about. Then, too, the strange and wistful figure of the young prostitute Ann (Apollinaire, possibly for personal reasons, misremembers it as Anne with an 'e') began to come into sharper focus.
"Ann of Oxford Street"
De Quincey was always in debt. He wrote as rapidly as he could, for a variety of publications, essays and squibs which could be sold for just enough to stave off his creditors and keep his family alive for another day. (And then there was his opium habit to support, too).
The original two-part serial version of the Confessions had many deficiencies and lacunae (or so it seemed to him), few of which he was able to correct when it appeared in book form. He cherished the idea of a 'corrected' edition, where he would be able finally to do more than sketch the effect of opium on him, and on his half-erotic, half-idealised reveries.
That time finally came in the 1850s, when he was labouring away on a revised version of his essays and other works to date. It finally appeared, as Selections Grave and Gay from Writings Published and Unpublished by Thomas De Quincey (14 vols - Edinburgh: James Hogg, 1853-60).
This collection was initially prompted by an American edition - De Quincey's Writings (22 vols - Boston: Ticknor and Fields, 1851-59) - which reprinted the original periodical versions of each of the pieces. De Quincey, after initially contracting to supply them with revised copy, failed (not atypically) to reply to any subsequent letters, thus forcing the enterprising Yankees to rely on the resources to hand.
Unfortunately De Quincey in his sixties, beaten down by fate, poverty, and protracted drug-addiction was not really the man he'd been in his vigorous thirties. The additions he made to The English Opium-Eater - some of them quite valuable and interesting in their own right - had the unfortunate cumulative effect of completely masking the dramatic impact of the first version.
In many ways the American edition remains the better of the two, therefore.
This leaves readers with the insoluble paradox of which version to read. The 1821-22 text is definitely superior in terms of design, conciseness, and poetic effect. It's very seldom reprinted, however.
The 1856 text begins very badly, with De Quincey at his most argumentative and twaddly, but then goes on to sharpen and expand on many parts of the fascinating tale of his sojourn in London as a teenage runaway from school, the period in which he met the beautiful young fifteen-year-old prostitute Ann, whom he loved in the most childlike and innocent way possible - one reason why his book appealed so much to the Victorians, with their child fixation (and to love-sick poets, such as Apollinaire - and myself - ever since).
Ann! For many years after he reached manhood, De Quincey paced the streets trying to find her, but no trace of her was ever discovered. The romantic dream of her innocent beauty in the midst of the degradation of turn-of-the-century London remains the most powerful image in his book, transmuted though it is into various strange forms in the dreams recorded in the fascinating section "The Pleasures of Opium."
Rag-picker's daughter (1849)
The standard edition of De Quincey's Collected Writings, edited by David Masson in 1889-90, is forced to rely on the author's corrected texts for all the pieces originally included in Selections Grave and Gay (despite the undoubted superiority of some of the earlier texts).
David Masson, ed. Collected Writings of Thomas De Quincey (1889-90)
For the most part this doesn't matter too much. For the Confessions, though, it does. Probably the best solution to date is that found by Malcolm Elwin in his 1956 MacDonald Illustrated Classics centennial edition, entitled Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in Both the Revised and the Original Texts, with its Sequels "Suspiria de Profundis" and "The English Mail-Coach". If you're fortunate enough to chance upon a copy of this, you're home and hosed (so to speak).
Malcolm Elwin, ed. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1956)
Failing that, the Penguin Classics edition of the Confessions is probably the best. You do need both texts: that's the conundrum. But be sure to read the first version first. Otherwise you risk being turned off altogether by the querulous garrulity of an elderly invalid rather than the rapturous, demon-haunted landscapes of a romantic poet in prose.
In either case, you will soon be making the acquaintance of the doomed, tragic Ann, a romantic heroine on a par with Wordsworth's Lucy, Coleridge's Christabel, or Emily Brontë's Cathy Earnshaw. In this case, however, she may well have been real.
James Archer: Thomas De Quincey (1855)
Thomas De Quincey
[Of the various biographies listed below, I particularly recommend my old Edinburgh classmate Rob Morrison's The English Opium-Eater (2010). It is, to my mind, the most thorough, well-documented, and well-informed to date.]
- De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings: New and Enlarged Edition. Ed. David Masson. 14 vols. 1889-90. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1896-1897:
- Autobiography from 1785 to 1803
- Autobiography and Literary Reminiscences
- London Reminiscences and Confessions of an Opium-Eater
- Biographies and Biographic Sketches (1)
- Biographies and Biographic Sketches (2)
- Historical Essays and Researches (1)
- Historical Essays and Researches (2)
- Speculative and Theological Essays
- Political Economy and Politics
- Literary Theory and Criticism (1)
- Literary Theory and Criticism (2)
- Tales and Romances
- Tales and Prose Phantasies
- Miscellanea and Index
- De Quincey, Thomas. The Collected Writings. Ed. David Masson. 14 vols. Vol. I: Autobiography from 1785 to 1803. London: Adam & Charles Black, 1889.
- Eaton, Horace A., ed. A Diary of Thomas De Quincey, 1803: Here Reproduced in Replica as well as in Print from the Original Manuscript in the Possession of the Reverend C. H. Steel. London: Noel Douglas, .
- Van Doren Stern, Philip, ed. Selected Writings of Thomas De Quincey. London: The Nonesuch Press / New York: Random House, n.d. .
- De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, Together with Selections from the Autobiography. Ed. Edward Sackville-West. London: The Cresset Press, 1950.
- De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in Both the Revised and the Original Texts, with its Sequels "Suspiria de Profundis" and "The English Mail-Coach". Ed. Malcolm Elwin. MacDonald Illustrated Classics. London: MacDonald & Co. (Publishers) Ltd., 1956.
- De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. 1821. Ed. Alethea Hayter. 1971. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1979.
- De Quincey, Thomas. Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets. 1834-40. Ed. David Wright. 1970. Penguin English Library. Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1972.
- Booth, Martin. Opium: A History. 1996. Pocket Books. London: Simon & Schuster Ltd., 1997.
- Lindop, Grevel. The Opium-Eater: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. 1981. Weidenfeld & Nicolson. London: Orion Publishing Group, 1993.
- Morrison, Robert. The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey. New York: Pegasus Books, 2010.
- Wilson, Frances. Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016.
"The Pains of Opium"
Giovanni Piranesi: Carceri [Prisons] XIV (1761)