Next year, 2021, will see the bicentenary of one of the most spellbinding and hypnotic books in English literature, Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of An English Opium-Eater, a work with such a strong Manchester connection.
Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) is still woefully overlooked and obscure. Hardly anyone reads him; probably because there isn’t that much of it. He didn’t write novels or poetry of note. He mastered at essays and recollections. Indeed Confessions of An English Opium-Eater is clearly autobiography. He didn’t write more because he spent so much of his time indulging in opium, the fashionable drug of the late Georgian period.
Thomas De Quincey was born Thomas Quincey on 15 August 1785 at the Princes’ Tavern, 86 Cross Street, what is now the corner of Cross and John Dalton streets, the building long gone, where a barely noticeable plaque marks the spot. Soon after his birth the family moved into the countryside at Moss Side.
When De Quincey was six his beloved sister Elizabeth died aged nine. He stole into her room to kiss her “marble lips while a hot summer wind blew like an audible symbol of eternity” and he “slunk, like a guilty thing, with stealthy steps from the room”. He probably listened outside the door while two doctors sawed open her head during the autopsy.
“Gloomy the streets of Manchester were at that time”
After a brief spell in Bath he was back to Manchester, aged 15, to be enrolled at Manchester Grammar School so that he could be trained for Oxford. He added the “de” to his surname to sound more sophisticated, much like the way Mohamed Fayed added “Al” two hundred years later. De Quincey wasn’t too enamoured with Manchester at a time when the old agricultural market town was developing into the world’s first industrial metropolis. “Gloomy the streets of Manchester were at that time—mud below, smoke above—for no torch of improvement had yet explored the ancient habitations of this Lancashire capital.” De Quincey railed against the new Manchester:
“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.”
At St Ann’s Church the curate, Samuel Hall, taught De Q Latin. Every Sunday he attended St Ann’s to learn the sermon. His homework was to memorize the sermon as Hall had preached it, and to be able to repeat it to Hall on the Monday morning. That wasn’t all. Like an early version of Jabez Wilson in Arthur Conan Doyle’s “Red Headed League” he had to memorise a dictionary, starting with the letter ‘A’.
De Quincey wasn’t too keen on Manchester Grammar school which then stood in the centre of town next to Chetham’s. He fled at dead of night but his mind was everywhere. He wanted to gain an introduction to William Wordsworth so enchanted was he with the poet’s “Lyrical Ballads” of 1798. Instead he walked to Chester and then through Wales, buoyed by the promise of a guinea a week from an uncle. The money dwindled away so De Quincey and found himself penniless in London, but at least he was able to compose Greek verse in lyric metres and speak the Classical tongue fluently. He lodged with a solicitor in Soho: “The house was large; and, from the want of furniture, the noise of the rats made a prodigious echoing of spacious staircase and hall.” He shared the accommodation with a 10-year-old waif who shared his plight, and they survived by waiting for the solicitor to finish breakfast, gobbling up his leftovers. His habit was to sleep most of the day and tread the streets at night, living on small mouthfuls of rice and meat.
De Quincey buys his first opium
De Quincey bought his first opium from a chemist on London’s Oxford Street next to the Pantheon, the glorious entertainments centre which 130 years later inspired Manchester’s Central Library. The drug was then in widespread use and unlicensed. It was used for treating everything from diabetes to syphilis to constipation. De Q’s poison was laudanum, a tincture of opium mixed with alcohol, a cheap and universally administered form of pain relief in the days before aspirin. The hunger that wracked his body led him to indulge in opium. The opium made him more hungry, which made him take more opium…ad nauseam. How De Quincey lived into his seventies is a medical science mystery.
The first version of De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater appeared anonymously in the London Magazine in the autumn of 1821. Don’t think it is simply an account of hallucinations and visions. It also marks his early years in Manchester in detail. One of the best accounts, which was only fully realised in a later edition, takes him to the Portico Library, one of Manchester’s greatest institutions. In the original Confessions he writes: “On some other matters I can agree with the gentlemen in the cotton-trade at Manchester in affecting the Stoic philosophy.” But at the words “cotton-trade” De Quincey later added a footnote:
“A handsome news-room, of which I was very politely made free in passing through Manchester by several gentlemen of that place, is called, I think, The Porch (sic): whence I who am a stranger in Manchester inferred that the subscribers meant to profess themselves followers of Zeno. But I have been since assured that this is a mistake.”
This is tricky. Followers of Zeno were known as “Stoics” because their teacher lectured in public at the Stoa Poikile (the painted porch). The meaning of the word stoic has since changed, of course. The error involving the library’s name remained unchanged when Confessions was first published in book form in 1822. Revising and expanding the work in 1856 De Quincey tentatively corrected it, remarking that “the library is called either The Porch or The Portico, which in Greek is the Stoa”.
When we do get to the hallucinations and visions De Quincey joins his contemporary Samuel Taylor Coleridge with baroque, exotic dream-sequences. What language! What imagination!
“The sense of space, and in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to conceive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night; nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.”
Coleridge used his indulgences to imagine the unimaginable. De Q did so to write frankly about opium addiction, something no one in England had attempted previously, as De Quincey himself knew: “I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess, not yet recorded of any other man.” He was also aware of more popular, safer drugs: “Tea, though ridiculed by those who are naturally coarse in their nervous sensibilities will always be the favourite beverage of the intellectual.”
Perhaps Thomas De Quincey’s greatest epithet, a masterpiece of irony, came in his essay Murder, Considered As one of the Fine Arts from 1827:
“If once a man indulges himself in murder, very soon he comes to think little of robbing; and from robbing he comes next to drinking and Sabbath-breaking, and from that to incivility and procrastination.”