Confessions of an English Opium-Eater by Thomas De Quincey – Reviewed by Guy Portman
The first part of this autobiographical work takes the form of a lengthy discourse on the author’s childhood and teenage years. We learn about De Quincey’s family, his education, and his love of walking, literature and classical studies, all of which are described in excruciating detail. At the age of eighteen De Quincey moves to London, where he exists in a near destitute state, surviving on borrowed money.
An illness results in a doctor prescribing the author laudanum, which contains opium. De Quincey starts using the drug regularly, culminating in addiction. The section of the book (approx. one third) dedicated to opium is divided into two parts – the pleasures of opium and the pains of opium. Later De Quincey, who infers that it was his early experiences that led to his use of the drug, attempts to reduce his opium intake.
This reader would compare reading Confessions of an English Opium-Eater to struggling through sinking mud. For despite the fact that there are a mere 201 pages, some interesting historical insights, details of opium-fuelled dreams, in addition to an ornate, almost poetic prose style, no doubt the influence of Wordsworth of whom the author was an ardent devotee, toiling through the book was extremely arduous. This was due to the turgid blocks of text devoid of paragraphs, the unremitting references to classical studies and literature, the tedious footnotes, grandiloquent use of language (c.f. novitiate, tintinnabulous and antediluvian), and self-indulgence.
This reader would strongly recommend that anyone enticed by the prospect of this, the forefather of addiction literature, read the original 1821 version, and not make his mistake of wading through the considerably expanded 1856 edition.