Morrison's eye for detail makes the well-researched book on De Quincey worth the read.
Thou hast the key to paradise,
Oh! Just, subtle, and mighty opium!
- Thomas De Quincey
Thomas De Quincey's life was not a bed of roses. Though born into a fairly wealthy family, his life was full of ups and downs. He left school out of his own will, developing cold feet left Oxford without a degree, married his servant-maid (who bore him eight children) much against the wishes of his loving mother, and what is more, disregarding all prevailing social norms led a bohemian life in the formative years of his literary career.
Robert Morrison's astute and sympathetic literary biography The English Opium-Eater — the first of its kind — presents a vivid portrayal of this artist from cradle to grave taking into account the complete range of De Quincey's published and unpublished manuscripts.
The book falls into four parts bringing out the contradictions and paradoxes that shaped his life and his writings. Virginia Woolf remarked that De Quincey never tells us the truth about himself but “only what he wishes us to know.” Opium being the central fact of his life, it is none too easy to get access into his inner life. Added to this were his mounting debts, perennial lack of resources, procrastination resulting in postponement of work, constant change of residence with his large family, nagging health problems crippled by drugs, to name just a few. What began as a mild painkiller became an addiction; he got hooked to opium which quite soon tightened its hold on him. He started consuming opium which, in turn, began consuming him. Opium, that always held him in thrall, also brought him immediate relief from boredom and anxiety gave him an overwhelming sense of elation: he felt he stood, “aloof from the uproar of life; as if the tumult, the fever, and the strife, were suspended.” Thus activated by this assuaging balm, he could expend his creative energy for hours on end.
Though dimunitive in stature, De Quincey was among the tallest writers — and decidedly the best prose writer — of his age. Not so well known as his counterparts of the Romantic age, De Quincey's literary output is immense by any yardstick, his collected works running to 21 volumes now. His works as political commentator, economist, linguist, translator, satirist, biographer and more than all a journalist and magazinist, running to several volumes exhibit his astonishingly wide range of interests. Among his vast output, his brilliant essay, “On Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth,” a classic in Shakespearean criticism, and the most widely, read, admired and enjoyed autobiography Confessions of an English Opium-Eater are among the best known even today. Some faulted him for its ‘moral laxity,' ‘suicidal debauchery,' calling it a wicked book. But none doubted his gifted mind. One may safely conjecture that it was he who invented the genre ‘confessionalism' to explore the deep passionate emotional moments that lie buried under one's psyche. No wonder it took the public by storm when it appeared in instalments in the journal London, reissued in book form in 1821 and revised in 1856. This got him an opening into mass media wherein he published almost on all subjects under the sun with an avid reading public ever ready for his writings. His Murder as one of the Fine Arts later initiated the literature of detective, mystery and crime thrillers, Edgar Allan Poe and Arthur Conan Doyle being some of his notable followers.
His love-hate relationship with Wordsworth, his entire dependence on his mother during his moments of financial crises, his close acquaintance with Lamb, Hazlitt, Southey, Dickens, Emerson and Hawthorne — all of whom had nothing but unstinted praise for him — are all narrated with an eye on minute details by Morrison. De Quincey made a clear distinction between ‘literature of knowledge' that a cookery-book may supply and ‘literature of power' by which he meant, “the exercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite.” The chapter “Recollected” records the growth of De Quincey from a ‘Romantic bohemian to Victorian man of letters.' The Times most appropriately recorded in its obituary, “With his departure almost the very last of a brilliant band of men of letters, who illuminated the literary hemisphere of the first half of our century with starry lustre ... is extinguished” (395).
The English Opium-Eater is the outcome of brilliant insightful research. We have a masterly and engrossing account of the challenges met by Thomas De Quincey in his journey along the twisted and winding roads.