Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) is an autobiographical account written by Thomas De Quincey, about his laudanum (opium and alcohol) addiction and its effect on his life. The Confessions was "the first major work De Quincey published and the one which won him fame almost overnight..."
- Part I begins with a notice "To the Reader," to establish the narrative frame: "I here present you, courteous reader, with the record of a remarkable period in my life...." It is followed by the substance of Part I,
- Preliminary Confessions, devoted to the author's childhood and youth, and concentrated upon the emotional and psychological factors that underlay the later opium experiences — especially the period in his late teens that de Quincey spent as a homeless runaway in Oxford Street in London in 1802 and 1803.
- Part II is split into several sections:
- A relatively brief introduction and connecting passage, followed by
- The Pleasures of Opium, which discusses the early and largely positive phase of the author's experience with the drug, from 1804 until 1812;
- Introduction to the Pains of Opium, which delivers a second installment of autobiography, taking De Quincey from youth to maturity; and
- The Pains of Opium, which recounts the extreme of the author's opium experience (up to that time), with insomnia, nightmares, frightening visions, and difficult physical symptoms.
- Another "Notice to the Reader" attempts to clarify the chronology of the whole.
Though De Quincey was later criticized for giving too much attention to the pleasure of opium and not enough to the harsh negatives of addiction, The Pains of Opium is in fact significantly longer than The Pleasures. However, even when trying to convey darker truths, De Quincey's language can seem seduced by the compelling nature of the opium experience:
- "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."
From its first appearance, the literary style of the Confessions attracted attention and comment. De Quincey was well-read in the English literature of the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and assimilated influences and models from Sir Thomas Browne and other writers. Arguably the most famous and often-quoted passage in the Confessions is the apostrophe to opium in the final paragraph of The Pleasures:
- "Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for 'the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,' bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood...."
Earlier in The Pleasures of Opium, De Quincey describes the long walks he took through the London streets under the drug's influence:
- "Some of these rambles led me to great distances; for an opium-eater is too happy to observe the motions of time. And sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards, upon nautical principles, by fixing my eye on the pole-star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx's riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters, and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen."
The Confessions represents De Quincey's initial effort to write what he called "impassioned prose," an effort that he would later resume in Suspiria de Profundis (1845) and The English Mail-Coach (1849).
The 1856 revision
In the early 1850s, De Quincey prepared the first collected edition of his works for publisher James Hogg. For that edition, he undertook a large-scale revision of the Confessions, more than doubling the work's length. Most notably, he expanded the opening section on his personal background, until it consumed more than two-thirds of the whole. Yet he gave the book "a much weaker beginning" and detracted from the impact of the original with digressions and inconsistencies; "the verdict of most critics is that the earlier version is artistically superior."
"De Quincey undoubtedly spoiled his masterpiece by revising it...anyone who compares the two will prefer the unflagging vigour and tension of the original version to the tired prosiness of much of the revised one."
The Confessions maintained a place of primacy in De Quincey's literary output, and his literary reputation, from its first publication; "it went through countless editions, with only occasional intervals of a few years, and was often translated. Since there was little systematic study of narcotics until long after his death, De Quincey's account assumed an authoritative status and actually dominated the scientific and public views of the effects of opium for several generations."
Yet from the time of its publication, De Quincey's Confessions was criticized for presenting a picture of the opium experience that was too positive and too enticing to readers. As early as 1823, an anonymous response, Advice to Opium Eaters, was published "to warn others from copying De Quincey." The fear of reckless imitation was not groundless: several English writers — Francis Thompson, James Thomson, William Blair, and perhaps Branwell Brontë — were led to opium use and addiction by De Quincey's literary example. Charles Baudelaire's 1860 translation and adaptation, Les paradis artificiels, spread the work's influence further. One of the characters of the Sherlock Holmes story, The Man with the Twisted Lip (1891), is an opium addict who began experimenting with the drug as a student after reading the Confessions. De Quincey attempted to address this type of criticism. When the 1821 original was printed in book form the following year, he added an Appendix on the withdrawal process; and he inserted significant material on the medical aspects of opium into his 1856 revision.
More generally, De Quincey's Confessions influenced psychology and abnormal psychology, and attitudes towards dreams and imaginative literature. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater also served as inspiration to one of Hector Berlioz's most famous pieces, Symphonie Fantastique.
The book is parodied in the game The Elder Scrolls: Skyrim. In the game there is a book called The Confessions of a Dunmer Skooma Eater. Skooma is often depicted as a drug in the game.
- Judson S. Lyon, Thomas de Quincey, New York, Twayne, 1969; p. 91.
- London Magazine, Vol. IV, No. xxi, pp. 293-312, and No. xxii, pp. 353-79.
- Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater, edited by Alethea Hayter, New York, Penguin Books, 1971, provides the original magazine text.
- About the structure of the novel based on paradigms, see (in French) Yann Tholoniat, « Thomas de Quincey et le paradigme perdu ». In Lectures d’une œuvre : Confessions of an English Opium-Eater – Thomas de Quincey. Paris, Éditions du Temps, 2003 : 93-106.
- See Alethea Hayter's Penguin edition, pp. 103-4.
- Hayter's edition, pp. 83, 220.
- Hayter's edition, p. 81.
- Lyon, p. 94.
- Alethea Hayter's Introduction to the Penguin edition, p. 22.
- Lyon, p. 178.
- Virginia Berridge and Griffith Edwards, Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England, New Haven, Yale University Press, 1987; p. 53.
- Berridge and Edwards, p. 53; Lyon, p. 178.
- Lyon, pp. 93-5.
- Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination: Addiction and Creativity in de Quincey, Coleridge, Baudelaire and Others, revised edition, Wellingborough, Northamptonshire, Crucible, 1988; pp. 101-31 and ff.
- Confessions of an English Opium-Eater at Project Gutenberg (plain text and HTML)
- Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, London Magazine, Vol. IV, (September 1821) No. xxi, pp. 293-312, and (October 1821) No. xxii, pp. 353-79.
- Confessions of an English Opium-Eater at Internet Archive (scanned books original editions)