BIOGRAPHY FEBRUARY 15, 2011
by Robert Morrison
Pegasus Books, 496 pp., $35
In a gesture of admiration, Charles Baudelaire devoted half of his Artificial Paradises to a translation of Thomas De Quincey’s memoirs. “The work on opium has been written,” he explained, “and in a manner so dazzling, medical and poetic all at once, that I would not dare add anything to it.” Would-be biographers have perhaps shared these reservations: of all the Romantics, De Quincey has received the least attention from the “life-writing” industry. He wrote so voluminously of his own experience, of the traumas of his past as well as the “shadowy world” of his opium dreams, that there is little room to speculate on his inner life. The biographer is largely consigned to rehashing De Quincey’s version of events in a saner, scientific manner, or to parodying him.
Robert Morrison’s biography somewhat daringly, then, takes its title from De Quincey’s most famous work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater. While he draws on De Quincey’s reminiscences and self-analysis, Morrison also shows what De Quincey’s life looked like from the outside. In an opening vignette, we meet not the introspective sybarite of the Confessions but a down-at-heel, elderly magazine writer, who has walked eight miles to hand in his copy. Indeed, De Quincey’s tendency to bring hardship upon himself (and others) permeates the rest of the book. Born in 1785 into a wealthy family with aristocratic pretensions (hence the ‘De’), he ran away from Manchester Grammar School at 16, choosing to live alone and penniless in London. He began to dissipate his inheritance long before he was legally entitled to it by living determinedly beyond his means. He was, for most of his life, pursued by creditors, whom he eluded with gusto, although he was imprisoned for debt once and publicly humiliated on several occasions. His long-suffering daughter Florence described leaving the debtors’ sanctuary where they spent seven years as “one of the most lively foretastes of Paradise I have had in my life.”
By tracing De Quincey’s public persona as “The Opium Eater” through to old age, Morrison avoids reducing his subject to The Man Who Wrote The Confessions. Soon after he was identified as the author of the hugely successful (and originally anonymous) memoir, which was one of his first published works, he was able to trade on “the magic prefix ‘by the Opium Eater.’” It was the name under which he published his Gothic novel Klosterheim: or the Masque, the signature on many of his London Magazine articles, and the name used against him in gossip columns.
To some extent, the persona took on a life of its own, adding to the myths around the man, even when he was doing nothing at all. De Quincey never defended himself against accusations, for example, that the “stories about celestial dreams, and similar nonsense” in his Confessions had caused an increase in opium-related deaths, but such was his notoriety that he did appear in fictionalized form in a sketch in Blackwood’s Magazine, which broached the subject. Questioned on the “fifty unintentional suicides,” the caricature responds cagily: “I have read of six only, and they rested on no solid foundation.” Meanwhile, his celebrity as a profligate and a sage was laughable to the literary Lake District circle. Noting his indulgence in drugged solitude, Mary Wordsworth jibed, “The Seer continues in close retirement”.
If De Quincey scarcely reflected on the tribulations of his everyday life in print, it is because he believed that his opium-induced visions revealed deeper truths. The faculty for dreaming, he proposed, was impaired by a “too intense life of the social instincts.” But when properly nurtured “the dreaming organ … throws dark reflections from eternities below all life upon the mirrors of that mysterious camera obscura—the sleeping mind.” However he tried to dodge charges of mysticism, he found symbols everywhere: the industrial city of Liverpool represented a world aloof from suffering; Coleridge was a risen phoenix condemned to feed on carrion; the unfinished stairs in Piranesi’s Dreams, which De Quincey had never actually seen, suggested the “power of endless growth and self-reproduction.”
This “purely aerial” world, he acknowledged, had always had a stronger hold on him than the “real world of flesh and blood.” Very little would be known about the shape of De Quincey’s worldly existence if we had to rely solely on his own records. He was typically “flustered at the thought” of filling out his household’s 1851 census forms. At a loss for what to write under “Occupation,” he settled for “writer to the magazines,” which the enumerator doubted, amending it to “annuitant.” His description of the endless work done by his daughters was merely fanciful: “These are like the lilies of the field; they toil not, neither do they spin.” De Quincey is the rare case of an eccentric subject who demands a conventional biography. The headings “life at college, marriage, career” that Virginia Woolf thought “very arbitrary and artificial distinctions” offer, in this instance, much-needed reference points for his phantasmagorical autobiography.
De Quincey understood as well as anyone the literary devotee’s desire to know the man behind the work. Long before he appointed himself Pope of the “true church on the subject of opium,” he made a cult of Wordsworth and Coleridge. “The bowers of Paradise,” he told Wordsworth, on being invited to his house, “could hold out no such allurement.” While he plucked up the courage to visit, he gleaned as much as he could from mutual friends, whom he invariably considered “traitors” to the great men, when they did not prove as fanatical as he was. Their lives gradually became intertwined, to De Quincey’s initial delight. He edited Wordsworth’s pamphlet The Convention of Cintra, became tutor to his son and paid Coleridge’s debts out of his own pocket. Best of all, he took out a six-year lease on Dove Cottage, whose rooms had been “hallowed” by Wordsworth, the previous tenant.
The adage “never meet your heroes” accounts for the subsequent cooling of relations between them. Or as De Quincey put it stiffly: “Men of extraordinary genius and force of mind are far better as objects of admiration than as daily companions.” Sometimes he was only mildly disappointed. He had hoped, for instance, that ten-year-old Hartley Coleridge would be able to repeat some of Wordsworth’s table talk after their trip through Uxbridge. Yet the best the child could produce was Wordsworth’s gripe that, instead of buttered toast, he had been served “dry toast dipped in hot water.” In later life, when he began to write short biographies of his friends, De Quincey made extravagant criticisms: “never describe Wordsworth as equal in pride to Lucifer; no, but if you have occasion to write a life of Lucifer, set down that … he might be some type of Wordsworth.”
Morrison’s biography contains plenty of anecdotes of the buttered toast variety. The Opium Eater loses some of his carefully cultivated air of mystery in the encounters compiled here; those who met him often saw through his self-deceptions, only to be left wondering whether the old man was not in on the joke. Hill Burton’s description of De Quincey, then in his 60s, wearing a boy’s duffle coat, and nothing else but “inner linen garments dyed with black ink” to pass for trousers—so that he seemed fully dressed at a glance—would not be out of place in a Dickens novel. Even when faced with extreme poverty, he emerges as a comic figure whose imagination allowed him to brazen out various indignities.
Dickens himself counted De Quincey’s works among his “especial favourites,” but the feeling was not mutual. The suggestion that De Quincey saw something of himself in Dickens’s darker comic characters—like the irresponsible Romantic Harold Skimpole in Bleak House, who was based on his contemporary and fellow magazine grandee Leigh Hunt—is a tempting one. There is a child-like, excessive side of De Quincey that Morrison captures in descriptions of his less glamorous habits. Compulsive book-buying, for example, forced De Quincey and his family to leave the hallowed Dove Cottage, which was now overflowing with books, and rent a second property nearby in the winter of 1820. Although he could not really afford it, he reasoned blithely that “there is such a thing as buying a thing and yet not paying for it.” According to Morrison, this was no one-off: when the books began to pile up in the numerous apartments he rented away from home, De Quincey “often simply locked the door and turned elsewhere.”
The English Opium Eater does not aspire to be a “dazzling” or “poetic” rival to De Quincey’s memoirs. Nor could it be confused with a “work on opium,” as Baudelaire called the Confessions. Baudelaire’s inevitable rewriting of the work as a treatise on intoxicants—he did dare to add to it, despite his protestations—submits to De Quincey’s own claim that “the opium is the true hero of the tale.” Robert Morrison’s biography describes, instead, the exhausting productivity of a now under-read writer, and fleshes out his less than heroic life. His impressive account shows, above all, that the world from which a writer seeks to escape can be as absorbing as the one he creates for himself.
Laura Marsh is a writer living in London.