Thomas De Quincey, the British essayist best known for his book Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, was born in Manchester on August 15, 1785.
De Quincey’s father was a prosperous linen merchant who died when De Quincey was young. His father’s death and the childhood deaths of two of his sisters left De Quincey with a lifelong fear of abandonment and an extreme reaction to the deaths of young girls which others found unreasonable.
When his friend and occasional patron William Wordsworth’s infant daughter, who had down syndrome, died, De Quincey was inconsoleable and slept on her grave for months, which the Wordsworth family found distressing and distasteful.
De Quincey’s daughter said that when her father was on his deathbed, he suddenly threw his hands in the air and cried out “Sister! Sister! Sister!” before dying.
De Quincey was a brilliant student from an early age, specializing in Greek and Latin. One of his masters said of him “That boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one.”
At 17 De Quincey ran away from school and spent five months living as a vagabond in Wales and London, where he was homeless and often hungry.
He returned to his family and enrolled in Oxford University, where he remained for five years without getting a degree. At Oxford he got to know Wordsworth and Coleridge, his poetic heroes, and eventually moved to the Lake District to be near them.
By 1813 De Quincey had become severely addicted to opium, in his case laudenum, which he had first tried at Oxford.
In 1816 he married Margaret Simpson, with whom he already had an illegitimate child. The couple had seven more children together. Margaret had a large inheritance, but De Quincey, who was notoriously reckless with money, soon squandered it.
To make a living he moved to London to work as a journalist. His masterpiece, Confessions of an English-Opium Eater, was serialized anonymously in London Magazine in 1821 and caused a sensation. It was published as a book the following year and made De Quincey famous.
He wrote copious amounts of journalism, literary criticism, and essays (his Collected Works runs to 21 volumes).
Many of his essays have a morbid fascination with violence. “On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth” (1823) concerns Macbeth’s murder of King Duncan and is considered to be a classic in Shakespearean studies.
“On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” (1829) is a tounge-in-cheek look at murder from an aesthetic point of view. It also carries this lovely warning of the slippery moral slope that murder might lead to:
“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.”
De Quincey died in 1859 at the age of 74. He frequently lived in poverty despite his literary success. He remained addicted to opium all of his life, with occasional periods of lessened use or abstinence, but always returned to it as being “upon the warrant of my enlightened and deliberate judgment…of two evils by very much the least.”