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Remarks on The English Opium-Eater by Robert Morrison

April 10, 2011

The English Opium-Eater (Goodreads)

The English Opium-Eater by Robert Morrison is a biography of Thomas De Quincey.  De Quincey was a book lover, writer, and of course the most famous opium-eater in England.

Morrison’s biography was great in that it pulled excerpts from journals, letters, and essays all by or about De Quincey.  It provided a very personal touch and allowed you to get to know the artist in a deeper way then just being told strict facts.  I haven’t read a biography in ages so I admit I was slow in reading this one, but it shouldn’t take anything away from the quality of writing and interest in the story.

De Quincey as a person may be of great interest to those of us book bloggers as he went into massive debt comprising a vast library of books and books were always the last items he was willing to part with, often allowing his debts to pile up and his family to go into starvation.  He was also a well known reviewer of literary works.  He was a great admirer of poetry and especially that of William Wordsworth.

What De Quincey was best known for and a topic that was always present in this biography was his opium habit, or more precisely his addiction to laudanum.  He was an addict from an early age and was best known for his works chronicling his addiction.  He wrote several essays on his addiction, but the two most famous were Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Suspiria de Profundis. In these two essays he talked about the pleasures and pain of an opium addiction.  In his time of course laudanum and opium were easy to get access to and addiction was not a known idea.

“Opiates are now understood very differently than they were two hundred years ago.  In the terminology of De Quincey’s day, he had an opium ‘habit’ not an opium ‘addiction’, for the medical professionals did not begin todevelop modern ideas of drug addiction until the second half of the nineteenth century.”

Thomas De Quincey lived from 1785 to 1859 and wrote for several magazines, both literary and non-literary.  He published multitudes of essays from his addictions on opium, to the politics of the time (he was a starch conservative), to translations of literary works, and reviews.  He was well known among contemporary authors and was friends to Samuel Coleridge and William Wordsworth among others.  He even had the opportunity to review poetry and novels from the Bronte sisters, though he was rather harsh on their writings.  He was harsh on a lot of writings and was a bit of a literary snob.  One of his most intriguing ideas, presented in this biography, was his definition of literary power versus literary knowledge.

“‘What do you learn from Paradise Lost?’ he asks,

Nothing at all.  What do you learn from a cookery-book?  Something new, something that you did not know before, in every paragraph.  But would you therfore put the wretched cookery book on a higher level of estimation than the divine poem?  What you owe to Milton is not any knowledge, of which a million separate items are still but a million of advancing steps on the same earthly level; what you owe — is power, that is, excercise and expansion to your own latent capacity of sympathy with the infinite.”

Before picking up this biography I knew very little of Thomas De Quincey.  I honestly chose the book because of the intriguing title.  I am thankful I did because despite De Quincey’s shortcomings, which there were many, he was a fascinating man and an interesting writer.  After reading this biography I plan on finding and reading more of De Quincey’s work now that I am familiar with the life of the man.

Overall, this was a fascinating biography of a very flawed but very interesting person.

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