Addiction in Thomas De Quincey’s words: ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’

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In the early 19th century, a rising literary star bore his soul, revealing the darkest corners of his opium addiction and taking readers on an unprecedented journey into the mind of an addict. Thomas De Quincey, an English essayist, led readers through a kaleidoscopic vision of his opium experiences in his autobiographical account titled “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”. This vivid exposé not only opened the eyes of society at the time to the realities of opium addiction but also had a lasting impact on future portrayals of addiction and mental health in literature.

The early years

De Quincey was born to a merchant family in 1785 in Manchester, England. The loss of his father at a young age and the financial instability that followed plagued De Quincey’s childhood. A brilliant but troubled student, he struggled with the stringent educational environment of school and, at the age of fifteen, ran away from home intending to meet his idol, the poet William Wordsworth. This initiated a period of vagrant life that saw him wandering, homeless and penniless, often sleeping in open fields or staying at the homes of disreputable people.

Early opium experiences

As he progressed into adulthood, De Quincey managed to resume his formal education, attending Oxford University, where he became known for his brilliance in classics and distinctive literary style. However, during this time, he also started taking opium tinctures called laudanum to alleviate chronic neuralgic face pain, which can be so severe it can lead to suicide.

It is important to understand that during De Quincey’s lifetime, opium was entrenched in UK society due to the British Empire’s heavy involvement in the opium trade. It was readily available for medicinal and recreational use but with no regulation and limited understanding of opium addiction.

His burgeoning opium habit was fueled further by his acquaintance with the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge, who had written Lyrical Ballads with Wordsworth in 1793 and who was heavily addicted to opium. Before long, De Quincey began to enjoy the euphoric effects of the drug, which relieved him of his physical pain and opened a gateway to a world of enhanced sensation and beauty.

He was inspired by references to opium in the works of Homer, Shakespeare and Milton, the latter of which wrote one verse in Paradise Lost that De Quincey believed was a portrayal of the Archangel Gabriel giving opium to Adam in the Garden of Eden. As De Quincey explained in his essay, Coleridge and Opium-Eating:

“You know the Paradise Lost? and you remember from the eleventh book, in its earlier part, that laudanum already existed in Eden—nay, that it was used medicinally by an archangel… he fortifies (Adam’s) fleshly spirits against the affliction of these visions, of which visions the first was death. And how? “He from the well of life three drops instill’d.”

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Trauma and addiction

Addiction is often fuelled by trauma and seeking relief from emotional pain. While De Quincey’s opium use was already reaching significant levels, the death of William Wordsworth’s daughter is seen by some as a major trigger point. De Quincey had finally befriended Wordsworth in 1807 (who, ironically, was estranged from Coleridge due to the latter’s own opium addiction) and was living near the Wordsworth family in William’s former home.

In 1812, Wordsworth’s beloved three-year-old daughter, Catherine, who is now thought to have had Down Syndrome, died as a result of convulsions. The young child’s death profoundly affected De Quincey, who slept on her grave for two months. During this period of extreme grief and loss, De Quincey’s dependency on opium magnified manifold, reaching a peak consumption of around twelve thousand drops of laudanum daily.

Confessions of an English Opium Eater

De Quincey spent the next few years working as a translator and journalist but faced major financial issues. In part as an attempt to pay off his debts, in 1821, he wrote “Confessions of an English Opium Eater”. The work was published initially in the London Magazine and divided into “The Pleasures of Opium” and “The Pains of Opium.”

The Pleasures of Opium

In the first segment, “The Pleasures of Opium,” readers are guided through a world enriched and beautified through the lens of opium – a world where the senses are amplified, and the soul finds itself dancing in the realms of celestial joy. De Quincey recounts moments of beauty and tranquillity that opium bestowed upon him, with vivid descriptions of “celestial” experiences and an enhanced appreciation for music and the arts, noting:

“Here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat-pocket…”

The Pains of Opium

The second part, “The Pains of Opium,” starkly contrasts the blissful wanderings described in the first. De Quincey unveils the devastating consequences of long-term opium use. In this section, the prose evolves into a harrowing account of his experiences with detox and withdrawal, characterised by isolating paranoia, horrifying visions and the physical agony of dependency. His graphic portrayals, such as terrifying visions of crocodiles in his nightmares, showcase the toll the drug had taken on him:

“I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by parroquets, by cockatoos…I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed, with cancerous kisses, by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

Literary impact and inspiration

De Quincey remained addicted to opium for the rest of his life. His confessional narrative paved the way for a new form of introspective literature, inspiring later works that sought to explore the human psyche’s darkest corners through personal narratives laden with anguish, addiction, and despair. The “Confessions…” inspired authors such as Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire and William S. Burroughs, becoming a touchstone in the emergence of confessional literature.

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The modern relevance in combating heroin addiction

However, as we reflect on De Quincey’s life and work, we find that “Confessions…” carries more than just historical significance; it holds a mirror to the agonies and ecstasies experienced by modern-day individuals grappling with heroin addiction and other addiction to other opiates.

De Quincey’s vivid portrayal of the stages of opium addiction and withdrawal and the physical and mental damage caused by drug abuse may have been written two hundred years ago, but they are strikingly similar to the experiences of the clients treated at heroin rehab centres like UKAT.

Fortunately, our understanding of addiction far exceeds that during De Quincey’s time and comprehensive heroin detox and rehab programmes can be highly effective in breaking the cycle. With the right knowledge, treatment and support, concepts that were all but unheard of in early 19th Century Britain, heroin addiction can be overcome, health restored, and lives and relationships rebuilt.

Final thoughts

As we explore the tragic world De Quincey unveils in “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” we are presented with an opportunity to expand our understanding of addiction, bridging the centuries-old experiences narrated in the book with contemporary scenarios. Through his visceral and candid exploration of opium-induced euphoria and despair, De Quincey invites readers to look beyond the mere act of substance use to explore the underlying pains, joys and complex human emotions that steer individuals towards such paths.

“Confessions…” urges society to foster empathy, compassion, and a deeper understanding, all of which are crucial in the fight against heroin addiction today. This is a call we cannot afford to ignore, a lesson vital to society’s progression toward a more understanding and empathetic stance in the face of addiction. If you want to find out more about how UKAT can help you with your addiction, contact us today.

(Click here to see works cited)

  • Chiasson, Dan. “The Man Who Invented the Drug Memoir.” The New Yorker, 10 October 2016, Accessed 14 September 2023.
  • De Quincey, Thomas. Coleridge and Opium Eating. Blackwood’s Magazine, 1845.
  • De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. London Magazine, 1821.
    Milton, John. Paradise Lost. Samuel Simmons, 1667.