Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Thomas De Quincey
One day, when I am spiritually advanced enough to endure penury, I will teach English Literature to the deserving, and we will study Confessions of an English Opium Eater, reading it out loud, just to enjoy its syntax.
People talk about this as the first memoir of addiction, but for the first half of the book there is nothing about opium at all. And the second half talks as much about De Quincey’s love of a good hard winter and how he likes to drink tea all night as it does about getting high. He even says at one point that he won’t describe the symptoms of a come down more fully because he hasn’t got the space. (The book is only about a hundred pages long.)
Like Nicholson Baker says, this book ‘swirls around and revels in its digressions.’
As much as it is about addiction, it’s about De Quincey. Like many memoirists, he is really a raconteur, constantly deviating, delaying, drawing out, exploring and exposing all his emotions and memories. There are stories of the school he ran away from, his homelessness, his time at Oxford, of a prostitute who was at one time his only friend, of his life in Cumbria, of nights wondering the London streets.
When he does talk about being stoned, it’s magnificent.
For opium (like the bee, that extracts its materials indiscriminately from roses and from the soot of chimneys) can overrule all feelings into compliance with the master-key. Some of these rambles led me to great distances, for an opium-eater is too happy to observe the motion 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 head-lands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphynx’s riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters and confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen. I could almost have believed at times that I must be the first discoverer of some of these terræ incognitæ, and doubted whether they had yet been laid down in the modern charts of London. For all this, however, I paid a heavy price in distant years, when the human face tyrannised over my dreams, and the perplexities of my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep, with the feeling of perplexities, moral and intellectual, that brought confusion to the reason, or anguish and remorse to the conscience.
He sounds like a drunk undergraduate or someone drugged-up on political twitter. Passages like this get talked about as psychogeography, but what you really ought to be looking at is the alliteration (confound the intellects of hackney-coachmen), the metaphors (‘charts of London’), the sentences that unspool elegantly from clause to clause. Look at that long last sentence, that branches left and right and never gets confusing. Amazing control of fifty-five words. This is prose you can read out loud and enjoy like chocolate.
Everyone who writes anything significant for a living needs to be able to control a long sentence, but it's an increasingly lost art. Formal business documents are written in prose bordering on endless fragments, and emails are often written in the sort of sentences that abandon grammar and resemble spaghetti. Let’s start passing out copies of this (along with Syntax as Style) on commuter trains once lockdown is over.
Watch this exceptional use of parenthetical semi-colons (the only writer who uses semi colons with as much indulgence is Evelyn Waugh):
The pains of poverty I had lately seen too much of; more than I wished to remember; but the pleasures of the poor, their consolations of spirit, and their reposes from bodily toil, can never become oppressive to contemplate.
You see now that this book is much more than it promises. It is the perfect way of rehabilitating intelligent, educated people who have been slugged by the short, sharp, staccato corporate prose style that dominates business life and inevitably gives you a headache if you read too much of it at once. These are sentences you can admire like complicated stitching. De Quincey has the ego of a memoirist but the prose of a poet.
This is not just an early example of addiction memoir, but of memoir as literature. The writing matters as much as the memories, maybe more. As soon as we realise this, we realise that De Quincey is a liar as all addicts and writers of literature are. In that sense, it has something in common with I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings or Another Self, memoirs that elevate the style and structure of the personal story. This is a way of portraying a mood, a truth, not just a plain fact. But it also is a way of shaping or preserving a culture.
Each of those memoirs is a form of advocacy. Another Self is a nostalgic memoir about a lost world of Upper Class childhood and the slow development of a lost soul. (Lees Milne calls himself an opsimath in his diaries.) I Know Why the Caged Bird Sings is a plea for the equal status of black and white culture in America, for acceptance of people, for loving the sinner and hating the sin. And Confessions of an English Opium Eater is a piece of Romantic propaganda.
De Quincey’s themes are Wordsworth’s themes. The book is really about the lives of the poor, hunger, destitution, rural retreat, forms of madness. De Quincey went to live in Cumbria to meet Wordsworth and be a groupie. This is his version of The Prelude.
This is a short book that takes a long leisurely time to read. You can practically hear De Quincey leaning in across the table, clutching a drink, waving his arm around as he starts in on one diversion after another. It’s spellbinding.
I read the Macmillan collector’s edition, which is a lovely book to hold.
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