[ed note: this is a long review, so if all you care about is pictures, scroll to the end]
The remarkable thing about Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is that it is not required to be read by every college student prior to receiving a diploma! No amount of teaching, or reading of what stands in for ‘literature’ in many college’s today, can possibly hold a candle to De Quincey in showing how effective and beautiful English prose can be. I read the book a week ago, and then actually re-read in the last few days in order to verify my original thinking that this ranks high up there as one of the greatest works of prose ever written in the English language.
De Quincey lived from 1785-1859. His writings are voluminous, but Confessions remains the only one of significant consequence. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was first published in 1821 in London Magazine, and put out in book form the following year. A new, much longer, edition, revised by De Quincey, was released in 1856, though the first edition remains best in the eyes of most critics and all readers. My following comments on his wonderful writing is certainly based on the original 1821/1822 edition.
Certainly Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is considered, in learned circles, an excellent book and an important part of the Western Canon. Having said that, an appropriate level of fighting has not occurred to keep it alive in the Canon, rather than allowing it to be relegated to the dustbin of other one time classics that have somewhat faded from view. I have a completely unproven theory that it is the title and subject matter that prevents it from being more studied and read in modern America. It would probably take all of about five minutes for someone to sue a university for a hundred million dollars once their dim-witted kid skimmed cliff notes of De Quincey’s chapter on the pleasures of opium (losing interest before getting to the pains of opium) and decided to go out and give it spin, resulting in something negative that mommy and daddy are not happy about. Just easier to not even put it on the reading list.
This is unfortunate, as his objective, rational, almost scientific approach for understanding the drug, his use of it and it’s impact on him could serve as a rare ‘honest’ starting point for society to figure out how to deal with such issues. However, enough theorizing and moralizing about the dumbing down of our culture reflected in this book’s current lack of panache. Ultimately, it is the style of his writing, not the messaging, that is the real reason this book demands and deserves to be read.
The story is certainly good enough. De Quincey gives enough background of his youth to allow the reader to understand how he ended up trying opium, and then succinctly brings the reader through the wonderful, glorious aspects of it, through the torment and hell of it’s use and ramifications. His descriptions of London in the early part of the 19th century, of his poverty, of people he runs across are all top notch, pulling the reader in, making one feel like De Quincey’s friend and confidante. In less than 80 pages, De Quincey manages to have the reader know him at a deeper and more psychological level than most authors accomplish using five times the pages, be it in fiction, auto-biography or biography.
Allow me to have De Quincey speak for himself so that you can form your own opinion of his writing. When introducing his work, De Quincy sets the tone for how effective his prose will be when he writes about his hesitation to publish his confessions (obviously in a day before reality TV would have made someone like him a star):
Nothing, indeed, is more revolting to English feelings, then the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars, and tearing away that ‘decent drapery’ which time, or indulgence to human frailty, may have drawn over them…
Guilt and misery shrink, by natural instinct, from public notice: they court privacy and solitude; and, even in their choice of a grave, will sometimes sequester themselves from the general population of the churchyard, as if declining to claim fellowship with the great family of man and wishing (in the affecting language or Woodsworth) “Humbly to express, A penitential loneliness”.
How beautifully does that state that we all try our best to hide that which we are not proud of? Understanding that, the reader can relate to the struggle De Quincey had publicly confessing his actions.
When talking of homelessness and poverty of his youth, he discusses his most meaningful friend at the time, a young prostitute who showed him extreme kindness (not of the sort you may be thinking), by reminding his readers why they should not look down upon those less fortunate:
…from my very earliest youth it has been my pride to converse familiarity, more Socratico, with all human beings, man, woman, and child, that chance might fling in my way: a practice which is friendly to the knowledge of human nature, to good feelings, and to that frankness of address which becomes a man who would be thought a philosopher. For a philosopher should not see with the eyes of the poor limitary creature calling himself a man of the world, and filled with narrow and self-regarding prejudices of birth and education, but should look upon himself as a Catholic creature, and as standing in equal relation to high and low, to educated and uneducated, to the guilty and the innocent.
When describing London in this time, especially in relation to the poor and down-trodden, De Quincey says:
But the stream of London charity flows in a channel which, though deep and mighty, is yet noiseless and underground; not obvious or readily accessible to the poor houseless wanderers; and it cannot be denied that the outside air and frame-work of London society is harsh, cruel and repulsive.
He reminds us of something that we should all keep in mind if we are to be decent people:
...how easily a man who has never been in any great distress, may pass through life without knowing, in his own person at least, anything of the possible goodness of the human heart–or, as I must add with a sigh, of its possible vileness.
Sort of an aside, but another excellent example of the power of his prose when discussing courage:
…vast power and possessions make a man shamefully afraid of dying: and I am convinced that many of the most intrepid adventurers, who, by fortunately being poor, enjoy the full use of their natural courage, would, if at the very instant of going into action news were brought to them that they had unexpectedly succeeded to an estate in England of 50,000l. a year, feel their dislike to bullets considerably sharpened — and their efforts at perfect equanimity and self-possession proportionably difficult.
Those of you whose glass is always half-empty should keep this in mind:
…if a veil interposes between the dim-sightedness of man and his future calamities, the same veil hides from him their alleviations; and a grief which had not been feared is met by consolations which had not been hoped.
Of De Quincey’s first experience with opium, he writes:
Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished, was now a trifle in my eyes: — this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me–in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed. Here was a panacea for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered…
That is just fantastic writing to me.
As most regular readers of my rantings know by now, I am a lover of wine. De Quincey compares opium to wine, thereby making his descriptions something I can relate to (though I do not agree with much of what he says on wine!). Admire this prose where he describes the pleasures of opium:
The pleasure given by wine is always mounting, and tending to a crisis, after which it declines: that from opium, when once generated, is stationary for eight or ten hours: the first, to borrow a technical distinction from medicine, is a case of acute –the second, of chronic pleasure: the one is a flame, the other a steady and equable glow. But the main distinction lies in this, that whereas wine disorders the mental faculties, opium, on the contrary (if taken in a proper manner), introduces amongst them the most exquisite order, legislation, and harmony. WIne robs a man of his self-possession: opium greatly invigorates it. Wine unsettles and clouds the judgement, and gives a preternatural brightness, and a vivid exaltation to the contempts and admirations, the loves and the hatreds, of the drinker: opium, on the contrary, communicates serenity and equipoise to all the faculties, active or passive: and with respect to the temper and moral feelings in general, it gives simply that sort of total warmth which is approved by the judgement….most men are disguised by sobriety; and it is when they are drinking that men display themselves in their true complexion of character; which surely is not disguising themselves. But still, wine constantly leads a man to the brink of absurdity and extravagance; and, beyond a certain point, it is sure to volitive and to disperse the intellectual energies: whereas opium always seems to compose what had been agitated, and to concentrate what had been distracted…a man who is inebriated feels that he is, in a condition which calls up into supremacy the merely human, too often the brutal, part of his nature: but the opium-eater feels that the diviner part of his nature is paramount; that is, the moral affections are in a state of cloudless serenity; and over all is the great light of majestic intellect.
If the above has not sold you on becoming an opium-eater, he closes the chapter on its pleasures with more great writing describing his feelings on opium:
For it seemed to me as if then first I stood at a distance, and aloof from the uproar of life; as if the tumult, the fever, and the strife, were suspended; a respite granted from the secret burthens of the heart; a sabbath of repose; a resting from human labors. Here were the hopes which blossom in the paths of life, reconciled with the peace which is in the grave; motions of the intellect as unwearied as the heavens, yet for all anxieties a halcyon calm; a tranquillity that seemed no product of inertia,but as if resulting from mighty and equal antagonisms; infinite activities, infinite repose.
Oh! just, subtle, and mighty opium! that to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! that with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood; and to the proud man a brief oblivion for ‘wrongs unredress’d and insults unavenged’; that summonest to the chancery of dreams, for the triumphs of suffering innocence, false witnesses; and confounds perjury; and dost reverse the sentences of unrighteous judges:–though buildest upon the bosom of darkness, out of the fantastic imagery of the brain cities and temples…callest into sunny light the faces of long-buried beauties, and the blessed household countenances, cleansed from the “dishonors of the grave.” Thou only gives these gifts to man; and thou hast the keys of Paradise, oh, just, subtle, and mighty opium!
Before we all run out and drive up the price of opium, De Quincy now uses his power of prose to pour a big, cold bucket of water on us, erasing memories of the pleasures with the angst of the pains. De Quincey describes the palsying effects on his intellectual faculties, his intellectual “torpor” how he can no longer read to himself, focus or accomplish anything, his reality likely to:
…stand as a memorial to my children of hopes defeated, of baffled efforts, of materials uselessly accumulated, of foundations laid that were never to support a superstructure, –of the grief and ruin of the architect….
But for misery and suffering, I might, indeed, be said to have existed in a dormant state. I seldom could prevail on myself to write a letter; an answer of a few words was the utmost that I could accomplish; and often that not until the letter had lain weeks, or even months, on my writing table….the opium-eater will find, in the end, as oppressive and tormenting as any other, from the sense of incapacity and feebleness, from the direct embarrassments incident to the neglect or procrastination of each day’s appropriate duties, and from the remorse which often must exasperate the stings of these evils to a reflective and conscientious mind. The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities, or aspirations: he wishes and longs, as earnestly as ever, to realize what he believes is possible and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of power to attempt. He lies under the weight on incubus and night-mare…he curses the spells which chain him down from motion: — he would lay down his life if he might get up and walk; but he is powerless as an infant, and cannot even attempt to rise.
He goes on to describe many other evils, especially that take place in one’s dreams. His nightmare’s leads him to postulate that “I am convinced is true; viz. that the dread book of account, which the Scriptures speak of, is, in fact, the mind itself of each individual.” He does remind the reader that if you take too much of it,“most probably you must — do what is particularly disagreeable to any man of regular habits, viz. die.” Nice wit, and for De Quincy, this one-time flirtation with conciseness drives the point home.
Another aside, but I, for one, appreciate his thoughts on economists. Even in his self-labeled state of “imbecility”, he still had enough knowledge to be aware of the “utter feebleness of the main herd of modern economists.” Just imagine what he would think of the genius’ that have driven the current world economy to the cliff when he says:
I saw that these were generally the very dregs and rinsings of the human intellect; and that any man of sound head, and practiced in wielding logic with a scholastic adroitness, might take up the whole academy of modern economists, and throttle them between heaven and earth with his finger and thumb, or bray their fungus heads to powder with a lady’s fan.
About this Edition
Some details on this Limited Editions Club (LEC) version of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater are:
- Folio, 13.25″ x 10″, 77 pages for story, 118 total
- Half black canvas, Cockerell marbled paper sides
- Introduced by William Bolitho
- Illustrated with twelve lithographs drawn on stone by Zhenya Gay (printed by Brooks Day and Son, London)
- Designed and printed by B.H. Newdigate at the Shakespeare Head Press, Oxford
- Centaur Type, designed by Bruce Rogers
- Signed on the Colophon by Gay and Newdigate
- Limited to 1520 copies (mine is #325)
- 14th book printed by the Limited Editions Club
I would be remiss to not also mention that the introduction by William Bolitho is itself excellent. One line in particular brings a laugh to most. In speaking of De Quincey having gone to Oxford, but leaving without attaining his degree, Bolitho says “Where many of the most magnificent dunces of England succeeded, were confirmed even, and consecrated, de Quincey failed.”
The illustrations by Zhenya Gay are simply fantastic, completely capturing the mood of the story. One can almost just look through the lithographs and create the story around it. So far, these are amongst my favorite illustrations of LEC books that I have read. In fact, this is one of my favorite LEC editions and heartily recommend finding one to add to your library.
Unfortunately, my copy of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater does not have the Limited Editions Club Monthly Newsletter with it. If you have a copy, please let me know. I would love to get a scan or copy of it.
Here are some photo’s of the LEC edition. As a bonus, below those I include some picture from the Heritage Press version, which is a nice baby sister version of the original LEC.
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Pictures of the LEC Edition:
Pictures – Heritage Press Edition