Authors: Thomas De Quincey

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Last reviewed: June 2018

English essayist, memoirist, and critic.

August 15, 1785

Manchester, Lancashire, England

December 8, 1859

Edinburgh, Scotland


Thomas De Quincey, a close associate of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, was near the center of the Romantic movement in England. Like the other Romantics, he placed great emphasis on feeling. He was a master of the curious and obscure in literature and was a creator of a poetic prose that, in its range of diction and display of surprising fancy, is the equal of any writing of his time. It is prose written by an isolated man, a man in whom dream and vigor are not antithetical.

Thomas de Quincey.

Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

De Quincey was the fifth child in a family of eight children. His busy and stern parents soon alienated De Quincey, who was a sensitive and quiet child much in need of understanding. The boy’s only comfort within his own family was an unusually close devotion to one of his sisters, whose untimely death left him alone, disturbed, and morose.

Since both of De Quincey’s parents were well-educated and interested in scholarship, he at least did not lack for opportunity of study. A brilliant if somewhat unbalanced boy, he could read, write, and speak Greek "as though it were his native tongue" by the age of fifteen. Dissatisfied with the restrictions of his home and by his own shortcomings, De Quincey fled his home at the age of seventeen. For almost a year, he hid in London, where he led a frugal and difficult life of study and introspection. There, he performed his deep reading of English poets, a reading characteristic of all the Romantics. This period he later called an "impassioned parenthesis of my life." After reconciliation with his family, he was allowed to enter Oxford University in 1803. There, he quickly won the reputation of brilliant scholar and conversationalist, but in 1808 he left without taking a degree.

When De Quincey was about twenty he began to experience severe pain. Some say it was a stomach disorder; others, that it was a combination of eyestrain and astigmatism or facial neuralgia. Upon a friend’s suggestion, he started to use laudanum (opium in alcohol) for relief from his discomfort. Apparently as a child he had been subject to deep dreams or visions; since he was not adjusted either to himself or to the people around him, it is natural to suppose that he welcomed the artificial, remote dream world into which the continued use of opium led him. Taking laudanum was a habit to which he submitted for the rest of his life, though he went through periods of abstinence as well as periods of particularly heavy use. The early years of his addiction were a period of immeasurable physical and emotional torture for De Quincey, but world literature is the richer for it.

After his university studies, he made the acquaintance of the Lake Poets, and in 1816 he married; both relations were happy ones, in part because of the charm of De Quincey’s own nature, which was courteous, playful, and firm. His life was one of much literary toil. He supported himself and his large family by contributions to Blackwood’s, Hogg’s Weekly Instructor, and other magazines, whose editors gave him—as it would appear to readers of modern periodicals—very free rein. He touched a wide variety of topics and, as in the celebrated "Flight of a Tartar Tribe," wrote in a manner quite imaginative and fanciful.

De Quincey moved to Edinburgh, leaving behind such London friends as Charles Lamb and William Hazlitt, like him masters of a colorful and personal style. It was these friends who encouraged him to write Confessions of an English Opium Eater, the work that brought him fame and assured him the attention of editors and publishers. De Quincey continued to write for periodicals until his death. It is said that when the quantity of his writing became too voluminous for his lodgings, he would simply move away from the mass and start fresh elsewhere.

Representative samples of his ability to take an assigned topic and effect a personal transmutation of it appear in "Joan of Arc" (1847) and "On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts" (1827). De Quincey’s reminiscences of the Lake Poets reveal a unique view of some of the great individuals of his day. In all of his writing, De Quincey well illustrates a famous literary distinction of his own creation between the literature of knowledge and the literature of power. He may begin on a theme that suggests that the writer will convey knowledge (information or instruction), but few of his essays conclude without creating in the reader a sense of unexpected and ungovernable fantasy at work.

Author Works Nonfiction: Confessions of an English Opium Eater, 1821 (serial), 1822, 1856 (enlarged) On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth, 1823 Lake Reminiscences, 1834–40 The Logic of Political Economy, 1844 Suspiria de Profundis, 1845 The English Mail-Coach, 1849 Autobiographical Sketches, 1853 Collected Writings, 1889–90 (14 volumes; David Masson, editor) The Works of Thomas De Quincey, 2000–2002 (21 volumes; Grevel Lindop, editor) Long Fiction: Klosterheim, 1832 Bibliography Barrell, John. The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism. New Haven, Conn.: Yale University Press, 1991. Examines De Quincey's Orientalist attitude in both his life and writings. Baxter, Edmund. De Quincey’s Art of Autobiography. Savage, Md.: Barnes & Noble Books, 1990. Covering all the major themes of Thomas De Quincey’s prose work, this new study argues the case for acknowledging "the Opium Eater" as a conscious artist, not the "flawed" writer often portrayed in previous critical studies. Burwick, Frederick. Thomas De Quincey: Knowledge and Power. New York: Palgrave, 2001. Examines what De Quincy called "psychological criticism," a mode of studying how "literature of power" arouses ideas and images dormant in the subconscious. Clej, Alina. A Genealogy of the Self: Thomas De Quincey and the Intoxication of Writing. Stanford, Calif.: Stanford University Press, 1995. A psychological study of De Quincey and his works. McDonagh, Josephine. De Quincey’s Disciplines. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Taking a theoretical, new historicist stance, this examination of De Quincey’s less frequently scrutinized works recontextualizes De Quincey as a true interdisciplinarian, aspiring to participation in the major intellectual project of his time: the formation of new fields of knowledge, and the attempt to unify these into an organic whole. Morrison, Robert. The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey. Pegasus, 2010. A comprehensive biography of De Quincey. Morrison, Robert and Daniel S. Roberts, eds. Thomas De Quincey: New Theoretical and Critical Directions. New York: Routledge, 2007. Broken into eleven easy-to-read chapters, this collection of essays expounds on De Quincey’s views of the Orient, politics, and philosophy. Includes ten illustrations, an index, and a thorough bibliography. North, Julian. De Quincey Reviewed: Thomas De Quincey’s Critical Reception, 1821-1994. Columbia, S.C.: Camden House, 1997. Collects critical responses to De Quincey’s works from contemporary reviewers through modern scholarship. Schneider, Matthew. Original Ambivalence: Autobiography and Violence in Thomas De Quincey. New York: Peter Lang, 1995. Analyzes the lines between reality and imagination in De Quincey’s work. Wilson, Frances. Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey. Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 2016. A biography that explores De Quincey both as a serious writer and an eccentric, strange figure with a highly complex personality.

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