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  Thomas Penson  De Quincey (1785–1859), by Sir John Watson-Gordon, c.1845 Thomas Penson De Quincey (1785–1859), by Sir John Watson-Gordon, c.1845
Quincey, Thomas Penson De (1785–1859), essayist, was born in Manchester on 15 August 1785, the fourth of the eight children of Thomas Quincey (1753–1793), a textile importer from Lincolnshire, and his wife, Elizabeth Penson (c.1756–1846). A cultured man of liberal views, the elder Quincey was the author of a Short Tour in the Midland Counties of England (1774), an opponent of the slave trade, and a founder member of the Manchester Literary and Philosophical Society. Thomas was probably born at his house in Cromford Court, Market Street Lane.

Childhood and schooling, 1785–1802

The family moved after a few months to The Farm, in the rural district of Moss Side, where Thomas, a small and rather sickly child, suffered severely from ague and whooping cough. In 1791 the Quinceys moved to their newly built mansion, Greenhay, also in Moss Side. Thomas saw little thereafter of his father, who had contracted tuberculosis and sought to recover his health by living mainly in Jamaica (where he had business interests), in Madeira, and in Portugal, visiting England only occasionally.

In his father's absence, Thomas's early life was dominated by his mother, a strict and somewhat austere disciplinarian, and by his eldest sister Elizabeth (b. 1783), with whom he formed an intense emotional bond. Her death, probably from meningitis, in the summer of 1792 affected him deeply, and in Suspiria de profundis (Blackwood's Magazine, 1845) he recalled, as a profound spiritual experience, his solitary visit a few days after her death to the room where her body lay. The following year his father returned home acutely ill and died on 18 July 1793.

Thomas and his boisterous elder brother William (b. 1781/2) were sent to be tutored by Samuel Hall, curate of St Anne's Church, Manchester, the most active of five guardians appointed under Thomas Quincey's will. Thomas, an omnivorous reader, revealed a gift for classical studies. When his mother moved to North Parade, Bath, in 1796 he was transferred to Bath grammar school, where he made rapid progress in Latin and Greek, the headmaster (according to De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, 1821) telling a visitor that Thomas ‘could harangue an Athenian mob, better than you or I could address an English one’ (Works, 2.14).

At Bath Mrs Quincey, always fervently religious, entered the evangelical circle of Hannah More. She also changed the family name to De Quincey, an affectation which she soon abandoned but which her son always retained thereafter. (The question of upper- or lower-case ‘d’ was never settled: De Quincey himself wrote it in both ways and, although in old age he asserted that the ‘d’ should be lower-case and the name alphabetized under Q (Hogg, 220n.), the consensus has nearly always been the reverse on both points.)

In autumn 1799 De Quincey was transferred for obscure reasons to Wingfield (Winkfield) School in Wiltshire, which he regarded as an inferior school. In this year he first read and was deeply impressed by the anonymous Lyrical Ballads of Wordsworth and Coleridge. The summer of 1800 was spent as companion to the young Peter Howe Brown, Lord Westport, visiting London, Windsor (where he met George III), Dublin (where he was in the Irish House of Lords to witness the passing of the Act of Union), and the co. Mayo estate of Westport's father, the earl of Altamont. On his return to England in September he visited Lady Susan Carbery at Laxton, Northamptonshire, and on 9 November 1800, despite his pleas for a return to the Bath grammar school, was enrolled at the Manchester grammar school, where his guardians expected him to stay for the three years required to qualify for a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford.

A formerly excellent school then stagnating under the failing hand of its superannuated high master Charles Lawson, the Manchester grammar school increasingly stimulated De Quincey's sense of boredom and resentment. A visit to family friends at Liverpool in summer 1801 brought him into contact with the intellectual circle of William Roscoe, William Shepherd, and James Currie, the biographer of Burns. All were correspondents of Coleridge, and although in ‘A literary novitiate’ (Tait's Magazine, February 1837) De Quincey was to travesty their politics as a snobbish pretence of radicalism and their literary taste as ‘blind servility to the narrowest of conventional usages’, he presumably learned much from them about the authors of Lyrical Ballads.

De Quincey's discontent with the Manchester grammar school continued to grow, and having failed to persuade his mother and guardians to allow him to transfer prematurely to Oxford, on 20 July 1802 he absconded from the school and walked to Chester, where he presented himself the following day at his mother's new residence, St John's Priory. Accepting this fait accompli, his mother and guardians granted him an allowance of 1 guinea a week, and he set off on an indefinite walking tour of north Wales, sleeping by turns at inns and cottages and in the open air.

Vagrancy, Oxford, and early opium use, 1802–1808

Tiring of these conditions and reluctant to return home, late in November De Quincey broke off communication with his family and travelled to London. For his experiences there no record survives apart from his own later Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, but surviving letters confirm the facts of a loss of contact with his guardians and a return some months later. According to Confessions, De Quincey applied to moneylenders (prominent among them a certain Dell) hoping to borrow money against the £2600 he expected to inherit under his father's will upon coming of age. During the ensuing delays he spent his remaining funds and became destitute, living in the streets by day and sleeping at night in an unfurnished house in Greek Street, Soho, made available by an attorney, one Brunell or Brown, who acted for Dell. It was during this period of destitution that De Quincey later claimed to have been innocently protected and comforted by the young prostitute celebrated in Confessions as ‘Anne of Oxford-street’.

After failing to obtain the expected loan, De Quincey effected a reconciliation with his mother and returned to Chester, apparently in March 1803. Later the same month he was sent to stay with family friends at Everton, near Liverpool, where he remained until 3 August. While there he kept a diary which notes his sexual encounters with local prostitutes, offers scathing observations on the trivialities of provincial life, details his extensive literary interests (including enthusiasm for Gothic fiction and the poetry of Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Southey), and states his aspiration to write poetic drama.

The diary also contains drafts of a letter, sent on 31 May, to William Wordsworth, in which De Quincey introduces himself as a worshipper of nature, expresses his ‘admiration and love’ for the Lyrical Ballads and ‘earnestly and humbly’ begs for Wordsworth's friendship. Wordsworth's cautious but encouraging reply, written at Grasmere on 29 July, pointed out that ‘My friendship it is not in my power to give: this … is the gift of time and circumstance’ (The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth: the Early Years, 1787–1805, ed. E. De Selincourt, rev. C. L. Shaver, 1967, 400–01), but invited the young man to visit him at Grasmere.

In December 1803 De Quincey entered Worcester College, Oxford. He made few friends and in March 1804 moved from the college to lodgings at the nearby village of Littlemore. He read widely, though not within the syllabus, and resumed his study of German (begun, he claimed, during his period of wandering in Wales). He continued to correspond with Wordsworth.

It was during a visit to London in the autumn of 1804, according to his own account in Confessions, that De Quincey first took opium, initially as a remedy for toothache but afterwards for the sake of the ‘abyss of divine enjoyment … suddenly revealed’ by ingestion of the drug. Cheaply and legally available from any druggist's shop, opium became a repeated occasional pleasure for De Quincey, who would indulge in it while exploring the city or attending the opera during his frequent visits to London. On one such visit early in 1805 he met Charles and Mary Lamb, but took offence at Charles Lamb's mockery of Coleridge's Rime of the Ancient Mariner and failed to pursue the relationship.

Correspondence with Wordsworth continued sporadically, and in the summer of 1805 De Quincey visited Coniston in the Lake District, intending to make his way to Grasmere and call on Wordsworth, but was too nervous to make the approach. A year later, again at Coniston, he once more failed to make a planned visit to the poet, but spent his twenty-first birthday (15 August 1806) in drawing up a document (now in the Wordsworth Library, Grasmere) on ‘the constituents of Happiness’, listing (among other desiderata) ‘A capacity of thinking—i.e., of abstraction and reverie … Books … some great intellectual project’ and ‘the education of a child’. On his coming of age he received the expected patrimony of £2600, of which £600 was at once swallowed by debts contracted since his entrance at Oxford.

In July 1807 De Quincey, then visiting his mother at Wrington, Somerset, obtained an introduction to Coleridge. A friendship immediately developed, and in October De Quincey, aware of Coleridge's financial difficulties, offered (through the mediation of Joseph Cottle) a gift of £300, which Coleridge accepted as a ‘loan’. Later the same month De Quincey escorted Coleridge's wife, Sara, and their children, who were returning to their home at Keswick, as far as Grasmere, where he at last met William, Dorothy, and Mary Wordsworth. He stayed at Grasmere for two nights before travelling north with Wordsworth to Penrith and Keswick, where he was introduced to Robert Southey.

De Quincey returned to Oxford and set himself to study intensively for his degree examinations, contending for honours and offering the whole corpus of Greek tragedy as his field of study. Having performed brilliantly in the first day's examination, he suffered a loss of nerve and failed to present himself for the second and final day, 16 May 1808, instead fleeing to London.

The lake poets and marriage, 1808–1818

In October 1808 De Quincey rejoined the Wordsworths, now at Allan Bank, Grasmere, where Coleridge was also visiting. Wordsworth was drafting his pamphlet criticizing the convention of Cintra, and in February De Quincey travelled to London to see the pamphlet through the press. This arrangement caused some resentment on the part of Coleridge, who seems to have felt his collaborative relationship with Wordsworth threatened.

On 21 October 1809 De Quincey moved into the Grasmere cottage formerly rented by the Wordsworths, later known as Dove Cottage. He remained on good terms with the Wordsworth family and developed friendships with neighbours, among them the poets Charles Lloyd and John Wilson (later famous as Christopher North of Blackwood's Magazine). His time was spent in studying German literature, reading political economy, and planning an ambitious philosophical work. There were annual visits lasting several months to London and to his mother, now at Westhay in Somerset. In 1814 and 1815 De Quincey was in Edinburgh with John Wilson and was introduced to several of the city's leading literary figures, including J. G. Lockhart, Sir William Hamilton, and James Hogg (the Ettrick Shepherd).

De Quincey, however, was overspending his meagre income. In June 1812 he had entered the Middle Temple with the intention of reading for the bar; he kept terms until the early 1820s but failed to pursue his legal studies. The death of three-year-old Catherine, his favourite among the Wordsworth children, on 11 June 1812, plunged him into depression. He returned to Grasmere in late June and later claimed (‘Society of the lakes’, Tait's Magazine, Aug 1840) that there he ‘often passed the night upon [Catherine's] grave’. His opium use, hitherto sporadic, became daily, and within a year he was fully addicted.

By 1814 De Quincey was also conducting a love affair with Margaret (1796–1837), the eighteen-year-old daughter of John Simpson, a ‘statesman’ (independent farmer) of The Nab, a small farmhouse on the shores of Rydal Water. Their son William was born on 15 November 1816, and on 15 February 1817 the couple were married at Grasmere church. The relationship, together with De Quincey's increasingly obvious opium addiction, did much to sour his relationship with the Wordsworth family. The marriage was none the less a happy one, and there were eventually seven more children: Margaret (b. 1817), Horatio (b. 1820), Francis John (b. 1823), Florence and Paul Frederick (both b. 1827), Julius (b. 1829, who died in infancy), and Emily (b. 1833).

Entrance into journalism, 1818–1821

As the general election of 1818 approached, the tory ascendancy of the Lowther family in Westmorland was threatened by the popular whig candidate Henry Brougham. Wordsworth, sympathetic to the tory cause, proved willing to recommend to the election committee a pamphlet by De Quincey, Close Comments upon a Straggling Speech, attacking Brougham's speech at Kendal on 23 March. The anonymous pamphlet's effective polemic marked De Quincey out as a possible editor for the Westmorland Gazette, a weekly paper established in May 1818 to support the tory interest. When the first editor failed to satisfy the proprietors and was dismissed after seven issues the post was offered to De Quincey, who produced his first issue on 11 July.

De Quincey was on the whole a successful editor who increased his paper's circulation. His readership included the educated gentry of the district, and besides combative political leaders and general news he was able to include articles on political economy and German philosophy as well as more sensational material on murder trials and breach of promise cases. He was unreliable, however, in meeting deadlines; he lived 18 miles from the press; and May 1818 and June 1819 are the dates subsequently assigned in his Confessions to the ‘Pains of Opium’ with their hideous nightmares. The paper was often saved from disaster by its subeditor, John Kilner. Late in June 1819 the proprietors were warning De Quincey of their dissatisfaction with the lack of ‘regular communication between the Editor and the Printer’, and on 5 November he resigned the editorship to Kilner.

Despite a regular allowance from his mother De Quincey was again in debt. John Wilson, now associated with the recently established Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine, was pressing him to write for it, and in December 1820 De Quincey travelled to Edinburgh expecting to become a regular contributor. He began work on several essays, including an ‘Opium article’ which may have been an early draft of the Confessions. Soon, however, he quarrelled with the proprietor and editor, William Blackwood, over the magazine's editorial policy and in January returned to the Lake District having published only one item, ‘The Sport of Fortune’ (a translation from Schiller), in the magazine.

After spending the spring with his family at Fox Ghyll, Rydal, De Quincey visited London in June 1821 with a letter of introduction from Thomas Noon Talfourd to Taylor and Hessey, publishers of the London Magazine. Engaged as a contributor, he took lodgings over the premises of the German bookseller R. H. Bohte at 4 York Street (now Tavistock Street), Covent Garden, and early in August resumed work on Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, an account of his early life and opium addiction. Despite persecution by creditors he finished the work in time for it to appear in the September and October numbers of the magazine. A highly selective memoir tracing its author's progress from innocent waif to seasoned addict, Confessions impressed its readers equally by the pathos of its account of ‘Anne of Oxford-street’ and by the intricate orientalism of the opium nightmares it recounted:
I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas: and was fixed, for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed … I was buried, for a thousand years, in stone coffins, with mummies and sphynxes, 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. (Works, 2.71)
It was an immediate critical success, attracting nationwide attention. Republished in book form in 1822, Confessions went through seven British and at least nine American editions during De Quincey's lifetime and remained in print into the twenty-first century.

The London Magazine period, 1821–1825

De Quincey was now a leading contributor to a monthly magazine of modest circulation but high and generally admired literary standards. His fellow contributors included Lamb (with whom he now formed a warm friendship), Hazlitt, Hood, T. N. Talfourd, B. W. Proctor, Thomas Carlyle, H. F. Cary, John Clare, and Allan Cunningham. By the end of 1822 De Quincey was close enough to the editorial circle to draft an article outlining the magazine's policy for the following year, and between 1821 and 1826 the London Magazine published more than twenty of his essays, including notable translations from German writers (in particular ‘Jean Paul’ Richter and Kant), articles on political economy, the ‘Letters to a young man whose education has been neglected’, and a miscellaneous series of ‘Notes from the pocket-book of a late opium-eater’ which included short essays on Malthus and on suicide, and his most famous critical essay, ‘On the knocking at the gate in Macbeth’, which appeared in 1823.

De Quincey produced few contributions to the magazine in 1824 and the year was a difficult one for him. He was now sufficiently well known to be brutally attacked in the first (July) issue of a satirical magazine, John Bull, as one of the ‘Humbugs of the Age’. The article, by William Maginn, a regular contributor to Blackwood's, mocked his physical appearance, publicized the illegitimate birth of his first child, and claimed that De Quincey had married his household servant. De Quincey considered challenging the author to a duel but thought better of it. A possible flight to Boulogne to escape creditors is indicated by a letter of 26 October in which De Quincey states that he has just returned from a visit to this favourite refuge of English debtors.

In 1825, having reviewed the German pseudo-Waverley novel Walladmor, a fake concocted to satisfy demand at the Leipzig book fair for a new novel by Scott, De Quincey produced a witty, parodic translation of the novel for publication by Taylor and Hessey. It was among his last pieces of work for them, for the London Magazine was failing and De Quincey was in any case becoming unhappy at the exigencies of spending alternate periods in London, far from his family, and in Westmorland, where he lost contact with his editors and found it difficult to write.

Blackwood's and the Edinburgh Post, 1826–1833

During summer 1825 De Quincey's wife and children were evicted, in his absence, from their rented house, Fox Ghyll. They moved in with Margaret's parents at The Nab. The farm was already heavily mortgaged to the Rydal estate, and De Quincey, despite his own continuing debts, tried to save the property by taking over the mortgage. This precarious arrangement held until 1829. For unknown reasons, but perhaps partly because of financial complications involving The Nab, De Quincey seems to have written and published nothing between January 1825 and the end of 1826. In October of that year, however, he travelled to Edinburgh, where he resumed contact with John Wilson and began writing for Blackwood's, to which he was to remain a prominent contributor until 1849.

De Quincey's work for Blackwood's, which includes much of his most original and admired writing, initially took the form of translations from the German. His ‘Gallery of the German prose classics’ opened in November 1826 and January 1827 with an abridged translation of Lessing's Laokoon, the first version of that important aesthetic treatise to appear in English. The February 1827 Blackwood's continued the ‘Gallery’ with ‘The last days of Kant’ and also contained the first essay ‘On murder considered as one of the fine arts’, a complex exercise in sinister irony to which he was to return in 1839 and 1854 and which has remained, after Confessions, his most famous work.

In July 1827 De Quincey began to supplement his income by regular work for the tory Edinburgh Saturday Post (from May 1828 the Edinburgh Evening Post). His position at the Post, held for about a year, has never been entirely clarified, but it was evidently a senior post with staff responsibilities, since he not only contributed reviews and compiled news reports from the national papers, but also wrote regular political editorials. When for a few weeks, early in 1829, he returned to the Post for a second stint, he apparently edited the newspaper himself. De Quincey's contributions take a decidedly ‘metropolitan’ line, at times subtly satirizing what he sees as the Edinburgh provincialism of his colleagues and audience. They also develop his theory of British politics, whereby whig and tory represent two permanent principles from whose conflict and balance good government emerges.

In November 1827 De Quincey met Thomas Carlyle, a tense encounter since De Quincey had given Carlyle's translation of Goethe's Wilhelm Meister a hostile review in 1824. The two men, however, soon formed a friendship, and by the end of 1828 Carlyle was proposing that De Quincey join him at Craigenputtoch to form a ‘bog school’ to rival the ‘lake school’ of poets. Instead, De Quincey retreated to Rydal in the spring of 1829, and though his articles continued to appear in Blackwood's they were mostly pieces written during the previous year and little new work was done until June 1830, when De Quincey returned to Edinburgh, where he lodged in John Wilson's house. There he began to concoct new Blackwood's articles, including ‘Kant in his miscellaneous essays’ and ‘Bentley’. At the end of the year threats of suicide from the lonely and exhausted Margaret, isolated at The Nab with six children, persuaded De Quincey to end his divided existence and unite his family in Edinburgh, initially at 7 Great King Street, where Margaret and the children joined him in December 1830. Although De Quincey remained nominal owner of The Nab until September 1833 and continued to rent Dove Cottage until 1835, the family henceforth lived together in Edinburgh.

With the prospect of parliamentary reform, De Quincey's political journalism was welcomed by the tory Blackwood's, but debts were constantly accumulating and on 2 October 1831 he was briefly imprisoned for debt in the Canongate toll-booth, being released the same day on grounds of ill health. Henceforth the threat of imprisonment for debt hung constantly over him and his existence became a complex and fugitive one. He was a frequent denizen in the Holyrood debtors' sanctuary; false addresses and assumed names were regular features of his daily life. His articles were often delivered clandestinely to editors by his children, who became expert at avoiding pursuit by creditors. Continued writing, however, was a necessity and April 1832 saw publication of his only original novel, Klosterheim, or, The Masque, a Gothic romance set in Germany during the Thirty Years' War, followed in the October and November Blackwood's by the first two episodes of The Caesars, a brilliantly stylish and humorous recasting of material from Suetonius and the Augustan History.

Blackwood's and Tait's, 1833–1850

During 1833 the firm of Blackwood came increasingly into the hands of William Blackwood's son Alexander, who was far less tolerant than his father of De Quincey's irregularities and inability to meet deadlines. Friction between author and editor led De Quincey to turn to the liberal Tait's Edinburgh Magazine as a market for his work. A few miscellaneous pieces (‘Kant on the age of the earth’, ‘Mrs Hannah More’, and others) were followed, far more significantly, by ‘Sketches of life and manners; from the autobiography of an English opium-eater’, which began to appear in February 1834. Collectively these recollections, which were to appear sporadically under varying titles until 1839, constitute one of the great nineteenth-century autobiographies. At times frustratingly digressive, they none the less offer an incomparably detailed, thoughtful, and imaginative account of a late eighteenth-century childhood, an upper-class English adolescence, and rich encounters with the literary world of the early nineteenth century. The circulation of Tait's Magazine soared as the series became known.

When Coleridge died in July 1834 it was natural that De Quincey, already well embarked on reminiscence, should turn his long relationship with his fellow opium addict to account, and in September Tait's published the first instalment of a four-part series, ‘Samuel Taylor Coleridge’. The first paper opened memorably with the revelation that Coleridge was a ‘plagiary’, most notably in Biographia literaria, where several pages of literal translation from Schelling had been claimed by Coleridge as original work. De Quincey presented this and other instances of ‘barefaced plagiarism’ as amiable eccentricities on the part of Coleridge, who ‘spun daily and at all hours, for mere amusement of his own activities, and from the loom of his own magical brain, theories more gorgeous by far [than] Schelling … could have emulated in his dreams’. Despite this genial tone, the essay and its sequels, published in November, December, and January, which revealed details about Coleridge's opium addiction and the failure of his marriage, aroused intense indignation among Coleridge's family and friends. The poet's daughter Sara declared herself ‘much hurt’ and his son Hartley, with Southey's encouragement, stated his intention of giving De Quincey a beating. None the less subsequent scholarship has on the whole vindicated De Quincey's account, which remains an essential source for Coleridge's biography. Through the late summer and autumn of 1834, as he completed the essays on Coleridge, De Quincey witnessed the rapid decline and painful death from chloroleukaemia of his eldest son, William, who died on 25 November.

Financial troubles continued as usual, hardly mitigated by a small inheritance from his maternal uncle Thomas Penson, and by May 1836 De Quincey and his family were living in the debtors' sanctuary at Holyrood. Autobiographical essays continued to appear sporadically in Tait's, and in July 1837 De Quincey resumed contribution to Blackwood's with ‘Revolt of the Tartars’, an oriental fantasy loosely based on historical sources. A pattern was thus established whereby autobiographical pieces appeared in Tait's while political articles and miscellaneous essays, often ornately written and involving a vein of fantasy, went to Blackwood's—a situation which continued until 1841. His position as contributor simultaneously to both the tory Blackwood's and the Liberal Tait's was remarkable for the period and made both proprietors uneasy. De Quincey's range of interests and his need for money, however, dictated it, and his reputation as a writer now gave him the power to bring editors, however grudgingly, into line. In addition, articles on Pope, Schiller, Shakespeare, and Goethe were contributed to the Encyclopaedia Britannica. None is notable, and the Goethe article is strikingly inadequate, being based solely on Goethe's early autobiography, Dichtung und Wahrheit. The poor quality of the Encyclopaedia pieces may reflect the fact that for much of 1837 Margaret De Quincey was ill with typhus, from which she died on 7 August. De Quincey, a notably affectionate husband, was profoundly saddened by her death and when in 1839 his autobiographical reminiscences reached his Grasmere years, his treatment of Wordsworth was shot through with bitterness at what he believed to have been Wordsworth's snobbish disapproval of his relationship with her.

In January 1840 De Quincey's eldest daughter, Margaret, now twenty-two, began to take charge of her father's affairs and moved the family to Mavis Bush Cottage, Lasswade, 7 miles from Edinburgh. Under Margaret's management the family finances improved and there were no further prosecutions for debt. From this time De Quincey also developed increasingly close friendships with members of both Edinburgh and Glasgow universities. In 1841 he came to know John Pringle Nichol, professor of astronomy at Glasgow, and visited him at the Glasgow observatory. From the conversation of Nichol and others, scientific imagery began increasingly to enter De Quincey's works. Meanwhile, although his historical and political essays continued to appear in Blackwood's, De Quincey quarrelled with Tait over the latter's mode of editing his articles and between February 1841 and September 1845 contributed nothing to Tait's Magazine. In 1842 his second son, Horatio, a lieutenant in the British army, died near Canton (Guangzhou), China, probably of fever.

The mid-1840s produced a group of important works. The Logic of Political Economy, an exposition of Ricardian economics, was published as a separate volume by Blackwood in 1844 and won an admiring review from John Stuart Mill; in 1845 an essay ‘On Wordsworth's poetry’ appeared in Tait's; and Blackwood's published ‘Coleridge and opium-eating’ and Suspiria de profundis, a ‘sequel’ to Confessions of an English Opium-Eater; and ‘System of the heavens as revealed by Lord Rosse's telescopes’, a speculative essay inspired by Nichol's work on the nebulae, appeared in Tait's in 1846. Suspiria de profundis, to which he attributed great importance and which he claimed had cost him ‘seven months of severe labour’ (Japp, Life, 253–4), is a sequence of visionary prose poems on themes of time, memory, and suffering. It centres partly on painful childhood memories (notably of Elizabeth's death in 1792) and partly on psychologically charged symbols (such as the palimpsest, a multi-layered text which De Quincey uses as a figure for the processes of memory). In Suspiria de profundis De Quincey calls such evocative images ‘involutes’: images which carry emotion and meaning folded within them, to be explicated only by efforts of reflection and introspection.

Dissatisfied, however, with the share of Blackwood's Magazine made available for Suspiria, and irritated by editorial interventions, De Quincey terminated the series abruptly in July 1845, Tait's becoming his main outlet until 1849 when one more major essay, ‘The English mail-coach’, appeared in Blackwood's. Blending grim humour, horror, and suspense with political vision and nostalgic reminiscence, and written in intricately ornate prose, the work has generally been regarded as one of his finest and most characteristic achievements.

Hogg's Instructor and Titan, the collected editions, and death, 1850–1859

Early in 1850 De Quincey introduced himself to James Hogg, editor and publisher of a cheap and poorly regarded magazine, The Instructor. The move, though its motives remain obscure, is likely to have been prompted by long-standing discontent with the editing of both Blackwood and Tait. Hogg now became De Quincey's principal publisher. Between 1850 and 1858 The Instructor (known from 1856 as Titan) published more than thirty articles on an immense range of topics, and from 1852 Hogg became the publisher of the first British collected edition of De Quincey's writings.

Despite his substantial reputation in Britain and, still more, in the United States as a periodical writer, by 1850 no attempt had been made to retrieve and reprint De Quincey's very numerous essays, and he himself dismissed the task as impossible. In 1850, however, the firm of Ticknor and Fields of Boston, Massachusetts, undertook a collected edition (De Quincey's Writings) with De Quincey's agreement, salvaging whatever they could find from files of periodicals to which he had contributed, and also drawing (in the case of Confessions and perhaps other works) on unauthorized American reprints.

The Boston edition, which eventually extended to twenty-two volumes, lacked systematic arrangement and was textually inaccurate. It provided the opportunity, however, for Hogg to propose that De Quincey take it as the basis for a revised edition of his writings. Work on such an edition, under the title Selections Grave and Gay, from Writings Published and Unpublished by Thomas De Quincey, began in 1852, and the last years of De Quincey's life were spent mainly on its preparation, sometimes at Lasswade and sometimes in lodgings at 42 Lothian Street, Edinburgh. Hogg patiently coaxed De Quincey through volume after volume, and a formidable amount of work was done in stylistic revision and expansion of a large selection (perhaps three-quarters) of his previously published output.

The most important recasting concerned Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which was enlarged to more than twice its previous length, mainly by the elaboration of its early pages dealing with De Quincey's childhood. De Quincey himself seems to have regarded the revision partly as a practical necessity to turn the Confessions into a volume of uniform size with the rest of the edition and partly as an opportunity to supplement the earlier short text with explanatory and commentarial material; there is no evidence that he intended it to replace the original text, as it had first reached book form in 1822, and that version was still in print both in Britain and America. In the event, the enlarged version soon became the only text available, eclipsing the shorter, livelier, and more accessible 1822 version for a century thereafter.

Late in October 1859, in the course of revising the fourteenth and final volume of Selections Grave and Gay, De Quincey (who had for some years suffered intermittently from erysipelas, purpurea, and arthritis) became seriously ill, though apart from persistent ‘fever’ his symptoms are not recorded. He remained bedridden and over the next six weeks became steadily weaker, experiencing some mental confusion at times. He died peacefully in the presence of his daughters Margaret and Emily at 42 Lothian Street on 8 December 1859 and was buried five days later in St Cuthbert's churchyard, a short distance from Prince's Street. A large ornamental headstone marks his grave.

Literary and historical significance

During his lifetime and subsequently, De Quincey was best-known for Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which gave him both a reputation and a pseudonym which he continued to exploit. Throughout the nineteenth century the work was viewed as having medical authority as a case history, and De Quincey was widely read in British and American medical circles. Highly regarded by the American reading public, he was extravagantly praised by Edgar Allan Poe, who emulated his treatment of the macabre and grotesque in his own fiction and drew on his presentation of crime and mystery in his detective stories. The translation of Confessions with extracts from Suspiria de profundis by Baudelaire in Les paradis artificiels stimulated interest in his work in France during the later nineteenth century and De Quincey became a significant figure for the symbolistes and subsequently the surrealists. Thus during the twentieth century his reputation consistently stood higher in France than in Britain.

The appearance of an enlarged collected edition, De Quincey's Writings, edited by David Masson (14 vols., 1889–90), supplemented by A. H. Japp's editions De Quincey Memorials and Posthumous Works (both 2 vols., 1891), reaffirmed De Quincey's importance at the end of the nineteenth century. Both underrepresented De Quincey's humour, fiction, and political writing; Japp's texts were unreliable, often silently revised, and chosen to emphasize the veins of religious speculation and visionary fantasy in De Quincey's work. They helped to establish De Quincey as a stylistic model for elaborate prose, and where contemporaries had valued him as a polymath and philosopher, he was regarded between the 1890s and 1920s as important chiefly for his style, selections from his essays being routinely reprinted as school texts. Wilde, Chesterton, and Kenneth Grahame all admired his work and show clear signs of his influence. Virginia Woolf wrote three essays on De Quincey and read his works during her composition of To the Lighthouse.

After 1920, however, De Quincey began to lose favour as part of a general critical rejection of elaborate nineteenth-century prose. Two biographies, Horace A. Eaton's massive documentary Thomas De Quincey and Edward Sackville-West's lighter, more populist A Flame in Sunlight (both 1936), failed to rekindle interest. De Quincey was generally neglected by the English-speaking world until the 1960s, when a renewal of interest in the literary presentation of mind-altering drugs led to the reissuing of Confessions in its original, terse form. Literary reassessment followed, with a gradual acceleration in the publication of biographical and critical monographs and articles. By the end of the twentieth century a new and comprehensive edition of his works was in progress.

De Quincey's work has been influential in many fields. Pre-eminently he is regarded as the prototype of the writer as visionary drug user. His fiction and his essays ‘On murder considered as one of the fine arts’ have proved formative influences on modern crime-writing, both documentary and fictional. His translations and his essays on Kant, as well as many incidental passages of commentary scattered throughout his works, make him an important figure (alongside Coleridge and Henry Crabb Robinson) in the dissemination of German literature and Kantian philosophy in nineteenth-century Britain. His essays in autobiography and his speculations about the nature of memory, transmitted initially by Baudelaire, had important European repercussions and contributed to the thinking of both Freud and Proust. In Britain and America his biographical accounts of Wordsworth and Coleridge, together with his commentary on their writings, helped to shape the reception of these poets in the later nineteenth century and to establish them as the dominant figures in what came to be seen as Romanticism, while his development of their insights and attitudes in his own work led him to be viewed as in some respects their heir. This is to some extent, however, a misconception, in that De Quincey's scepticism and inclination to the comic and the grotesque align him more fundamentally with the German Romantics, and in particular with ‘Jean Paul’ Richter, from whom his aesthetic of contrast, incongruity, and sentimental pathos is avowedly derived.

De Quincey remains hard to classify, partly because of his immense range of subject matter and the variety of genres in which he wrote. Moreover, although he wrote almost exclusively for periodicals and so seems most readily approached as an essayist, the length and elaboration of many of his works entirely contradict the usual associations of the essay with the brief and the tentative. His highly finished exercises in non-fictional prose derive their effectiveness precisely from their ability to evade generic boundaries and offer the reader the unexpected.

Grevel Lindop

Sources  

H. A. Eaton, Thomas De Quincey: a biography (1936) · A. H. Japp, De Quincey memorials, 2 vols. (1891) · G. Lindop, The opium-eater: a life of Thomas De Quincey (1981) · S. M. Tave, New essays by De Quincey: his contributions to the Edinburgh Saturday Post and the Edinburgh Evening Post, 1827–8 (1966) · The works of Thomas De Quincey, ed. G. Lindop and others, 21 vols. (2000–02) · J. Hogg, De Quincey and his friends (1895) · A. H. Japp [H. A. Page], Thomas de Quincey: his life and writings, new edn (1890) · J. E. Jordan, De Quincey to Wordsworth: a biography of a relationship (1960) · parish register, Edinburgh, St Cuthbert's, 13 Dec 1859 [burial] · m. cert.

Archives  

Bodl. Oxf., ‘Sketches from childhood’ · Harvard U., Houghton L., papers · Hunt. L., family letters and literary MSS · Lpool RO, diary · Man. CL, Manchester Archives and Local Studies, MSS · NL Scot., corresp. and papers · NL Scot., essays · NL Scot., letters · Worcester College, Oxford, corresp. and papers · Wordsworth Trust, Dove Cottage, Grasmere, papers |  BL, letters to London Magazine, Add. MS 37215 · Bodl. Oxf., papers relating to resignation of Huskisson · NL Scot., corresp. with Blackwood's and articles · NYPL, Berg collection


Likenesses  

F. Schenck, lithograph, 1845 (after ‘WHD’), Scot. NPG · J. Watson-Gordon, oils, c.1845, NPG [see illus.] · J. Watson-Gordon, oils, 1846, Scot. NPG · daguerreotype, c.1850, Dove Cottage, Grasmere · J. Archer, chalk drawing, 1855, Dove Cottage, Grasmere · J. Archer, oils, 1859, Man. City Gall. · J. R. Steell, marble bust, 1875, Scot. NPG; related plaster bust, NPG · J. Cassidy, bust, Moss Side Public Library, Glasgow · F. Croll, stipple (after daguerreotype by Howie junior), BM, NPG; repro. in Portrait gallery of Hogg's instructor · J. Watson-Gordon, oils on millboard, Scot. NPG · S. Wood, plaster medallion, Scot. NPG · photographs, Dove Cottage, Grasmere

Wealth at death  

under £3000: administration, 19 Sept 1860, CGPLA Eng. & Wales