Thomas De Quincey and Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: Opium as Medicine and Beyond

Jared T. Griffin, BA
Pennsauken, New Jersey, United States

 

If a man “whose talk is of oxen,” should become an Opium-eater,
the probability is, that (if he is not too dull to dream at all)—he will dream about oxen:
whereas, in the case before him, the reader will find that the Opium-eater boasteth himself to be a philosopher;
and accordingly, that the phantasmagoria of his dreams
(waking or sleeping, day-dreams or night-dreams) is suitable to one who in that character,
Humani nihil a se alienum putat.1

 

Thomas De Quincey by Sir Watson-Gordon (1845)
Thomas De Quincey, 1845
Sir Watson-Gordon National Portrait Gallery, London

In his 1821 memoir Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar, essayist Thomas De Quincey, the famed “Opium-eater” himself, proudly attributes the superior power of his opium-infused dreams to his natural disposition. He is a real philosopher on his own, but the opium he consumes intensifies his powers. He channels the visions of his dreams into his writing, cementing the book as a seminal work of the period. Confessions made a lasting impact not just on the literary community but also on the medical community, since, for lack of a truly systematized study elsewhere, his literary account of opium use and addiction became the sole authoritative resource on the subject for many years.

Judging from the book’s playful title and boastful passages like the one cited above, one might imagine De Quincey took to opium in a deliberate attempt to enhance his creativity. The surprise, however, is that he, like many others, initially began taking opium as a form of self-medication. During De Quincey’s time, opium, the drug prepared from the opium poppy, was a common panacea that could be bought easily anywhere, much like Tylenol (acetaminophen) today. A known astringent, it was ideal for relaxing muscles. The British were already aware of its painkilling effects from the Turks and Chinese, who were famous for their opium use. But as it was with many drugs during the day, little was known scientifically about opium’s properties. It had been studied to some extent, as De Quincey notes in the introduction, by the likes of physician Richard Mead in 1763, but not to the level of rigor one might find in modern medicine.

De Quincey explains in his Confessions that his initial illness had been stomach pain. As a child, De Quincey had long suffered pain from hunger; now, as an adult—poor, and struggling to feed himself—he was suffering from it again. At age twenty-eight, he was stricken with an unexpected attack of severe stomach pain, and, naturally, turned to the common analgesic opium to help mitigate it.

It was only later that De Quincey learned of the “pleasures” opium provided beyond mere pain relief. After regular use for stomach trouble, De Quincey stumbled upon an unexpected effect: the opium started to give him visionary dreams. They were fantastical dreams, filled with striking imagery of cityscapes, machinery and infinite stairways. Each dream was an experience—one that seemed to last an eternity. He soon began to use the drug for recreational as well as medical purposes. The dreams became the subject of De Quincey’s writing: the opium was his muse.

But De Quincey also found that the dreams had a terrible dark side. The same visionary pleasures opium had provided in his dreams eventually became nightmares. In the section of the book titled “The Pains of Opium,” he details unbearable terrors that disrupted his sleep and left him perpetually restless—whether awake or asleep. Unable to suffer the torture, he took to avoiding sleep altogether.

Sadly, freedom from the torture was not something De Quincey could attain. Despite his hopeful comments at the end of his Confessions, he continued to fight the habit for the rest of his life. He had become an addict. At the worst state of his dependence, he needed a quantity of fifty to one hundred fifty grains of it daily. In this struggle he joined the ranks of fellow writers who were opium addicts: most prominently, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and Charles Lamb. We now know opium to be a narcotic containing alkaloids morphine, codeine, and thebaine. Due to this high risk for addiction, it has been criminalized in the United States as a Schedule 1 drug.

The so-called “Opium-eater” was never the indulgent recreational user-artist he seemed. More accurately, he had merely been a victim. The real culprit of the tragedy was ignorance—that of nineteenth century society. No one knew exactly what properties these drugs had, and few were studying them in-depth. Despite their dangers, they were not regulated. One could easily buy them and become subject to their horrors, but also to their “pleasures.”

 

Note

  1. Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater: Being an Extract from the Life of a Scholar, as quoted in Peter Manning and Susan Wolfson, The Longman Anthology of British Literature: The Romantics and their Contemporaries. 3rd ed. General editors David Damrosch and Kevin J.H. Dettmar (Pearson Longman, 2006), 1046. Italics in original. The Latin may be translated as “He deems nothing human alien to him,” from The Self-Punisher by Terence, Roman comic poet, 2nd century B.C.

JARED T. GRIFFIN, BA is an aspiring writer from Silver Spring, Maryland recently graduated from Princeton University. He has a strong interest in the intersection of literature and medicine. He currently lives in Pennsauken, New Jersey.