A masterpiece of autobiography, and perhaps the first literary memoir of an addict, the Penguin Classics edition of Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater is edited with an introduction by Barry Milligan.
Confessions is a remarkable account of the pleasures and pains of worshipping at the ‘Church of Opium’. Thomas De Quincey consumed daily large quantities of laudanum (at the time a legal painkiller), and this autobiography of addiction hauntingly describes his surreal visions and hallucinatory nocturnal wanderings through London, along with the nightmares, despair and paranoia to which he became prey. The result is a work in which the effects of drugs and the nature of dreams, memory and imagination are seamlessly interwoven, describing in intimate detail the mind-altering pleasures and pains unique to opium. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater forged a link between artistic self-expression and addiction, paving the way for later generations of literary addicts from Baudelaire to James Frey, and anticipating psychoanalysis with its insights into the subconscious.
This edition is based on the original serial version of 1821, and reproduces two ‘sequels’, ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ (1845) and ‘The English Mail-Coach’ (1849). It also includes a critical introduction discussing the romantic figure of the addict and the tradition of confessional literature, and an appendix on opium in the nineteenth century.
Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) studied at Oxford, failing to take his degree but discovering opium. He later met Coleridge, Southey and the Wordsworths. From 1828 until his death he lived in Edinburgh and made his living from journalism.
If you enjoyed Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, you might like William S. Burroughs’ Junky, available in Penguin Modern Classics.
‘De Quincey was one of the first great autobiographers’