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Thomas de Quincey

Thomas de Quincey was born in Manchester on August 15, 1785. His father was a man of high character and great taste for literature as well as a successful man of business; he died, most unfortunately, when Thomas was quite young. Very soon after our author's birth the family removed to The Farm, and later to Greenhay, a larger country place near Manchester. In 1796 De Quincey's mother, now for some years a widow, removed to Bath and placed him in the grammar school there.

Thomas, the future opium-eater, was a weak and sickly child. His first years were spent in solitude, and when his elder brother, William, a real boy, came home, the young author followed in humility mingled with terror the diversions of that ingenious and pugnacious "son of eternal racket." De Quincey's mother was a woman of strong character and emotions, as well as excellent mind, but she was excessively formal, and she seems to have inspired more awe than affection in her children, to whom she was for all that deeply devoted. Her notions of conduct in general and of child rearing in particular were very strict. She took Thomas out of Bath School, after three years' excellent work there, because he was too much praised, and kept him for a year at an inferior school at Winkfield in Wiltshire.

In 1800, at the age of fifteen, De Quincey was ready for Oxford; he had not been praised without reason, for his scholarship was far in advance of that of ordinary pupils of his years. "That boy," his master at Bath School had said, "that boy could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one." He was sent to Manchester Grammar School, however, in order that after three years' stay he might secure a scholarship at Brasenose College, Oxford. He remained there-- strongly protesting against a situation which deprived him "of health, of society, of amusement, of liberty, of congeniality of pursuits"--for nineteen months, and then ran away.

His first plan had been to reach Wordsworth, whose Lyrical Ballads (1798) had solaced him in fits of melancholy and had awakened in him a deep reverence for the neglected poet. His timidity preventing this, he made his way to Chester, where his mother then lived, in the hope of seeing a sister; was apprehended by the older members of the family; and through the intercession of his uncle, Colonel Penson, received the promise of a guinea a week to carry out his later project of a solitary tramp through Wales. From July to November, 1802, De Quincey then led a wayfarer's life. [Footnote: For a most interesting account of this period see the Confessions of an English Opium-Eater[?], Athenaeum Press Selections from De Quincey, pp. 165-171, and notes.] He soon lost his guinea, however, by ceasing to keep his family informed of his whereabouts, and subsisted for a time with great difficulty. Still apparently fearing pursuit, with a little borrowed money he broke away entirely from his home by exchanging the solitude of Wales for the greater wilderness of London. Failing there to raise money on his expected patrimony, he for some time deliberately clung to a life of degradation and starvation rather than return to his lawful governors.

Discovered by chance by his friends, De Quincey was brought home and finally allowed (1803) to go to Worcester College, Oxford, on a reduced income. Here, we are told, "he came to be looked upon as a strange being who associated with no one." During this time he learned to take opium. He left, apparently about 1807, without a degree. In the same year he made the acquaintance of Coleridge and Wordsworth; Lamb he had sought out in London several years before.

His acquaintance with Wordsworth led to his settlement in 1809 at Grasmere[?], in the beautiful English Lake District; his home for ten years was Dove Cottage, which Wordsworth had occupied for several years and which is now held in trust as a memorial of the poet. De Quincey was married in 1816, and soon after, his patrimony having been exhausted, he took up literary work in earnest.

In 1821 he went to London to dispose of some translations from German authors, but was persuaded first to write and publish an account of his opium experiences, which accordingly appeared in the London Magazine in that year. This new sensation eclipsed Lamb's Essays of Elia, which were appearing in the same periodical. The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was forthwith published in book form. De Quincey now made literary acquaintances. Tom Hood found the shrinking author "at home in a German ocean of literature, in a storm, flooding all the floor, the tables, and the chairs--billows of books." Richard Woodhouse speaks of the "depth and reality of his knowledge. ... His conversation appeared like the elaboration of a mine of results. ... Taylor led him into political economy, into the Greek and Latin accents, into antiquities, Roman roads, old castles, the origin and analogy of languages; upon all these he was informed to considerable minuteness. The same with regard to Shakespeare's sonnets, Spenser's minor poems, and the great writers and characters of Elizabeth's age and those of Cromwell's time."

From this time on De Quincey maintained himself by contributing to various magazines. He soon exchanged London and the Lakes for Edinburgh and its suburb, Lasswade, where the remainder of his life was spent. Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine and its rival Tait's Magazine received a large number of contributions. The English Mail-Coach appeared in 1849 in Blackwood. Joan of Arc had already been published (1847) in Tait. De Quincey continued to drink laudanum throughout his life,--twice after 1821 in very great excess. During his last years he nearly completed a collected edition of his works. He died in Edinburgh on December 8, 1859.

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