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Gimme Shelter: De Quincey on Drugs

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By Robert Morrison


According to Gerard Manley Hopkins, when Thomas De Quincey was living in Glasgow in the mid-1840s he “would wake blue and trembling in the morning and languidly ask the servant ‘Would you pour out some of that black mixture from the bottle there.’ The servant would give it him, generally not knowing what it was. After this he would revive.” What “it” was, of course, was opium, the drug that De Quincey became addicted to in 1813 — two hundred years ago this year — and which he stayed dependent upon until his death in 1859. On several occasions during these years De Quincey stopped taking opium for a sustained period of time, untwisting the “accursed chain” of his habit almost to “its final links.” But he always started up again, reviving over and over a struggle in which he performed “manoeuvres the most intricate, dances the most elaborate, receding or approaching, round my great central sun of opium,” as he himself put it in 1856, more than half a century after he first tampered with the drug. Like millions of other habitués, De Quincey could get off opium. What he and so many of them could not do was stay off opium. His complicated struggle with addiction is perhaps better conceived as a heartbreakingly futile struggle against relapse.

For centuries opium was the principal analgesic known to medicine, and consumed in various forms and under various names. In Britain, at the turn of the nineteenth-century, it was cheap, legal, widely available, and ubiquitously consumed by people of every age and class for self-medication in much the same way as aspirin is used today. Robert Southey took it for hay fever; Jane Austen’s mother took it for travel sickness; Charles Lamb took it for a bad cold. Laudanum — De Quincey’s drug of choice — was a tincture prepared by dissolving opium in alcohol (making De Quincey, technically speaking, a “laudanum drinker” rather than an “opium eater”). Morphine, the principal active agent in opium, was commercially available by the early 1820s and, with the introduction of the hypodermic syringe in the mid-1850s, was broadly celebrated for its unparalleled efficacy in dealing with severe pain. Since the beginning of the twentieth century, opium has been better known in the form of one of its chief derivatives: heroin.

A toothache in the autumn of 1804, De Quincey claimed, induced him to try the drug. Its effects were astonishing. “I took it,” he recalls in his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821): “and in an hour, oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me!” In addition to helping him cope with recurrent bouts of physical and mental anguish, opium in the early years filled him with an overwhelming sense of euphoria, and greatly enhanced his enjoyment of conversation, music, books, and solitude, as he details in “The Pleasures of Opium” section of the Confessions. Yet after eight years of recreational use, addiction inevitably set in, and in “The Pains of Opium” section De Quincey describes states of gloom “amounting at last to utter darkness,” and lurid nightmares of persecution, violence, incarceration, and death. For most readers, these terrors only heightened opium’s allure. In the Confessions there is, as De Quincey himself concedes, “an overbalance on the side of the pleasures of opium; and…the very horrors themselves, described as connected with the use of opium, do not pass the limit of pleasure.”

Privately, however, De Quincey often gave accounts of his addiction that were no doubt designed in part to elicit the sympathy of friends or buy more time from anxious publishers, but that also presented the terrors of the drug in more unvarnished and unnerving terms than the stylized descriptions of the Confessions. “If I take no laudanum, I am in a state of semi-distraction — and cannot arrange my old thoughts, still less pursue fresh trains of thought,” he explained to his publisher J. A. Hessey: “ — on the other hand, if I take even 12 or 15 drops of laudanum — a violent indigestion comes on in 2 or 3 hours, and after that a return of bilious symptoms.” To his close friend John Wilson he observed that “one consequence of my Opium has been that the sensibility of my stomach is so much diminished, that even now…nothing ever stimulates my animal system into any pleasure. Suffer I do not any longer: but my condition is pretty uniformly = 0.” In a letter to Alfred Tennyson’s brother-in-law Edward Lushington, De Quincey describes the ways in which his addiction has undone him. “The nexus is wanting, and life and the central principle which should bind together all the parts at the centre…are wanting,” he asserts. “Infinite incoherence, ropes of sand, gloomy incapacity of vital pervasion by some one plastic principle, that is the hideous incubus upon my mind always.”


Faced with these miseries, De Quincey repeatedly vowed to defeat his addiction: “conquer it I must…or it will conquer me.” On many occasions he seems to have come close to breaking free: “for six months ‘opium’ was a word unknown.” Sometimes he even announced victory: “I am totally weaned from it.” Yet all his attempts to quit ended in failure. In the short term, the pains of withdrawal drove him back to the drug (though modern pharmacology tells us that he greatly exaggerated the depth and duration of his sufferings). In the longer term, stresses of various kinds triggered De Quincey’s relapses (and he found nothing more stressful than trying to renounce opium). Wedged for decades between “the collision of both evils — that from the laudanum, and that from the want of laudanum” — De Quincey chose laudanum. For all the horrors brought on by drug dependence, he ultimately felt — or convinced himself that he felt — that opiates were his best response to the pressures of work, debt, shame, and grief. In the deeply perplexed logic of addiction, opium was “at the root” of De Quincey’s “unimaginable hell,” yet after weeks or even months of trying to live without it, he was always “glad” to return to the drug and “get back under shelter.”

Robert Morrison is Queen’s National Scholar at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ontario, where he maintains the Thomas De Quincey homepage. For Oxford World’s Classics, he has edited (with Chris Baldick) The Vampyre and Other Tales of the Macabre, as well as Thomas De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings, and three essays On Murder. Morrison is the author of The English Opium-Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, which was a finalist for the James Black Memorial Prize. His annotated edition of Jane Austen’s Persuasion was published by Harvard University Press. For Palgrave, he edited (with Daniel Sanjiv Roberts) a collection of essays entitled Romanticism and Blackwood’s Magazine: ‘An Unprecedented Phenomenon’.

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Image Credits: (1) Les Morphinées by Georges Moreau de Tours, 1891. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.
(2) Advertisement for curing morphine addictions from Overland Monthly, January 1900. Public Domain via Wikimedia Commons.

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