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The passion of a poet

The passion of a poet

Robert Morrison’s new book, The English Opium Eater: A Biography of Thomas De Quincey, has won rave reviews in many of Britain's major newspapers and is up for the James Tait Black Memorial Prize, one of the U.K.'s biggest literary prizes. It’s easy to understand why.

[photo of Robert Morrison]Robert Morrison. (Photo by Lindy Mechefske)

The flurry of media attention for his new biography of De Quincey (1785-1859), the prolific 19th-century English writer and essayist, has taken Queen’s English professor Robert Morrison by surprise. He speculates that much of the interest for his book stems from the “as yet unsolved scourges of drug addiction and debt” that plagued De Quincey. “These issues are just are as topical today as they were then,” says Morrison, who is unabashedly passionate about his work.

Victorian literature is just one topic on a long list of his favorite interests, which also includes his family, his teaching career, Elvis Presley, Rod Stewart, John Lennon—of whom he says “We cannot talk about him, it will simply make me cry”—and finally, Canadian Football, which he calls “the most beautiful game in the world.”

But what of De Quincey? Morrison discovered him during his own student years at Oxford. His academic supervisor, Jonathan Wordsworth, the great-great-great nephew of the famous poet, asked him to write four essays on the Romantic essayists. Morrison confesses that he had never read any of De Quincey’s writings and when he was done his assignment, Wordsworth felt that only one essay merited elaboration—the one Morrison had written on Thomas De Quincey. And so a passion was born.

In all, De Quincey wrote 21 volumes, but he is most famous for his 1821 autobiography, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, which is an account of his troubled life and struggles with drug addiction and debt. The book is widely regarded as the first-ever personal account of drug addiction.

De Quincey, the son of a wealthy cotton merchant, had an unhappy, troubled childhood. By age seven he had lost two beloved sisters, had experimented with alcohol, and was showing signs of an alarmingly introspective and narcissistic personality. In his teens, he ran away from Manchester Grammar school and spent five months “roughing it,” first in the fields and woods of Wales and later on the streets of London, where he befriended a prostitute he identified only as Ann.

Despite his libertine lifestyle and footloose ways, with the help of an inheritance, in 1803 he enrolled as a student at Oxford. It was here that he began using opium. Though he spent four years in university, De Quincey never finished his degree.

As an adult, his elitism, delusions of grandeur and social climbing knew no limits. Physically slight, whatever he lacked in stature, he made up for in attitude. Born simply Quincey, even the “De” was merely an affectation. He had little time, sympathy, or understanding for his widowed mother who supported him financially. And he spent his years at Oxford primarily in solitary pursuits due to what he termed the “poor intellectual climate” there.

While De Quincy enjoyed the company of prostitutes, he also pursued relationships with aristocrats and doggedly cultivated relationships with his literary idols, primarily the poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. In fact, his pursuit of Wordsworth was nothing short of stalking. There was little doubt that De Quincey was deceptive, conceited, and self-serving. However, it was his drug addicted and debt-riddled years as a prolific writer that Morrison finds most intriguing.

De Quincey’s drug addiction started when he began seeking relief from the pain of a toothache by taking a tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol, a mixture called Laudanum. It was perfectly legal and readily available at the time. Strictly speaking, De Quincey was a Laudanum drinker, not an “opium eater.” However, the real name did not lend itself so neatly to an enticing and alliterative title. After using the drug, he recalled, “Here was a panacea… for all human woes.”

The death of Wordsworth’s three-year-old daughter Catherine, for whom De Quincey had an extraordinary and unusual love, sent him over the edge. He spent entire nights stretched out on her grave in conspicuous grief. Thus began a serious descent into the addiction that shaped the remainder of De Quincey’s life.

Throughout this 462-page biography, author Morrison offers a highly readable, personal, honest, and surprisingly sympathetic account of De Quincey’s life. The author’s deep knowledge of his subject is evident. While Morrison is an unabashed De Quincey admirer, he also recognizes his subject was a tormented soul with a plethora of self-destructive tendencies.

“De Quincey romanticized drug use,” says Morrison. “He wanted us to believe that hitting bottom was a necessary ingredient in his success. But in reality, De Quincey remained in control of his art, if not of his life.”

[Queen's Alumni Review 2010-2 cover]