Thomas De Quincey(1785-1859); biography and famous works

Thomas De Quincey (15 August 1785-8 December 1859) was an English author, essayist, and journalist. He was born in Manchester and educated at schools in Bath and Winkfield, ending at Manchester Grammar School, from which he ran away to the homeless wanderings in Wales and London. He afterward went to Worcester College, Oxford, and having made the acquaintance of  Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth. Then he settled at Grasmere in the cottage formerly occupied by the Wordsworths. In 1804, while at Oxford, he had begun to take opium, and from 1812 he became an addict. In 1817 he married Margaret Simpson, daughter of a local farmer, by whom he had eight children, and in the following year, having by then exhausted his private fortune, he started to earn a living by journalism. In July 1818 De Quincey became editor of The Westmorland Gazette, a Tory newspaper published in Kendal.

His most famous work Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, mainly about both the positive and negative aspects of opium usage, was published in 1822 and appeared in London Magazine. For the next 30 years he earned a precarious living, mainly in Edinburgh, by writing tales, articles, and reviews, mostly in Blackwood’s Magazine and Tait’s. His works in these magazines include Klosterheim or The Masque (1832), Recollections of the Lake Poets (1834-9), ‘Sketches…from the Autobiography of an English Opium Eater’ (1834-41, later entitled Autobiographic Sketches), ‘Suspiria de Profundis'(1845 “Sighs from the Depths”), and “The English Mail Coach” (1849). He also penned a widely read series of biographies of writers, with subjects ranging from Roman emperors to the Romantic poets he personally knew. A collected edition of his works, Selections Grave and Gay, was started under his supervision in 1853 and occupied him until his death.

Since nearly all of De Quincey’s work was journalism, written under pressure to support his family, it is more remarkable for brilliant tours de force such as ‘On the Knocking on the Gate in Macbeth’, ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’, and ‘The Revolt of the Tartars’ than for sustained coherence. Eclectic learning, pungent black humour sometimes degenerating into facetiousness, and a stately but singular style distinguish his writing. His impressionistic reminiscences both of his own childhood and of his literary contemporaries are memorably vivid.

His greatest, though never completed, achievement was his psychological study of the faculty of dreaming in ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ and ‘The English Mail Coach’, in which he traced-25 years before Freud was born- how childhood experiences and sufferings are crystallized in dreams into symbols that can form and educate the dreamer’s personality and can also give birth to literature, either as poetry or as ‘impassioned prose’, as De Quincey called his own climaxes of imagery.