Confessions of an English Opium Eater is broken into two parts, each of which was published separately and each of which is broken further into sub-sections. Overall, it is a selective autobiography of its author, with most focus on experiences that help explain his use of, addiction to, and ultimate defeat of opium.
To the Reader
De Quincey introduces Confessions of an English Opium-Eater as an extract from a longer autobiography. He hopes that it will be “instructive” (1), which is why he is willing to go into such explicit details about his personal life. He tried his hardest to resist opium, but could not because it was such an effective pain-killer and he was suffering from numerous physical ailments. According to De Quincey, opium use is more widespread than people know, but the public has many misconceptions about the drug.
De Quincey’s father died when he was seven. As a young boy, he attended a number of upscale boarding schools. Although he appreciated one teacher he had at Eton, he mostly looked down on his teachers because they were not as fluent as he was in ancient Greek – his academic passion. At seventeen, he ran away from his current boarding school because his guardians would not let him drop out. He set out on foot with only his clothes and two books, and ended up traveling to North Wales. There, he stayed in an inn for several weeks but left after the innkeeper offended him by revealing her suspicions that De Quincey was a swindler.
He quickly ran out of money and began to rely on the charity of villagers, offering to do odd jobs for them like writing letters in exchange for food and shelter. He was impressed by the working class’s hospitality. In one memorable incident, he stayed for several days with a group of teenage brothers and sisters who greatly enjoyed his company. He had to leave these young people when their elderly parents came home from a Methodist meeting in a nearby town, so De Quincey went to London. There, he nearly starved, although he managed to find lodging in an unoccupied apartment. He shared this apartment with a little girl who was afraid of ghosts.
In addition to the little girl, De Quincey also befriended Ann, a fifteen-year-old prostitute who bought him a bottle of spiced wine when he was dying of starvation. Ann became a prostitute after her belongings were stolen, and she becomes good friends with De Quincey. He remembers her kindness for the rest of his life, but can never find her after he returns to London in later years because he never discovered her last name. Tired of poverty, De Quincey asked a rich friend at Eton, the Earl of ––– (Densart), to cosign on a loan. Although the young Earl reluctantly agreed, the loan fell through, so De Quincey alleviated his poverty by reconciling with his family and going to the University of Oxford.
In this brief introduction to the second part of Confessions, De Quincey reflects on the trials he and Ann suffered in London. Although he was never so poor again, he would suffer illness and psychic misery later in life. He believes that his time in London prepared him for these struggles by teaching him to endure hardship.
The Pleasures of Opium
De Quincey first tried laudanum (a tincture of opium) in autumn of 1804 while he was still a student, after a classmate recommended it for the pain from a toothache. He remembers his first opium experience as mystical and joyous. He debunks the misconception that an opium high is similar to being drunk from wine. He notes that an opium high lasts much longer and feels very different. He then argues instead that opium allows people be their best selves morally and intellectually by alleviating the pain they experience from their everyday, physical problems. De Quincey also resents the assumption that opium causes depression and laziness. He uses his habit of wandering the streets of London while high as a counterexample to this. He also dwells on the special pleasure of attending the opera while under the influence of opium. He notes that in his early years of taking opium, he only took it once a week and usually as a social activity. At the end of the section, De Quincey praises opium’s potential to relieve mankind’s sufferings.
Introduction to the Pains of Opium
In 1812, De Quincey moved to a cottage in the mountains to write and study. He lived with a single female servant and was relatively happy. He continued to take opium weekly, and his doctor endorsed this practice. In 1813, he increased his dosage because he was experiencing extreme stomach pains. He was temporarily able to decrease his dosage in the year 1816-1817, and he cites this as the happiest year of his life.
During this period, a Malay sailor knocked on De Quincey’s door one day, presumably to beg. De Quincey allowed the Malay to take a nap on his floor and gave him some opium as a parting gift. He was shocked when the Malay immediately took all of the opium De Quincey gave him. Although the author thought the Malay would surely die, he seemed fine and De Quincey never heard about his body being found. The Malay would appear in De Quincey’s nightmares after he relapsed into heavy opium use.
The Pains of Opium
De Quincey forgoes chronological order in this section, and relates this period of his life instead as a series of events and impressions. As he increased his daily dose of laudanum, De Quincey became physically week and lost many of his intellectual faculties. He entertained himself by reading aloud and studying political science and economics. The work of David Ricardo particularly impressed him, and even inspired him to write his own economic treatise. However, he was unable to do publish it because he could not motivate himself to write the preface and the dedication.
De Quincey then began to experience hallucinations and vivid nightmares. He compares these to a set of plates by Giambatttista Piranesi called Dreams (the correct title is Imaginary Prisons). He often dreamt of lakes and worried this was a sign that his brain had dropsy. In May of 1818, De Quincey dreamt about the Malay. The dream is set in China, and in it, De Quincey is terrified of the intimidating foreign culture. A year later, he dreamt of visiting a child’s grave and of seeing Ann sitting on a stone. The setting changed to where he was walking with Ann through their old haunt, London’s Oxford Street. The most recent dream, from 1820, was a nightmare in which De Quincey is surrounded by a chorus of loud music that evokes the “caves of hell” and “everlasting farewells” (77). Shortly after this, De Quincey realized that he would die if he did not decrease his opium use, and he did so despite very painful withdrawals. He wishes other addicts luck in quitting. He still suffers from many misfortunes, and still experiences opium nightmares.