Confessions of an English Opium Eater

Confessions of an English Opium Eater Summary and Analysis of Part II (Introduction)


De Quincey reflects on the trials that he and Ann suffered in London. He acknowledges that while many other people experience poverty, he was lucky because he was able to escape into several decades of relative freedom from financial worries. Although the stress and hunger of his youthful poverty would later result in health problems, De Quincey was able to endure these problems better because of his early experiences with hardship.

When he was living in London, De Quincey had often longed to move north to the Lake District, where William Wordsworth and numerous other Romantic poets lived. As an adult, he had the opportunity to do that, but the suffering he experienced in those seemingly more opulent surroundings was comparable to that he experienced as a destitute Londoner. In adulthood, De Quincey was plagued by ill health and opium-induced nightmares. He compares himself to Orestes, the hero of Euripides’s play of the same name. Just like Orestes, De Quincey believes he suffered alone while his friends abandoned him. The only exception to this was his wife, Margaret (referred to in the memoir as M.), who stood by him faithfully.

At present, de Quincey has returned to London and looks back glumly on those days of illness. He is separated from his wife “by three hundred miles, and the length of three dreary months” (37) for unspecified reasons. He now believes he was wrong in his youth to think that the Lake District would be an escape from his problems. Instead, he thinks that the only escape from life’s struggles is in childhood, and he longs to return to his innocent, carefree days as a young boy.


The introduction to Part II provides a brief transitional interlude in which De Quincey resolves the themes of the Preliminary Confessions and introduces some of the issues he will address in the opium sections of the memoir. In some ways, the Preliminary Confessions debunk the ideal of adolescence as a happy time. De Quincey’s teen years were miserable because he had to hide from his family and because he lived in destitution. Part II resolves this interpretation by suggesting that there is no escape from misery to be found in adulthood; for that kind of escape, De Quincey would have to go back to his early boyhood, which is only briefly discussed in the memoir.

De Quincey also foreshadows many of the hardships he will experience later in life, despite the fact that he will never have to live in poverty again. De Quincey hints that when he begins to suffer from unnamed health problems, his friends will abandon him. This contrasts markedly with the warm relationships De Quincey had in London with Ann and the little girl, and implies that De Quincey will never truly be happy – he will only trade one type of hardship for another as he gets older.

Despite the brevity of this section, de Quincey makes numerous references to classical literature, particularly to Euripides’s Orestes, an ancient play which follows Orestes and his sister, Electra, as they try to avoid execution after having murdered their evil mother Clytemnestra. De Quincey claims that his life is similar to the dramatic play, “excepting only [Orestes’] agitated conscience” (36), because his friends also abandoned him when he suffered from health problems later in life. He uses the extended comparison to Orestes to praise his wife, M. (an abbreviation of Margaret, used to grant her anonymity given the controversial content of the memoir) who cared for him tenderly during his illness.

De Quincey’s presentation of these classical allusions reveals some of his underlying assumptions about his audience. His frequent use of untranslated Greek quotations suggests that he is primarily addressing an educated audience who would not be confused or alienated by these passages. It also reinforces the passion for classical Greek that De Quincey described in the Preliminary Confessions. However, his footnote on page 36, in which he summarizes Orestes for “the English reader” suggests that De Quincey was at least somewhat aware that his memoir would attract a broader audience who might not have experience with the classics. However, even for that audience, speaking in such a way validates his claim that he is a "philosopher" and "scholar," in effect providing argument against those who might see him merely as a scoundrel exploiting his drug use for financial gain. His ambitions at literary relevance are implicit in these allusions and uses of Greek.

When De Quincey compares his life’s events to the story of Orestes, he reverts to using language that was archaic even in 1821. For example, he writes: “for thou, beloved M., dear companion of my later years, thou wast my Electra!” (36). De Quincey’s use of apostrophe here is characteristic of British Renaissance literature, and the words “thou” and “wast” were used with much greater frequency in the seventeenth century (Ngram) than they were when De Quincey was writing. This may be a reference to how Orestes itself was written – or, at least, the version that de Quincey read. Although it is not clear which translation he had, it was common in both the nineteenth century and more recently for translators of the classics to use archaic language to emphasize the antiquity of the texts. Then again, if we are to take his command of Greek at face value, it is possible he read the plays in their native language and was merely attempting an archaic address to evoke the style of the tragedy.

Another explanation for De Quincey’s use of archaism may be his desire to locate his own work within a high-literary tradition. It is clear from the Preliminary Confessions that in British society at this time, ancient Greek and Roman literature were considered the pinnacle of scholarship. De Quincey seems to endorse this view, spending much time as a young man reading the classics and practicing his Greek language skills. So, likening his life story to that of a Greek play (both explicitly through the comparison to Orestes and implicitly through his use of archaic language) would be the ultimate way for de Quincey to assert his memoir’s status as a work of high literature.