English Essays: Sidney to Macaulay.
The Harvard Classics. 1909–14.

Introductory Note

Thomas De Quincey

THOMAS DE QUINCEY (1785–1859) was born at Manchester, England, the son of a merchant of literary tastes. He was a precocious student, but, revolting from the tyranny of his schoolmaster, he ran away, and wandered in Wales and in London, at times almost destitute. On his reconciliation with his family he was sent to Oxford, and during this period began taking opium. The rest of his life was spent mainly in the Lake Country, near Wordsworth and Coleridge, later in London, and finally in Edinburgh and the neighborhood. He succeeded in checking but not abandoning his addiction to the drug, the craving for which was caused by a chronic disease which nothing else would alleviate.

Most of De Quincey’s writings were published in periodicals, and cover a great range of subjects. He was a man of immense reading, with an intellect of extraordinary subtlety, but with a curious lack of practical ability. Though generous to recklessness in money matters, and an affectionate friend and father, his predominating intellectuality led him even in his writings to analyze the characters of his friends with a detachment that sometimes led to estrangement.

His most famous work, “The Confessions of an English Opium Eater” (1821) was based on his own experiences, and it has long held its place as a classic. Here, and still more in his literary and philosophical writings, he shows a remarkable clearness and precision of style, his love of exact thinking at times leading him to hair-splitting in his more abstruse discussions. In what he called the “department of impassioned prose,” of which the following piece is one of the most magnificent examples, he has a field in which he is unsurpassed. To the power of thought and expression found throughout his work is here added a gorgeousness of imagination that lifts his finest passages into the region of the sublime.