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Confessions of an English Opium Eater Paperback – April 29, 2003
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About the Author
Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) studied at Oxford, failing to take his degree but discovering opium. He later met Coleridge, Southey and the Wordsworths. From 1828 until his death he lived in Edinburgh and made his living from journalism.
Barry Milligan is a professor of English at Wright State University and author of Pleasures and Pains (Virginia UP, 1995).
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Top Customer Reviews
The book`s structure is as follows: Part l (To the Reader and Preliminary Confessions), Part II (Pleasures of Opium, Introduction to the Pains of Opium, The Pains of Opium, May 1818, June 1819), Appendix and Footnotes.
When De Quincey was seven, his father died, living him in the care of four tutors. After changing several esteemed boarding schools, the protagonist came to Eton, where he discovered his passion for Old Greek and Ancient literature. However, he wanted to drop out of school when he was seventeen but his guardians didn't approve, therefore he ran away from Eton.
He traveled to Northern Wales where the villagers asked him to do small work as an exchange to food and a place to say. Unfortunately, he ran short of money and he was forced to move on, thus he found himself in London. There he almost starved to death, but a fifteen-years-old prostitute - Ann -saved him and thus the two became friends. Her gesture and his sympathy for her followed him all his life, but he did not see her again because he had never asked for her last name.
Being fed up with poverty, De Quincey asks an old school friend - Earl of D - to lend him some money to return home. He reconciles with his family and goes to Oxford University.
From this point on, the narrator begins to tell his reader about his good and bad experiences with opium. As De Quincey confesses, the previous period of his life left deep marks on his health - severe stomachaches, intolerance to certain foods and psychic traumas. The first time he used opium was after a friend suggested it as a pain-killer for toothache. Afterwards, he began consuming it regularly by counting the drops .Throughout the years he had to consume more because the doze didn't have the same pleasant effects. The obsessive counting of the drops may represent the fact that De Quincey wanted to keep his addiction under control, because he took it for medical reasons, not for pleasure.
My favorite part of the book is when De Quincey began to feel the bad effects of opium such as the hallucinations and nightmares, which usually took place in Orient and North Africa (China, Turkey, and Egypt etc.), places that exported opium to Europe. The Malay, who has previously showed up at his door and to whom De Quincey offers a good amount of opium, he will also appear in the author's dreams.
The style of the Confessions is erudite, seasoned with Greek terms, references to Ancient literature and other domains. (art, economy, politic science etc.) Even if the title suggests the idea of confessions regarding the author's life, here opium is the center piece of the book, with its positive and negative effects. There are also many digressions that might annoy the reader, but they have their purpose, such as the causes and the justification for De Quincey's use of opium.
Much of what he describes in his downfall seems like the result of petty, childish behavior on De Quincey's part. It starts with De Quincey staying at a friend's place on a visit, where he ends up walking out vowing not to return over what he took as a personal affront, but what sounded more to me just like a misunderstanding. Either way, he allowed no opportunity for apology and just went off to a hotel until he couldn't pay rent there and was then made homeless. As he finds the money to, De Quincey occasionally pops into brothels, mostly in or around Oxford Street (now a major shopping district) in London, England until one day he befriends a 16 yr old prostitute by the name of Ann. He raises her on high as his lifesaver, someone who came to his aid when he was sick, homeless and friendless (again, this is where my tough love side was thinking - yeah but you got yourself in that completely avoidable fix...). He later loses contact with Ann, this earthbound angel as he sees her, because he never bothered to get her last name. These two hung out for weeks on end, last names never came up. I can relate for a minute because I didn't bother to get my husband's last name til our 3rd date. I was just having so much fun around the guy it took me a bit to realize I didn't have this information. But that's 3 dates. De Quincey says he spent nearly all day, every day for weeks on end with this girl and then never gets to see her again over this gaffe because he has no way to track her down after what was suppose to be a temporary parting of ways. C'mon man!
By the year 1812, De Quincey finds enough money to get himself to Germany where, from 1812-1819, he takes up residence in a quaint mountain cottage where he battles stomach troubles and indulges in wine, opium and voracious reading of German metaphysics. After 1819, he decides he seriously wants to get off the opium train and is prescribed Valerian to fight the detox shakes. I found that interesting since I've taken Valerian in the past for my sleep issues and I've been hearing all my life that the best way for the body to heal itself is through sleep. De Quincey eventually does break his habit and goes on to publish this book.
The tone of the memoir strikes me as that of a very self-indulgent and overly pampered soul and I didn't get the impression that de Quincey was all THAT repentant about how badly he screwed up his life, or that he had really taken any real life lesson away from the experience.