Tuesday, 29 October 2013

'A very debauched walk on the wild side'

Thomas de Quincey, haggard through drugs
Thanks to the joys of time travel, we can now go back in time to find out how the Daily Mail marked the death of another artist who used drugs, other than Lou Reed.

Thomas de Quincey

August 1785-December 1859

Thomas de Quincey, the notorious drug addict whose writings glamorised heroin for thousands of readers and triggered so-called ‘addiction literature’, has died at the age of 74.

The son of a Manchester merchant called Penson, de Quincy’s father died when he was just eight.

Thomas was a sensitive and sickly child whose mother was very strict and gave her children little sense of being loved. More concerned with her own intellectual pursuits, three years after being widowed, she changed her name to de Quincey and moved herself and her two sons to Bath, where Thomas was enrolled at King Edward’s School.

Later, mental weakness produced bouts of depression and he fled school and headed off to find his hero, William Wordsworth, but gave up quickly and spent time living as a vagrant.

It was in 1804, while at Oxford, that he started experimenting with heroin, claiming that he did so in order to cope with various ailments.

But de Quincey’s lack of discipline struck again and he quit university after failing to graduate, leaving to seek out a Bohemian lifestyle and the acquaintance of poets.

When he was 21, he received £2,000 from his late father’s estate, but spent it unwisely, being overly generous and having an addiction to buying books. In his later years, he had to hide, on occasions, in order to avoid the debt collectors.

In 1816, aged 31, he married Margaret Simpson, and although he had no money, his appetites took hold and they had eight children before she died in 1837.

It continues to defy belief that a healthy, hearty woman of childbearing age could simply die, as it is claimed she did.

De Quincey struggled to hold down a proper job, gaining the position of editor of the Westmorland Gazette in 1818, but resigning just a year later after the owners complained about his performance.

In 1821, he went to London to work as a translator, but the publication – initially anonymous – of Confessions of an English Opium-Eater brought him fame and a way of sustaining himself financially, being asked to write for various publications after its publication.

Until the end of his life, his periods of most creativity coincided with his heaviest drug use.

De Quincey influenced various people – from the macabre American writer Edgar Allen Poe to the scandalous Frenchman, Baudelaire and even the disabled and sexually confused Argentinian, Jorge Luis Borges, while Berlioz’s morbid Symphonie fantastique is based on de Quincey’s drug-addled work.

It’s said that you reap what you sow – it is simply a wonder in de Quincey’s case, that it took so long.

But de Quincey, like other artistic, ‘sensitive’ types, legitimised and promoted the anti-establishment, anti-religion, anti-family excesses of the so-called ‘romantic’ movement, whose leading lights included the depraved Lord Byron.

“Oh! Just, subtle, and mighty opium! That to the hearts of poor and rich alike, for the wounds that will never heal, and for ‘the pangs that tempt the spirit to rebel,’ bringest an assuaging balm; eloquent opium! That with thy potent rhetoric stealest away the purposes of wrath; and to the guilty man, for one night givest back the hopes of his youth, and hands washed pure of blood....”

Those were the words of de Quincey. A man who made no apology for a life lived at full throttle. A man for whom the harvest took a long time coming.

1 comment:

  1. Squandered his inheritance on books??? Wretched man!! Smiled especially at the ".....his appetites took hold ......" mention. Good old Daily Mail.