the observer Sat 17 October 2009
First published in 1821, Confessions of an English Opium Eater was the book that kick-started Thomas De Quincey's literary career and the one that would ultimately lead to his canonisation as the patron saint of the erudite addict and the bookish dipsomaniac. Until then, he had been living in Wordsworth's cottage at Grasmere, scratching a living from his translations of German writers and feeding a laudanum habit acquired at the age of 19. This new edition displays the range of the author's learning, not only in classical and English literature, but in the Enlightenment philosophy that had been sweeping across Europe since his youth.
Certain moments of the narrative stand out with the kind of vividness De Quincey ascribes to an opium dream. The friendship with a young prostitute who saved his life and whom he lost among the thronging London crowds. The disquisition on music, which, in an 11-word parenthesis, gives as succinct a summary of Kantian aesthetics as can be imagined. Above all, the extraordinary prose hymn to the joys of winter, a warm cottage, a good library and a pot of hot tea.
"Nothing," writes De Quincey in his preface, "is more revolting to English feelings than the spectacle of a human being obtruding on our notice his moral ulcers or scars." Confessions confounded that theory by the sheer force of its style and launched the memoir of intoxication on to the literary scene. With Mill's Autobiography and Hazlitt's Liber Amoris, it is one of the classics of 19th-century life writing and its influence is still felt: to it we owe the mescaline experiments of Huxley and Michaux and the bleak satisfactions of Burroughs's Junky.