Sunday, 23 August 2009

THOMAS DE QUINCEY and his phantasmagoric dreams.

I have often been attracted to dreamers and outsiders,with a romantic bent.Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859) is one I admire. A prose writer of astonishing virtuosity, in a kind of rambling disjointed way. Born in Manchester, the son of a successful local business man, he went to Manchester Grammar School, which he ran away from, sleeping out and causing havoc in my beloved Welsh hills, he was caught and sent to Eton and later found himself in Oxford where he started taking opium at the age of 28 for stomach ulcer pains.(which incidentally did cure him of his ailment). He got himself a bit of a habit until he reched a peak of 8000 drops of laudanam (opium tincture)a day, normal recomended daily dose was recomended at 80 to 120 daily drops, so dont try this at home folks!
Basically today he would be called an addict, which he was, like many literary figures of the time who had become accustomed to taking what was then legal drugs for medical reasons.
He settled at Grasmere to be near his prophet Wordsworth, and his admired Coleridge.He is best known today for "the Confessions of an English Opium Eater" but I feel lesser works have same indefinite power and romantic impulses -The afflictions of Childhood, The flight of the Kalmuck Tartars, The English Mail Coach, and of my favourites Dream -Fuque.
Phantasmagoric is the word for his more typical prose.One minute his emotions are all solemn the next his narrative takes flight, gettin higher and higher, beyond yonder, a vision of something, forever flying ,forever escaping ,space swelling,time expanding!
Sometimes his rythym feels like music - various and indeterminate, closer to the infinite of pure feeling, taking us far out ,then even further.This is the problem, in his case what seemed favourable to single hours of miraculous exaltation of mood, was fatal to the completion of great artistic wholes.It leaves us with unfinished symphonies which tantalize us with their sense of loss.However not everyone likes magicians and their spells.
Amazingly he lived on in contentment until his death from natural cases at 74.Like a modern junky, William Burroughs he often voiced complaint against his addiction, but there be perhaps theatrics at play, with him almost boasting about it.
Anyway he left us a body of work that has to be admired.Sometimes it seems if one reads his works he seemed ,to have lived for 70 to 100 years in one night,he experienced "the reawakening of a state of eye often times incident to childhood...a power of painting ,as it were ,upon the darkness all sorts of night,when I lay awake in bed,vast processions moved along...a theatre seemed suddenly opened and lighted up within my brain, which presented nightly spectacles of more than earthly splendour" "I was stared at, looked at , grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquats, by cocatoos.I ran into pagodas , and was fixed for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms, I was the priest, I was worshipped, I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia, Vishnu hated me, Shiva lay in wait for me,I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris.I had done a deed,they said, which the ibis and the crocodiles trembled at.I lived and was buried in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids "
Imagine that every night, Opium for the people,anybody! Floating Anarchy ! Not sure myself ,pass me a can of tennents extra, or even a cup of tea and I think I will sleep allright,and not walk amongst nightmare corridors.Happy dreaming now, sleep tight.


  1. His 'Suspiria De Profundis: The Afflictions of Childhood' is a must; opium influenced memories of childhood capture truth in an entirely unique and imaginative way.
    His description of the mail coach snaking its way across the countryside is undoubtedly one of the most psychedelic pieces of writing ever.

    And don't you think De Quincey really looks like a common acquaintance of ours? Someone not too far away... lives in Cil' with A and their 3 kids...?
    Lol. roy

  2. quite possibly,i am not too sure,hell of a day and i mean that literally

  3. i'll have to look out for some of the titles you mentioned, i read confessions a long while back & even smoked opium a few times back in the dark ages(80s),i have to say it was a lot more subtle than i expected...
    have you read any paul bowles, i reckon he's one of the best (20th short story writers...!
    hope you're well... cheers again for the cool read.x

  4. I've missed Bowles; I haven't read him, but I will, I must: I shall!
    Been into John Clare; much inspired by Sinclair's 'Edge of Orison'.
    But having to brush up on stuff for work. Fortunately enough that does mean reading the master: John Donne!
    The connections become apparent & obvious: Donne to Coleridge to Clare to De Quincey to Burroughs.
    Cosider this - Hey teifidancer this is a great one to dance to:

    Death be not proud

    Death be not proud, though some have called thee
    Mighty and dreadful, for those art not so;
    For those whom thou think'st thou dost overthrow
    Die not, poor death, nor yet canst thou kill me;
    From rest and sleep, which but thy pictures be,
    Much pleasure; then from thee much more must flow,
    And soonest our best men with thee do go,
    Rest of their bones, and soul's delivery.
    Thou' art slave to fate, chance, kings, and desperate men,
    And dost with poison, war, and sickness dwell,
    And poppy, or charms can make us sleep as well,
    And better, than thy stroke; why swell'st thou then?
    One short sleep past, we wake eternally,
    And death shall be no more: death, thou shalt die.

    John Donne.
    The dogs' bollox or what!

  5. I too had a smoke or two a time back,sickly in a pleasant dreamy sense all the best, read a bit of Bowles, his wifes work quite interesting too