The letter arrived at Dove Cottage in July 1803, having traveled from its source in Liverpool down to London, and thence north again, to the Lake District. The remarkable thing, given its contents, is that it was still intact and legible—that it had not dissolved en route in a lather of literary idolatry. “Though you may find many minds more congenial with your own,” its author protested, “and therefore proportionately more worthy of your regard, you will never find any one more zealously attached to you—more full of admiration for your mental excellence and of reverential love for your moral character—more ready (I speak from my heart!) to sacrifice even his life—whenever it could have a chance of promoting your interest and happiness—than he who now bends the knee before you.”
Imagine waking up and finding that in your inbox! The recipient of these unsolicited and spamlike effusions was the poet William Wordsworth. Their source was the tiny 17-year-old Thomas De Quincey: scholarly prodigy, former homeless person, superfan of Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Lyrical Ballads, soon-to-be-infamous drug addict, and, incipiently, one of the finest and nastiest prose writers in England.
Nastiest? Oh, most definitely. This is the great gift and insight of Frances Wilson’s new Guilty Thing: A Life of Thomas De Quincey—that De Quincey, while not as grandly antagonistic as his contemporary and fellow journalist William Hazlitt (“Have I not reason to hate and to despise myself? Indeed I do; and chiefly for not having hated and despised the world enough”), embodied in his elfin way a more modern, because it was more marginal and alienated, strain of meanness. He was kind of a stalker. He was kind of a troll. In 1816 his friend Charles Lloyd, recently escaped from a mental asylum and believing himself to be “the Author of all Evil,” told De Quincey sadly, “I know also who you are: you are nobody, a nonentity, you have no being.” But De Quincey was also kind of a genius, so let’s start there.
If you know one thing about Thomas De Quincey, you know that he wrote Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. First published in 1821, when De Quincey was 36, Confessions is a sinuous, trippy exhibition of psychological self-profiling, with a style that looks backwards into the 17th-century glooms of Sir Thomas Browne and forward into the floating junkie panoramas of William S. Burroughs. It was an immediate sensation. (“Powerful and magnificent in the extreme,” raved The United States Literary Gazette.) De Quincey had combined the popular tale of a teenage boy—himself—running away from school and home and sinking into vagrancy on the low-life streets of London with an entirely new genre, the chemical memoir: “I took it:— and in an hour, oh! Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me!” This is the weirdo music of early De Quincey—power chords of druggy bombast with a counter-whine of irony.
Opium was no mystery, no smoky god, to De Quincey’s 19th-century English readers. As Wilson puts it, “The whole country was marinated in opium, which was taken for anything from upset stomachs to sore heads.” De Quincey himself first made its acquaintance when he dosed himself with laudanum drops to palliate “excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face.” The artistic shimmy of Confessions was to use this commonplace act of domestic self-medication as the trigger for an interior epic, for the jumbo Romantic visions and bottomless apprehensions and analyses that would blossom in the author’s skull when he was high: “I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night … a vast march—of infinite cavalcades filing off—and the tread of innumerable armies … the weight of twenty Atlantics was upon me.” (Somewhere in all that reverb you can hear Lou Reed singing “Heroin,” sailing the darkened seas on his “great big clipper ship.”)
Confessions appeared in The London Magazine in September and October 1821, amid a journalistic atmosphere that was, to put it mildly, adversarial. De Quincey had previously been aligned with another journal, Blackwood’s, with which The London was in a vicious feud. Somehow he had managed to switch to The London without its staff knowing that, behind the scenes, he had been a gleeful Blackwood’s partisan, egging on its scribes to further insults against The London’s editor, John Scott: “I do so loathe the vile whining canting hypocrisy of the fellow,” he wrote to one. “Lampoon him in songs—in prose … Lash him into lunacy.” By the time De Quincey got to The London, Scott was not lashed but dead—shot in the abdomen during a duel with a Blackwood’s man. So here is our author, an equivocal figure indeed: We see him in the foreground, with his Grub Street rancors and his bottles of medicine; but behind his eyes, we know, are the abysms, the ecstasies, the endless fallings-away.
With Confessions, writes Wilson, “De Quincey took Coleridge’s subject matter and clothed it in Wordsworthian garb.” In other words, he took the Coleridgean themes of addiction and the torments of selfhood and volleyed them at the heavens through the organ pipes of Wordsworth’s The Prelude, which he had read in draft and copied—secretly—into his own notebooks. The rootless De Quincey had pretty much organized his life and psyche around the two poets. Following his wild fan letter of 1803 (by which Wordsworth was quite unfazed, apparently accepting its adulations as no more than his due), he had inveigled himself into the households of both men, playing with their children, stomping along on those mighty, torrid Lake District walks, even moving into Wordsworth’s old cottage in Grasmere. It was the dark folk pulse of Lyrical Ballads—the shared volume that Wordsworth and Coleridge first published in 1798—and what he called the “deep, deep magnet” of Wordsworth that had drawn him in.
Wordsworth took on De Quincey as a kind of philosophical apprentice, instructing him in methods of poetic perception. The more vulnerable Coleridge, on the other hand, De Quincey’s brother in opium addiction, was warier: He seems to have sensed that somewhere inside this avidly complaisant young man was one of the “Scandal-bearers and Time-killers” whose practices he would lament in his essay on “modern biography.”
Because of course De Quincey turned on them later, as smoothly as he’d switched sides in the lethal combat between Blackwood’s and The London. Nursing a sequence of slights, overlookings, takings-for-granted, De Quincey in his maturity became the quintessential modern biographer of the Lake Poets, cranking out reams of bitchy “literary reminiscences” for which, depressingly, there must have been an audience. “Never describe Wordsworth as equal in pride to Lucifer: no; but, if you have occasion to write a life of Lucifer, set down that by possibility, in respect to pride, he might be some type of Wordsworth.” About Coleridge, “the poor opium-martyr,” he was crueler still. Mocking his difficulties at a lecture in 1808, De Quincey even used—as Wilson shows—the poet’s own imagery against him, conjuring a parched specter right out of The Rime of the Ancient Mariner: “His lips were baked with a feverish heat, and often black in colour … in spite of the water which he continued drinking” (“with throats unslaked, with black lips baked …”).
De Quincey, writes Wilson, “was always destined to be a ghost crab inhabiting another’s shell.” Which makes him right up-to-date. Those rumbling, vivid poets whom he feted and betrayed—they are of history. De Quincey alone, the marginal man, seems to belong to the present moment. Can’t you see him online, lurking in anonymity, fomenting discord, slipping between identities, sounding the bottoms of the internet as in an opium nightmare? He wrote some morbidly wonderful prose, no doubt about that. And he was sharp as a knife. But we know him better than he knew himself: as a predator, a hollow man, a character assassin. One of us.