A Biography of Thomas De Quincey
Thomas De Quincey was born in Manchester in 1785 to a prosperous linen merchant. As a young boy he read widely and acquired a reputation as a brilliant classicist. “That boy,” said his headmaster at Bath Grammar School, “that boy could harangue an Athenian mob, better than you or I could address an English one.“
At seventeen, De Quincey ran away from Manchester Grammar School and spent five harrowing months penniless and hungry on the streets of London, an episode recorded with great vividness in his best-known work, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater. Reconciled with his family, he entered Oxford in 1804, but left four years later without taking his degree.
He moved to the English Lake District to be near his two literary idols, William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. After an initial period of intimacy, he was gradually estranged from both men, and in 1813 he became dependent on opium, a drug he began experimenting with during his student days at Oxford. Over the next few years he slid deeper into debt and addiction before penury forced him to join Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1819 at the urging of his close friend John Wilson.
Following the success of the Confessions, he produced over two hundred magazine articles on topics ranging from philosophy and history to aesthetics, economics, literary criticism, and contemporary politics. His well-known essay “On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts” was published in Blackwood’s Magazine in 1827, and a second instalment appeared in the same magazine in 1839. His many “Literary Reminiscences” of Wordsworth, Coleridge, Robert Southey, and others appeared in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine beginning in 1834. Blackwood’s published his 1845 sequel to the Confessions, “Suspiria de Profundis.”
In 1854, as his Collected Works were appearing, The Westminster Review praised De Quincey’s writings as “filled with passages of a power and beauty which have never been surpassed by any other prose writer of the age.” The same year The Eclectic Review noted that, when completed, De Quincey’s Works would “constitute the most valuable and most enduring collection of papers, which had originally appeared in a periodical form, to be found in the entire world of literature.”
De Quincey died in Edinburgh on 8 December 1859.