Book review Mental Health Science

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

A review and a scientific analysis of a tiny and powerful book that inaugurated the genre of addiction memoir.

Opium-fuelled literature. Image source

English essayist Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was published in three forms: in the September-December 1821 issues of the London Magazine; in 1822 in book form; and in greatly expanded form in 1856, as part of a collected edition of his works. I read the first version, generally agreed to be the best.

Confessions is a tiny book: 115 pages including appendix. The book has an odd structure:

The “Preliminary Confessions” occupy 43 pages. This section narrates key events and phases of de Quincey’s life before opium use – as a child and adolescent (Part One, September issue). Why so extensive an introduction to the main subject? De Quincey explains: to create sympathy for the hero of the drug narrative to come.

The main material occupies 53 pages: narrating how de Quincey began using opium; followed by sections on the pleasures of opium, and then its pains (Part Two October issue).

An Appendix explains why the projected Part Three never appeared, and offers instead a short addendum (Part Three, December issue).

Initially seeming only to defer what you came for, the Preliminary Confessions are striking in some respects:

1)         In describing his years of formal education, de Quincey jackhammers you on the head with his scholarly gifts and inclinations. He was a better “Grecian” (speaker of classical Greek) than his teachers. This precocious fluency he acquired by rendering newspaper reports into Greek, which demanded periphrasis and other creative language-learning techniques.

2)         Throughout the book, de Quincey quotes classical writers, and engages in often protracted philosophical debates with classical and modern scholars. De Quincey preemptively defends his hedonism as philosophically justifiable, and the only human way to live. He conducts a vicarious debate with a renowned physician and longtime opium-user, disputing the doctor’s view that opium causes inebriation.

De Quincey is at least as interested in parading his vast and fluent scholarship, as in telling us about opium. Is de Quincey trying to dispel a belief that opium-eaters were lowly, unschooled vagabonds? I’m not sure. De Quincey says himself that the English have no idea how widespread opium use is; he doesn’t mention any cultural stereotypes of opium use, for good or for bad. Given how widely opium was prescribed medically in de Quincey’s day, and how many Romantic and Victorian writers used it, I’m guessing it’s not to counterbalance any negative cultural associations of drug use that de Quincey parades his learning. He seems to have seized on this autobiographical opportunity to stake his claim as a scholar.

How Opium Use Became a Moral Issue | JSTOR Daily
An opium den. Image source

3)         Confessions was published anonymously. In his quest to preserve his own and his friends’ privacy, de Quincey’s resolve seems to falter. On the one hand, de Quincey suppresses any clues that could reveal that, for instance, he knew S. T. Coleridge (an opium-eater) and William Wordsworth (not an opium-eater), and that it was the death of Wordsworth’s young daughter that precipitated de Quincey’s own transition from regular recreational opium-user to opium-addict. On the other hand, in setting up the ideal locus of his drug use, de Quincey paints unmistakably the picture of Dove Cottage which he rented for some years after his erstwhile hero Wordsworth vacated it.

4)         De Quincey is a hedonist loud and proud. It was to escape pain that de Quincey first sought opium: to cure what he describes as “unbearable head pains after sleeping with a wet head” – which were probably neuralgia. De Quincey’s descent from eight years of recreational use into a lifetime of addiction also resulted from pain: in this case, escape from the pain of bereavement. In Part Two, in describing the pains of opium, de Quincey confesses freely that he has abbreviated and glossed over details because he could not bear to relive the pain. In describing the Pleasures of Opium, he invokes an idyllic picture of a winter in Dove Hut spent among books: with opium and a pleasant (female) face to look at. He wants it to be harsh winter weather outside – both because summer had negative associations for him (which he doesn’t say) and because he wants to “get the most out of his fireplace.” The intense sensual savour with which de Quincey describes his opium-fuelled dreams is the savour of a man who, for all his intellectual ambitions, was a slave to his senses.

Stigma of Addiction | Reducing the Stigma of Substance Abuse
Kids: don’t do drugs. Adults: don’t do drugs. Please seek help. Image source

The Pleasures and the Pains of Opium

Though the Pleasures of Opium section is quickly overwhelmed by De Quincey’s Romantic, lyrical, self-indulgent, psychosis-celebrating properties, De Quincey does make attempts to analyse the effect of opium, and to distinguish it from that of alcohol.

Opium did alleviate the pain for which de Quincey originally took it. But, he maintains, opium does not depress the spirits overall: it increases the brain’s sensitivity to stimulation. De Quincey describes scheduling his opium nights for the evenings of the week when his favourite opera singer performed in London, and deriving from this drug-enhanced aesthetic experience supernatural pleasure. He also describes opium-fuelled vivid dreams, including a phenomenon that sounds like lucid dreaming. At bedtime, says de Quincey, he could summon any image into his mind, and he could be sure that image would animate his dreams. (This idea I recognised from The Moonstone. More generally, the observation that what occupies our brain before sleep continues in some form to work it during sleep seems anecdotally true.)

The Pains of Opium section is – for all De Quincey’s obvious reluctance to revisit a state that, when he published the Confessions, he perhaps really thought he’d left behind – considerable. The most problematic symptom of long-term abuse de Quincey describes is cognitive slowing. Another is his dreams which became now disturbingly vivid, dragging him down into an abyss. Both cognitive slowing and feeling literally low are classic symptoms of depression. But De Quincey does not analyse this distinction between opium’s short-term effects (which he claimed were the opposite of depressive) vs. its long-term effects. Instead, he correlates his increasingly negative experience of opium with the number of grains or drops of opium he took per day.

De Quincey offers enough observations, and records of his intake over a period of months and days, for us to be able to subject his claims to scientific analysis. These details include the chronology of his high – “I got high, and stayed high at the same level for eight hours” (I’m paraphrasing) and the half-life of opium: “When I took above my usual dose one night, I felt ashamed, but much better the next day, and angry enough with my failure of self-resolve to thereafter stick with my usual low dose.” I felt sure a neuroscientific analysis of de Quincey’s detailed record had already been done; oddly, I could not find one. The extant scholarship on Confessions is from literary and cultural criticism. So here we go.

Opiate Addiction Treatment with Buprenorphine - ppt download
Image source

Putting Confessions under the lens of addiction science

How do the findings of contemporary science compare with De Quincey’s anecdotal, if extensive, notes? Here’s a short comparison of De Quincey’s experiences with the state of the science.

Opium, morphine, heroin, codeine etc. are narcotic drugs. (Greek ναρκωτικό = ‘that which numbs.’) Narcotics numb pain and create euphoria. Today, tincture of opium tincture is prescribed only to reduce diarrhoea, by slowing intestinal smooth muscle motility. Laudanum, tincture of opium dissolved in alcohol, is what de Quincey took. Laudanum was historically prescribed for a range of illnesses: coughing, pain, cramps, and insomnia as well as diarrhoea. Medicinal laudanum today has the narcotic compounds removed, and is 1% morphine by weight.

At his acme (in the period reviewed in Confessions), de Quincey took 8,000 drops a day. If 1 drop is .05 ml, then 8,000 drops are 400ml: so De Quincey took 4ml morphine a day. Compare that with the 2.5-20mg doses therapeutically prescribed today for severe pain. (The doses vary based on route of administration.)

Given that de Quincey was ingesting his 8,000 drops orally, he probably got less of the pain-numbing effects than do contemporary patients, who receive in intravenously or intramuscularly; given that he was getting stoned in the 1810s, his laudanum probably had much higher concentrations of narcotic compounds, and thus much stronger psychoactive effects, than does contemporary morphine.

Laudanum is opium in alcohol; this combination is particularly dangerous, leading to extreme drowsiness (which De Quincey denies experiencing with short-term use). Both alcohol, and the opiate drugs, are central nervous system depressants in the short-term. They slow cognition and motor skills. De Quincey categorically denies short-term depressive effects of laudanum. He enjoys walks when stoned, and feels more sensitive to music – phenomena that the pharmacology of morphine contradicts.

However, the euphoria that De Quincey reports does exist in other anecdotal and epidemiological evidence regarding opiate use; ditto vivid dreams. And, as testified by de Quincey’s numerous failed attempts to quit, both before and after the period documented in Confessions – morphine is indeed highly addictive.

The gothic | 1843
Gothic is not my scene. Image source


I didn’t really enjoy Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.

The book’s narco-Gothic tone, eulogising as sublime both the pleasures of opium and its pains, left me cold. I got more didactical, vicarious debates with dead scholars – and less personal opium chronology – than I came for. The lengthy Preliminary Remarks aims to create sympathy with the narrator. What it does instead is illuminate the narrator’s character in spite of his intentions. The Prelim introduces characters that seem unconnected to the main narrative, and postpones rather than enriches this narrative. Not until you learn from external reading that the young girl, and the young prostitute, with whom we spend a while in Prelim, are relevant in representing two embodiments of the sister de Quincey lost as a child, and kept identifying all his life in different girls – do the pages devoted to them in Prelim have any significance to de Quincey’s opium-eating, or to the hedonism that drove him to opium. Without this external knowledge, and without de Quincey himself drawing conclusions from his Prelim to his main narrative, this long Prelim to a short book reads like a self-indulgent addon existing solely to insist upon the drug addict-to-be as a scholarly, kindhearted man.

I also disliked Confessions for ideological reasons.

As a child and teen I was fond of the Romantics. Their pantheism, cultural heterodoxy, and embrace of the emotions appealed to my immature intellect. In retrospect, many of the Romantics’ beliefs did me grave and longlasting harm – as I think it does many. Embracing emotions and drugs, and forsaking reason and discipline, may make for good literature – but it makes for a shitty life. Many lives are poisoned, many talents ruined, and many sanities destabilised by Romantic beliefs still with us today. The idea that the genius is necessarily a misfit. The idea that the genius is mad, and becomes a noble martyr on the cross of his own gifts. The idea that creative work occurs in a vacuum, and occurs magically.

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Lord Byron, the archetypal Romantic poet. Gifted, disturbed, heroic. Image source

All pernicious ideas. My erstwhile infatuation with Romantic myths, and my objections to them now, I will explore another time.

Meanwhile: at 119 pages, Confessions is a breezy read. My reservations notwithstanding, it is an entertaining read. I was unmoved by the seduction of its “intoxicating prose.” But perhaps you’ll experience the vicarious pleasure that I didn’t.


Have you read any drug memoirs? Confessional literature? Which authors/poets do you enjoy in this genre? Do you like the Romantics? Can for an aesthetic ideology produce great art, but shitty life advice?

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By Amita Basu

I'm a writer based in Bangalore, India.

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