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Thomas de Quincey

De Quincey was the son of a Manchester merchant. There were eight children in the family, four girls and four sons. Thomas was born the 15th of August, 1785, the fifth child, the second son. He was but seven years old when his father died; the family, however, due to the success of Mr. de Quincey's business was to be left fairly well off. Mrs de Quincey, in 1796, was to move to the fashionable city of Bath. De Quincey was an able student but was soon caught up with the romantic notions of the age and ran away, ending up wondering around Wales. De Quincey was to write of it:

"On leaving school clandestinely, which I did some weeks before my seventeenth birthday, I went into Wales; where I continued for months to walk about. As long as I kept up any negotiations with my guardians, I received a regular allowance of a guinea a week."1
Eventually he found himself in London in November of 1802. For months thereafter, de Quincey was to live on the streets. Here, in London, he was to pass a number of months "of wild, haggard, Bohemian roaming and staggering from worse to worse!"2 By the autumn of 1803, de Quincey was back with his family, members of whom prevailed, and, so, it was off to Oxford (Worcester College). He was registered at Oxford for a number of years, though it doesn't seem he spent much time there; he much preferred to go down and spend time at London. From what I can see, he never sat for his degree. (It was at Oxford, incidently, that de Quincey, seemingly, permanently, became addicted to opium.)

It was in 1807, that de Quincey was to meet Coleridge, I think on the occasion of a visit to de Quincey's mother who was located, as we have seen, at Bath. At the time of this visit, Coleridge, who was temporarily there in the area with his family, was trying to figure out how he might get his family back to their home at Keswick in the Lake District. It seems that Coleridge was preparing to give a series of lectures at London and he wished to proceed directly to London. De Quincey, only too keen to ingratiate himself to his hero, Coleridge, volunteered to accompany the family and see to their safe arrival. Thus it was, that, in November of 1807, de Quincey by "post-chaise" in the company of Mrs. Coleridge and the two Coleridge children, was to first came to the Lake District.3 It was then, too, that de Quincey was to make the acquaintance of the Wordsworths. Paul Johnson was to describe the reaction that the Wordsworths had to de Quincey:

"... he [William Wordsworth] soon fell for de Quincey's relentless flattery and Dorothy was delighted with him: She was only five feet tall herself, but de Quincey, she wrote, was so 'diminutive' that she had the unusual experience of looking down on him. De Quincey became immensely attached to the Wordsworth children, especially the luckless little Catherine, and when she died, he was heartbroken. He tutored the poet's son John, and his fine library, which he carried about with him, proved a further attraction. When he finally decided to settle in the Lakes, the Wordsworths made Dove Cottage, which they no longer used, available to him."4
One should not conclude by Johnson's entry that de Quincey was to immediately squat down when he first arrived at Grasmere in November of 1807. How long he stayed during this first visit, I cannot say. A year later, we know, in November of 1808, de Quincey "paid a second visit to Wordsworth at the Lakes; and he remained there until February, 1809, when he returned to London."5 Though he returned to London, it seems clear that de Quincey had formed the intention during his second visit to make Grasmere his home. He returned for the third time in the spring of 1809 to settle. De Quincey, in his remembrances, was to describe Grasmere as consisting of "about sixty-three households in the vale; and the total number of souls was about 265 to 270." De Quincey was to see Coleridge daily. Coleridge, as de Quincey observed lived, at this time, being separated from his family (one of a number of separations) as a visiter in the Wordsworth home, Allen Bank, a distance of barely one mile, "I myself had a cottage, and a considerable library. Many of the books being German, Coleridge borrowed them in great numbers."6

As between de Quincey and Wordsworth, there was to be a gradual falling-out. The Wordsworths noticed, as they had already sadly seen in the case of their former intimate, Coleridge, that de Quincey was an addict. As Wordsworth's sister-in-law, Sara Hutchinson, put it, "He does himself with opium and drinks like a fish." Worse, in Dorothy's eyes, he cut down her precious wild plants at Dove Cottage to get more light in at the windows. Dove Cottage being the place where the Wordsworths had resided for eight happy years until, in 1807, the growing Wordsworth family moved to a larger place; and, it seems, made arrangements so that de Quincey could rent the place.7

At some point, while visiting the Wordsworths, de Quincey "did the unthinkable," he seduced a local girl, the daughter of a neighbouring farmer, Peggy Simpson (b.1796); well, not so unthinkable to Thomas and Peggy, obviously; but it was so to Wordsworth. Wordsworth disapproved of cross-class marriages, and as for his sister Dorothy, she thought Peggy stupid. In any event, Peggy presented de Quincey with a son and the couple was married in 1817; the union proved to be long lasting and was to produce three daughters and five sons.8

Our essayist, Thomas de Quincey, was 36 years of age before he had any of his works published. It was in the London Magazine, in 1821, that he was to make his writing debut. The first part of his work, Confessions of an English Opium Eater appeared. In it, de Quincey cast himself, and, as well, Coleridge as being addicted to opium. This was not to be a revelation to the family and close friends of Coleridge, but to put it out in the public press "exceedingly annoyed and distressed" them.9 The success of Confessions led to a number of writing assignments which was to keep de Quincey pretty much in London for the next couple of years.10

In 1826, now having his work published in Blackwood's including his famous essay, "Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts," de Quincey was to make Edinburgh his principal place of operations; though he did not give up his connections with Grasmere until 1830, at which time he moved his family from Grasmere to Edinburgh. Edinburgh, thereafter, was to be home for de Quincey until his death until 1859.

From the biographical sketch in Chambers, we read:

"The brilliance of his articles was marred by an incurable tendency to digress, which, though harmless and even enjoyable in the Confessions, is a constant irritation in an essay on an abstract subject. His vast and curious erudition, too, got in his way and he did not know when to stop."
After describing de Quincey as shiftless Henry Crabb Robinson writes in his diary:
"Outraging all decency he betrays private confidence without the slightest scruple, relating the most confidential conversations... utterly regardless of all delicacy. De Quincey is 'a sad example of the wretchedness that attends the life of a man of superior intellect whose conduct is the sport of ill-regulated passions.'"11
At the same time de Quincey, it is now known, would come, anonymously, to the aid of needy friends, for instance he once saw that Coleridge got £300 and wanted no one including Coleridge to know about it.12

De Quincey was to die in 1859 and buried "in the West Church-yard of Edinburgh, beside his wife and two of their children."



1 De Quincey Literary Reminiscences (Boston: Ticknor & Fields, 1865) p. 59.

2 David Masson's biography, hereinafter referred to as Masson, (New York: Harper, nd) p. 30.

3 See de Quincey's Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (Edinburgh: Adam Black, 1862) p. 128.

4 The Birth of the Modern (World Society 1815-1830) p. 411.

5 Masson's biography, op. cit., p. 43.

6 Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets (Edinburgh: Adam Black, 1862) pp. 17,101.

7 See The Birth of the Modern, op. cit., p. 417.

8 See, Chambers Biographical Dictionary.

9 A Bondage of Opium p. 28.

10 Masson's biography, op. cit., p. 77.

11 Morley, The Life and Times of Henry Crabb Robinson (LONDON: Dent, 1935) at p. 81.

12 Ibid., p. 81.



2011 (2019)

Peter Landry