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About the eater more than opium
on 16 December 2013
First, I would recommend the Oxford over the Penguin edition. They both contain the same material: the 1821 edition of the Confessions and the later Suspiria de Profundis and English Mail-Coach but, apart from its airier format, the Oxford edition has a better introduction, providing literary and biographical insights into De Quincey's work instead of the somewhat tendentious material on opium's nineteenth-century social characteristics proposed by Barry Milligan in the Penguin version.
As to the Confessions, they are more interesting as autobiographical material than for what they say about opium addiction, and you risk being disappointed if you are looking for something racy. The novella, which first came out in magazine format, caused less controversy than might be imagined, since the sale and consumption of opium were legal in Britain, without limitations, and De Quincey was far from the only addict in the literary world. The Confessions are a poetical work anyway, and the author's descriptions of the pains and pleasures of opium are less literal than about exploring the power of dreams and raw imagination. A second strand is autobiographical, going into De Quincey's struggles and flight from London as a penniless student and other later experiences. The Suspiria, meanwhile, are somewhat redundant, though they dwell on De Quincey's unhappiness at the loss of his sister when still a child. And the Mail-Coach is a highly entertaining flight of fancy that returns to the more phantasmagorical opium dreams of the Confessions. In the midst of it all, De Quincey, who was foremost an essayist and commentator and who lived from the pen, rambles from one subject to another from classical Greek theatre to political economy. The works are more valuable, indeed, for their commentary on Victorian life and for their poetical force than for anything they may say about drugs.
Lastly, a tangential obervation: Britain waged the first opium war, a war to force the Chinese to keep buying opium from its merchants, in between the publication of the Confessions and Suspiria. The war was for obvious reasons controversial in Britain. De Quincey wrote two pieces, published in 1840 and 1841 in Blackwood's Magazine, advocating military intervention against the Chinese. These two articles were violently imperialistic and De Quincey, as a short passage in the Confessions already hinted, was no friend of the Chinese. He paid in his private life for taking this position, as one of his sons was among the few British soldiers to die in the expedition, in 1842. None of this is hinted at in any way or directly relevant to the Confessions, but it adds a strange and dark twist to De Quincey's and the opium question.