Here he exultantly described his first experience of drug-taking:
Heavens!…what an upheaving from its lowest depths of the inner spirit!…
Here was a panacea…for all human woes: here was the secret of happiness about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages – at once discovered: happiness might now be bought for a penny and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be corked up in a pint bottle: and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.
The truth of De Quincey’s ecstatic discovery of opium is far more complicated than this lighthearted (and rather attractive) account would imply.
For a start,the drug was not especially rare or exotic at the time but easily obtainable from any pharmacy as a household medicine and mild painkiller – even given in small doses to babies.
It was De Quincey’s sheer excess and unlikely endurance (he lived to be a ghostlike seventy-four) that – coupled with his kaleidoscopic literary powers made him so original and so truly weird.
Nor did he eat opium but drank it in an infusion with brandy as a glowing tea-colored slightly bitter liquid called laudanum and as a result he became an alcoholic as much as an addict and what would now doubtless be called a dysfunctional personality.
In the last decades of his life he was spending £150 a year on the drug (from an income of £250) – permanently in debt and pursued by creditors – continually adopting false names and shifting lodgings (he would simply abandon his rooms when they overflowed with his books and papers) – often dressed in castoffs and writing barefoot (a friend observed ‘an army coat four times too large for him and with nothing on beneath’) and largely unable to support an ever-growing family of eight children and a suicidal wife (who died prematurely of exhaustion and typhus at the age of forty-one).
It was De Quincey’s peculiar genius to transform this pathological tragedy into something rich and strange and to create for himself a uniquely marketable soubriquet in the journals of the day as ‘The English Opium Eater’ which he used for the rest of his life.
The truth is his original Confessions has no real location at all.
The whole of the book is what De Quincey called ‘a palimpsest’ many layers of fact and fiction – pain and exultation – memory and dream – time and place – overwritten one upon another over many years.