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Meetings with a polite Opium Eater: Charles Knight on Thomas De Quincey

Updated Thursday 1st October 2015

The publisher Charles Knight recorded his meetings with Thomas De Quincey in his autobiography, Passages of a Working Life during Half a Century. He tells of a shy, but smart, man.

Thomas DeQuincey Copyright free image Icon Copyright free: Public Domain Thomas De Quincey When the fifth number of the Magazine was published in July, 1824, I had become acquainted with Mr. De Quincey; and he had contributed a paper translated, as he purported, from the German of Laun, called The Incognito. It was a very lively and pleasant paper ; but as to the strict fidelity of the translation I might have had considerable doubts.

He could not go about this sort of work without improving all he touched. In November he was engaged upon a translation of Walladmor, which some Curll of Germany advertised as the translation of a suppressed work of Sir Walter Scott.

Messrs. Taylor and Hessey put the German hoax into the hands of De Quincey to be re-translated. I saw him groaning over his uncongenial labour, by which he eventually got very little.

It was projected to appear in three volumes. He despairingly wrote to me:

after weeding out the forests of rubbish, I believe it will make only one decent volume.

At that time he was direly beset with visitations more terrible than the normal poverty of authors. A little before I knew him he had come one morning to my friend Hill, wet and shivering, having slept under a hayrick in the Hampstead fields.

I have a letter from him of this period, in which he says:

anxiety, long-continued with me — of late years in consequence of my opium-shattering — seizes on some frail part about the stomach, and produces a specific complaint, which very soon abolishes all power of thinking at all.

In The Anniversary, I thus introduced De Quincey:

A short spare figure, with an expression in his eye that at once indicated the strength of the man of genius and the weakness of the valetudinarian, advanced with a slow pace of diffidence towards us, and thus addressed us:

"I fear, sir, that I am an intruder both upon your interesting conversation and your purposed enjoyments. I was looking round, sir, for my worthy friend, Mr. Paterson Aymer. By his cordial invitation I have been tempted from my solitude, to join a company that I cannot but feel desirous of knowing, though I fear much the weight, the heavy and unutterable weight, of depression that bears me down, will render me an unfit partaker of your intellectual pleasures. Oh, sir, even now do I feel the gnawings of that poison with which I have drugged my veins. Fly the cursed spell, if you would continue to know peace of mind and body. But you will excuse me talking of myself"

We all looked at each other with surprise. "Can it be?" was on every tongue.

"May I venture to ask, sir, whom I have the honour of seeing amongst us? Though Mr. Paterson Aymer be not yet arrived, his friends are ours."

"My name, sir, is ; but you have heard of me as a too-celebrated Opium-Eater."

We all involuntarily bowed; and in two minutes Haller and our illustrious friend were deep in a discussion on political economy, while Murray and Tristram appealed to him, in the intervals of the debate, upon their contrary views of the knowledge of Greek in Europe at the time of Dante.

The Macaulay biographer receives this as a curious anecdote of De Quincey, which

indicates that he was fast changing into that little dried-up, parchment-hided man that he became years afterwards.

This it is, to make a book without the least knowledge of the men and things of which it treats.

"Dried-up! Parchment-hided!" "Oh, for one hour of Dundee!" One hour of De Quincey - better, three hours from nine till midnight —for a rapt listener to be "under the wand of a magician". Spell-bound by his wonderful affluence of talk, such as that of the fairy whose lips dropped rubies and diamonds. Many a night have I, with my wife by my side, sat listening to the equable flow of his discourse, both of us utterly forgetting the usual regularity of our habits, and hearing the drowsy watchman's "past one o'clock" (for the old watchman then walked his round) before we parted.

There was another newly acquired intimate of that time — Barry St. Leger —who also had contributed to the Quarterly Magazine. Our friendship was of the warmest nature during the remainder of his too short life. The wit-combats between him and De Quincey were most amusing. Never were two men greater contrasts in their intellectual characters.

The one passionately rhetorical; the other calmly logical. The one making a fierce onslaught upon his apparently unwatchful opponent; the other with a slight turn of his wrist striking the sword out of his adversary's hand, leaving him defenceless.

In the ordinary intercourse of society, St. Leger was self- possessed, perfectly at his ease, ready for every emergency, a man of the world, yet with a heart for mendship as warm as that of a schoolboy.

De Quincey, vast as were his acquirements, intuitive as was his appreciation of character and the motives of human actions, unembarrassed as was his demeanour, pleasant and even mirthful his table-talk, was as helpless in every position of responsibility, as when he nightly paced "stony-hearted Oxford Street" looking for the lost one.

He was constantly beset by idle fears and vain imaginings. His sensitiveness was so extreme, in combination with the almost ultra-courtesy of a gentleman, that he hesitated to trouble a servant with any personal requests without a long prefatory apology.

My family were in the country in the summer of 1825, when he was staying at my house in Pall Mall East. A friend or two had met him at dinner, and I had walked part of the way home with one of them. When I returned, I tapped at his chamber-door to bid him good night. He was sitting at the open window, habited as a prize-fighter when he enters the ring.

"You will take cold," I exclaimed. "Where is your shirt?"

"I have not a shirt —my shirts are unwashed."

"But why not tell the servant to send them to the laundress?"

"Ah ! how could I presume to do that in Mrs. Knight's absence?"

One more illustration of the eccentricity of De Quincey. I had been to Windsor. On my return I was told that Mr. De Quincey had taken his box away, leaving word that he was gone home. I knew that he was waiting for a remittance from his mother, which would satisfy some clamorous creditors and enable him to rejoin his family at Grasmere.

Two or three days after, I heard that he was still in town. I obtained a clue to his hiding-place, and found him in a miserable lodging on the Surrey side of Waterloo bridge.

He had received a large draft on a London banker at twenty-one days' sight. He summoned courage to go to Lombard Street, and was astonished to learn that he could not obtain the amount till the draft became due.

A man of less sensitive feelings would have returned to Pall Mall East, and have there waited securely and comfortably till I came. How to frame his apology to our trusty domestic was the difficulty that sent him into the den where I found him.

He produced the draft to me from out of his Bible, which he thought was the best hiding-place.

"Come to me to-morrow morning, and I will give you the cash."

"What ? How ? Can such a thing be possible ? Can the amount be got before the draft is due?"

"Never fear — come you — and then get home as fast as you can."

Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater is one of the books featured in the second series of The Secret Life of Books.


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