Being an extract from the life of a scholar.
by Thomas de Quincey
The original, squashed down to read in about 25 minutes
For all his substantial literary output, this intimate of Wordsworth and Coleridge is remembered pretty much only for this record of his opium-fuelled descent from divine enjoyment to sunless misery, which remains famous as a warning about what those happy-making drugs can do.
Being an extract from the life of a scholar.
I HERE present you, courteous reader, with the record of a remarkable period in my life, and I trust that it will prove not merely an interesting record, but in a considerable degree useful and instructive. That must be my apology for breaking through the delicate and honourable reserve which, for the most part, restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities, as if declining to claim fellowship with the great family of man, and wishing (in the affecting language of Mr. Wordsworth)
Humbly to express, A penitential loneliness.
If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess not yet recorded of any other man, it is no less true that I have struggled against this fascinating enthralment with a religious zeal, and have at length accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man - have untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me.
I have often been asked how I first came to be a regular opium-eater, and have suffered, very unjustly, in the opinion of my acquaintances, from being reputed to have brought upon myself all the sufferings which I shall have to record, by a long course of indulgence in this practice purely for the sake of creating an artificial state of pleasurable excitement. This, however, is a misrepresentation of my case. It was not for the purpose of creating pleasure, but of mitigating pain in the severest degree, that I first began to use opium as an article of daily diet.
The calamities of my novitiate in London, when, as a runaway from school, I made acquaintance with starvation and horror, had struck root so deeply in my bodily constitution that afterwards they shot up and flourished afresh, and grew into a noxious umbrage that has overshadowed and darkened my latter years.
THE PLEASURES OF OPIUM
It is so long since I first took opium that, if it had been a trifling incident in my life, I might have forgotten its date; but, from circumstances connected with it, I remember that it must be referred to the autumn of 1804. During that season I was in London, having come thither for the first time since my entrance at college. And my introduction to opium arose in the following way. One morning I awoke with excruciating rheumatic pains of the head and face, from which I had hardly any respite.
On the twenty-first day, I think it was, and on a Sunday, I went out into the streets, rather to run away, if possible, from my torments than with any distinct purpose. By accident, I met a college acquaintance, who recommended opium. Opium! dread agent of unimaginable pleasure and pain! I had heard of it as I had of manna or of ambrosia, but no further. My road homewards lay through Oxford Street; and near the stately Pantheon I saw a druggist's shop, where I first became possessed of the celestial drug.
Arrived at my lodgings, I took it, and in an hour - oh, heavens! what a revulsion! what an unheaving, from its lowest depths, of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse of the world within me! That my pains had vanished was now a trifle in my eyes; this negative effect was swallowed up in the immensity of those positive effects which had opened before me, in the abyss of divine enjoyment thus suddenly revealed.
First one word with respect to its bodily effects. It is not so much affirmed as taken for granted that opium does, or can, produce intoxication. Now, reader, assure yourself that no quantity of the drug ever did, or could, intoxicate. The pleasure given by wine is always mounting and tending to a crisis, after which it declines; that from opium, when once generated, is stationary for eight or ten hours; the one is a flame, the other a steady and equable glow.
Another error is that the elevation of spirits produced by opium is necessarily followed by a proportionate depression. This I shall content myself with simply denying; assuring my readers that for ten years, during which I took opium at intervals, the day succeeding to that on which I allowed myself this luxury was always a day of unusually good spirits.
With respect to the torpor supposed to accompany the practice of opium-eating, I deny that also. The primary effects of opium are always, and in the highest degree, to excite and stimulate the system. But, that the reader may judge of the degree in which opium is likely to stupefy the faculties of an Englishman, I shall mention the way in which I myself often passed an opium evening in London during the period between 1804 and 1812. I used to fix beforehand how often within a given time, and when, I would commit a debauch of opium. This was seldom more than once in three weeks, and it was usually on a Tuesday or a Saturday night; my reason for which was this: in those days Grassini sang at the opera, and her voice was delightful to me beyond all that I had ever heard. The choruses were divine to hear, and when Grassini appeared and poured forth her passionate soul as Andromache at the tomb of Hector, etc., I question whether any Turk, of all that ever entered the paradise of opium-eaters, can have had half the pleasure I had.
Another pleasure I had which, as it could be had only on a Saturday night, occasionally struggled with my love of the opera. The pains of poverty I had lately seen too much of; but the pleasures of the poor, their consolations of spirit, and their reposes from bodily toil, can never become oppressive to contemplate. Now, Saturday night is the season for the chief, regular, and periodic return of rest for the poor. For the sake, therefore, of witnessing a spectacle with which my sympathy was so entire, I used often on Saturday nights, after I had taken opium, to wander forth, without much regarding the direction or the distance, to all the markets, and other parts of London to which the poor resort of a Saturday night for laying out their wages.
Sometimes in my attempts to steer homewards by fixing my eye on the Pole star, and seeking ambitiously for a north-west passage, instead of circumnavigating all the capes and headlands I had doubled in my outward voyage, I came suddenly upon such knotty problems of alleys, such enigmatical entries, and such sphinx's riddles of streets without thoroughfares, as must, I conceive, baffle the audacity of porters, and confound the intellects of hackney coachmen. For all this I paid a heavy price in distant years, when the human face tyrannised over my dreams, and the perplexities of my steps in London came back and haunted my sleep with the feeling of perplexities, moral and intellectual, that brought confusion to the reason, or anguish and remorse to the conscience.
Courteous reader, let me request you to move onwards for about eight years, to 1812. The years of academic life are now over and gone - almost forgotten. Am I married? Not yet. And I still take opium? On Saturday nights. And how do I find my health after all this opium-eating? In short, how do I do? Why, pretty well, I thank you, reader. In fact, though, to satisfy the theories of medical men I ought to be ill, I never was better in my life. I suppose, that as yet, at least, I am unsuspicious of the avenging terrors which opium has in store for those who abuse its lenity.
THE PAINS OF OPIUM
As when some great painter dips
But now comes a different era. In 1813 I was attacked by a most appalling irritation of the stomach, and I could resist no longer. Let me repeat, that at the time I began to take opium daily, I could not have done otherwise. From 1813, the reader is to consider me as a regular and confirmed opium-eater. Now, reader, from 1813 please walk forward about three years more, and you shall see me in a new character.
Now, farewell - a long farewell - to happiness, winter or summer! Farewell to smiles and laughter! Farewell to peace of mind! Farewell to hope and to tranquil dreams, and to the blessed consolations of sleep. For more than three years and a half I am summoned away from these. I am now arrived at an Iliad of woes.
It will occur to you to ask, why did I not release myself from the horrors of opium by leaving it off or diminishing it? The reader may be sure that I made attempts innumerable to reduce the quantity. It might be supposed that I yielded to the fascinations of opium too easily; it cannot be supposed that any man can be charmed by its terrors.
My studies have now been long interrupted. I cannot read to myself with any pleasure, hardly with a moment's endurance. This intellectual torpor applies more or less to every part of the four years during which I was under the Circean spells of opium. But for misery and suffering, I might, indeed, be said to have existed in a dormant state. I seldom could prevail on myself even to write a letter. The opium-eater loses none of his moral sensibilities or aspirations. He wishes and longs as earnestly as ever to realise what he believes possible, and feels to be exacted by duty; but his intellectual apprehension of what is possible infinitely outruns his power, not of execution only, but even of power to attempt.
I now pass to what is the main subject of these latter confessions, to the history of what took place in my dreams, for these were the immediate and proximate cause of my acutest suffering. I know not whether my reader is aware that many children, perhaps most, have a power of painting, as it were, upon the darkness all sorts of phantoms.
In the middle of 1817, I think it was, this faculty became positively distressing to me. At nights, when I lay awake in bed, vast processions passed along in mournful pomp; friezes of never-ending stories, that to my feelings were as sad and solemn as if they were stories drawn from times before Aedipus or Priam, before Tyre, before Memphis. And at the same time a corresponding change took place in my dreams; a theatre seemed suddenly opened and lighted up within my brain, which presented nightly spectacles of more than earthly splendour.
All changes in my dreams were accompanied by deep-seated anxiety and gloomy melancholy, wholly incommunicable by words. I seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally, to descend into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I should ever re-ascend. Nor did I, even by waking, feel that I had re-ascended.
The sense of space, and, in the end, the sense of time, were both powerfully affected. Buildings, landscapes, etc., were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive. Space swelled, and was amplified to an extent of unutterable infinity. This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time; I sometimes seemed to have lived for 70 or 100 years in one night - nay, sometimes had feelings representative of a millennium passed in that time, or, however, of a duration far beyond the limits of any human experience.
The minutest incidents of childhood, or forgotten scenes of later years, were often revived. Of this, at least, I feel assured, that there is no such thing as forgetting possible to the mind. A thousand accidents may and will interpose a veil between our present consciousness and the secret inscriptions of the mind; accidents of the same sort will also rend away this veil; but alike, whether veiled or unveiled, the inscription remains for ever; just as the stars seem to withdraw before the common light of day, whereas, in fact, we all know that it is the light which is drawn over them as a veil, and that they are but waiting to be revealed when the obscuring daylight shall have withdrawn.
In the early stage of my malady the splendours of my dreams were indeed chiefly architectural; and I beheld such pomp of cities and palaces as was never yet beheld by the waking eye, unless in the clouds. To architecture succeeded dreams of lakes and silvery expanses of water. The waters then changed their character - from translucent lakes shining like mirrors they now became seas and oceans.
And now came a tremendous change, which, unfolding itself slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abiding torment; and, in fact, it never left me until the winding up of my case. Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically, nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself. Perhaps some part of my London life might be answerable for this. Be that as it may, now it was that upon the rocking waters of the ocean the human face began to appear; the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens - faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries; my agitation was infinite, my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.
I know not whether others share in my feelings on this point; but I have often thought that if I were compelled to forego England and to live in China, and among Chinese manners and modes of life and scenery, I should go mad. Southern Asia in general is the seat of awful images and associations. As the cradle of the human race, it would alone have a dim and reverential feeling connected with it. But there are other reasons. No man can pretend that the wild, barbarous, and capricious superstitions of Africa, or of savage tribes elsewhere, affect him in the way that he is affected by the ancient, monumental, cruel, and elaborate religions of Indostan, etc. The mere antiquity of Asiatic things, of their institutions, histories, modes of faith, etc., is so impressive that, to me, the vast age of the race and name overpowers the sense of youth in the individual. A young Chinese seems to me an antediluvian man renewed.
All this, and much more than I can say or have time to say, the reader must enter into before he can comprehend the unimaginable horror which these dreams of Oriental imagery and mythological tortures impressed upon me. Under the connecting feeling of tropical heat and vertical sunlight, I brought together all creatures, birds, beasts, reptiles, all trees and plants, usages and appearances, that are found in all tropical regions, and assembled them together in China or Indostan. From kindred feelings I soon brought Egypt and all her gods under the same law. I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroqueats, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas, and was fixed for centuries, at the summit, or in secret rooms; I was the idol; I was the priest; I was worshipped; I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brahma through all the forests of Asia; Vishnu hated me; Siva laid wait for me. I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris; I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed by crocodiles; and laid, confounded with all unutterable slimy things, amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.
Over every form and threat and punishment brooded a sense of eternity and infinity that drove me into an oppression as of madness. Into these dreams only it was, with one or two slight exceptions, that any circumstances of physical horror entered. But here the main agents were ugly birds, or snakes, or crocodiles; especially the last. The cursed crocodile became to me the object of more horror than almost all the rest. I was compelled to live with him, and - as was almost always the case in my dreams - for centuries. And so often did this hideous reptile haunt my dreams that many times the very same dream was broken up in the very same way. I heard gentle voices speaking to me - I hear everything when I am sleeping - and instantly I awoke. It was broad noon, and my children were standing, hand in hand, at my bedside - come to show me their coloured shoes, or new frocks, or to let me see them dressed for going out. I protest that so awful was the transition from the detestable crocodile, and the other unutterable monsters and abortions of my dreams, to the sight of innocent human natures and of infancy that in the mighty and sudden revulsion of mind I wept, and could not forbear it, as I kissed their faces.
As a final specimen, I cite a dream of a different character, from 1820. The dream commenced with a music which now I often heard in dreams - a music of preparation and of awakening suspense, a music like the opening of the Coronation Anthem, and which, like that, gave the feeling of a vast march, of infinite cavalcades filing off, and the tread of innumerable armies. The morning was come of a mighty day - a day of crisis and of final hope for human nature, then suffering some mysterious eclipse, and labouring in some dread extremity. Somewhere, I knew not where - somehow, I knew not how - by some beings, I knew not whom - a battle, a strife, an agony, was conducting, was evolving like a great drama or piece of music, with which my sympathy was the more insupportable from my confusion as to its place, its cause, its nature, and possible issue.
I, as is usual in dreams - where, of necessity, we make ourselves central to every movement - had the power, and yet had not the power, to decide it. I had the power, if I could raise myself to will it, and yet again had not the power, for the weight of twenty Atlantics was upon me, or the oppression of inexpiable guilt. "Deeper than ever plummet sounded," I lay inactive. Then, like a chorus, the passion deepened. Some greater interest was at stake, some mightier cause than ever yet the sword had pleaded, or trumpet had proclaimed. Then came sudden alarms, hurryings to and fro, trepidations of innumerable fugitives - I knew not whether from the good cause or the bad - darkness and lights, tempest and human faces, and at last, with the sense that all was lost, female forms, and the features that were worth all the world to me, and but a moment allowed - and clasped hands, and heart-breaking partings, and then - everlasting farewells! And with a sigh such as the caves of hell sighed when the incestuous mother uttered the abhorred name of death, the sound was reverberated - everlasting farewells! And again and yet again reverberated - everlasting farewells! And I awoke in struggles, and cried aloud, "I will sleep no more."
It now remains that I should say something of the way in which this conflict of horrors was finally brought to a crisis. I saw that I must die if I continued the opium. I determined, therefore, if that should be required, to die in throwing it off. I triumphed. But, reader, think of me as one, even when four months had passed, still agitated, writhing, throbbing, palpitating, shattered. During the whole period of diminishing the opium I had the torments of a man passing out of one mode of existence into another. The issue was not death, but a sort of physical regeneration.
One memorial of my former condition still remains - my dreams are not yet perfectly calm; the dread swell and agitation of the storm have not wholly subsided; the legions that encamped in them are drawing off, but not all departed; my sleep is still tumultuous, and, like the gates of Paradise to our first parents when looking back from afar, it is still - in Milton's tremendous line -
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