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Definition: De Quincey, Thomas from Philip's Encyclopedia

English essayist and critic. An associate of Wordsworth and Coleridge, whom he memorialized in Recollections of the Lakes and The Lake Poets (1834-39), De Quincey is best known for Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1822).

Summary Article: De Quincey, Thomas
from The Hutchinson Unabridged Encyclopedia with Atlas and Weather Guide

English writer. His works include Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821) and the essays ‘On the Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’ (1825) and ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ (in three parts, 1827, 1839, and 1854). He was a friend of the poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and his work had a powerful influence on Charles Baudelaire and Edgar Allan Poe, among others.

De Quincey is outstanding as a stylist, consciously imitating the mannered prose of the 17th century. In the essays ‘Suspiria de Profundis’ (1845) and ‘The English Mail Coach’ (1849), he began a psychological study of dreaming, examining how childhood experiences can through symbols in dreams affect the dreamer's personality. In this way he gave lasting expression to the fleeting pictures of his usually macabre dreams, and it could be said that he explored the subconscious before it was formally discovered.

Life De Quincey was born in Manchester. He ran away from school there to wander and study in Wales, and then in 1802 went to London, where he lived in extreme poverty but with the companionship of the young orphan Ann, of whom he writes in the Confessions. In 1803 he was reconciled to his guardians and was sent to university at Oxford, where his opium habit began as he sought relief from rheumatic pain. In 1807 he became acquainted with Coleridge, Wordsworth, and Robert Southey, and soon afterwards with the writer Charles Lamb and the scientist Humphry Davy. He paid various visits to the Lake District, and in 1809 he settled there with the Wordsworths and Coleridge. From 1830 he lived in Edinburgh.

Literary career De Quincey's literary career began with the anonymous publication of The Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in the London Magazine. Reprinted in book form in 1822, it brought him fame. Thereafter he produced a long series of articles, some of them almost on the scale of books, in Blackwood's and Tait's magazines, the Edinburgh Literary Gazette, and Hogg's Instructor. These include ‘On Murder Considered as One of the Fine Arts’ and, in his later period, ‘Suspiria de Profundis’, ‘The Spanish Military Nun’ (1847), and ‘The English Mail Coach’. In 1853 he began a collected edition of his works, which was finished the year after his death.

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