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Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and Other Writings

Edited with a new Introduction and Notes by Robert Morrison, Oxford and New York, Oxford World’s Classics, 2013. 332 p. + xlv. ISBN 978-0-19-960061-8
Céline Lochot
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Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and Other Writings, edited with a new Introduction and Notes by Robert Morrison, Oxford and New York, Oxford World’s Classics, 2013. 332 p. + xlv. ISBN 978-0-19-960061-8

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1Oxford University Press is reissuing Thomas De Quincey’s emblematic autobiographical Confessions of an English Opium-Eater in their first 1821 edition, followed by Suspiria de Profundis and The English Mail-Coach. Like the previous one, this edition is based on the text established by Grevel Lindop in 1985 in its original version (uncut and unrevised); or rather on the text of the Works of Thomas De Quincey, to which Morrison contributed as co-editor (Grevel Lindop, Manchester: Pickering & Chatto, 2000-2003, 21 vols.), since a printing mistake not present in the previous Oxford edition but to be found in the complete Works has found its way into this new edition: the fragment ‘which even her I could not willingly have spared’ (184) is obviously out of place and should be at the end of the sentence. It is unfortunate that the opportunity has not been seized for correcting those occasional errors.

2Such minor mistakes set apart, the new edition is clearly improved. The most substantial change is the addition of Appendices consisting of manuscript variants, letters and prefaces. Morrison has also rewritten (to appropriate rather than to correct) and considerably extended Lindop’s notes. The bibliography has been updated: as previously, it offers a fairly representative view of the 20th century and more recent criticism, also reflecting the growing interest in De Quincey since the 1980s; Morrison has added suggestions for further reading, chosen on the basis of thematic interest: romantic poetry, Baudelaire’s poems and Rousseau’s Confessions. The chronology has also been lengthened to include more biographical detail but also more insight into De Quincey’s inner life, which, on top of giving more information, makes it less dry and much more enjoyable. The textual note has been rewritten but not significantly modified. Finally, one element has been suppressed from the previous edition: ‘On The Knocking at the Gate in Macbeth’, a short instance of De Quincey’s literary criticism and one of his most original, as well as most appreciated, texts. Even though this text has obvious interest, excluding it from this edition strengthens the autobiographical coherence of the book, since De Quincey claims The English Mail-Coach was originally written as a part of Suspiria, and hence of the ‘sequel to the Confessions’.

3Morrison’s ‘Introduction’ starts with a sketch of the original context of publication: he presents opium as the focus of the three essays as well as a ubiquitous medicine, and the Confessions as the creative appropriation of a much-appreciated genre at a time of economic hardship for De Quincey, leading him to write for the periodical press. Morrison then comments on each text separately. He rightly chooses De Quincey’s paradoxes as one of the most significant features of the Confessions: a text both ‘intimate’ and ‘commercial’ from ‘a reactionary and a rebel’ (xv, xvi, xvii). He then retraces the influence of De Quincey’s contemporaries’ confessional and autobiographical writing (Lamb, Coleridge, Wordsworth), and concludes on the impact of the Confessions. In Suspiria de Profundis, Morrison examines the joint influence of opium and childhood traumas on De Quincey’s ‘compelling’ (xxv) imaginative writing. Finally, he lists the structuring themes of The English Mail-Coach, relates it to the preceding text through ‘De Quincey’s sense of alienation’ (xxix), and sketches its climactic scene.

4Overall, Morrison’s point of view is more biographical and factual than literary, so that analysis gradually gives way to narrative and quotation. To my mind, Morrison also returns perhaps too systematically to opium as the key to the three texts: there is much more here than ‘literature of addiction’ (xix). Still, the fragmentation and lack of obvious unity of the texts make them difficult to summarize, and the ambivalent power of opium provides a useful common thread. Morrison’s introduction thus helps the reader to grasp the unity of De Quincey’s dispersed autobiographical writing. Furthermore, he does not forget the importance of the creative writing, which he often mentions, and from which he quotes abundantly. In the end, his presentation is as representative as it can be in the few pages of an introduction.

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Céline Lochot, « Thomas De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, and Other Writings », Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens [En ligne], 80 Automne | 2014, mis en ligne le 20 décembre 2014, consulté le 29 avril 2017. URL : http://cve.revues.org/1598

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Céline Lochot

University of Burgundy

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Cahiers victoriens et édouardiens est mis à disposition selon les termes de la licence Creative Commons Attribution - Pas d'Utilisation Commerciale - Pas de Modification 4.0 International.

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