Thomas Penson De Quincey (15 August 1785 – 8 December 1859) was an English essayist, best known for his Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821).
De Quincey was born in 86 Cross Street, Manchester, England. His father was a successful merchant with an interest in literature who died when he was quite young. Soon after his birth the family went to The Farm and then later to Greenheys, a larger country house in Chorlton-on-Medlock near Manchester. In 1796 De Quincey's mother, now a widow, moved to Bath and enrolled him at King Edward's School, Bath.
De Quincey was a weak and sickly child. His youth was spent in solitude, and when his elder brother, William, came home, he wreaked havoc in the quiet surroundings. De Quincey's mother (who counted Hannah More amongst her friends) was a woman of strong character and intelligence, but seems to have inspired more awe than affection in her children. She brought them up very strictly, taking Thomas out of school after three years because she was afraid he would become big-headed, and sending him to an inferior school at Winkfield in Wiltshire.
In 1800, De Quincey, aged fifteen, was ready for the University of Oxford; his scholarship was far in advance of his years. "That boy," his master at King Edward's School had said, "could harangue an Athenian mob better than you or I could address an English one." He was sent to Manchester Grammar School, in order that after three years' stay he might obtain a scholarship to Brasenose College, Oxford, but he took flight after nineteen months.
His first plan had been to reach William Wordsworth, whose Lyrical Ballads (1798) had consoled him in fits of depression and had awakened in him a deep reverence for the poet. But for that De Quincey was too timid, so he made his way to Chester, where his mother dwelt, in the hope of seeing a sister; he was caught by the older members of the family, but, through the efforts of his uncle, Colonel Penson, received the promise of a guinea a week to carry out his later project of a solitary tramp through Wales. From July to November, 1802, De Quincey lived as a wayfarer. He soon lost his guinea by ceasing to keep his family informed of his whereabouts, and had difficulty making ends meet. Still apparently fearing pursuit, he borrowed some money and travelled to London, where he tried to borrow more. Having failed, he lived close to starvation rather than return to his family.
This deprived period left a profound mark upon De Quincey's psychology, and upon the writing he would later do; it forms a major and crucial part of the first section of the Confessions, and re-appears in various forms throughout the vast body of his lifetime literary work.
Discovered by chance by his friends, De Quincey was brought home and finally allowed to go to Worcester College, Oxford, on a reduced income. Here, we are told, "he came to be looked upon as a strange being who associated with no one." During this time he began to take opium. He completed his studies, but failed to take the oral examination leading to a degree; he left the university without graduating. He became an acquaintance of Samuel Taylor Coleridge and William Wordsworth, having already sought out Charles Lamb in London. His acquaintance with Wordsworth led to his settling in 1809 at Grasmere, in the Lake District. His home for ten years was Dove Cottage, which Wordsworth had occupied and which is now a popular tourist attraction. De Quincey was married in 1816, and soon after, having no money left, he took up literary work in earnest.
His wife Margaret bore him eight children before her death in 1837. Five, however, predeceased their father; three of De Quincey's daughters survived him.