Opium Den

Drugs and Addiction in Romantic Literature

That drugs might be used to aid the creative process remains a contentious issue to this day, but during the period under consideration social attitudes towards narcotics were quite different. In 1790, for example, the clergyman and poet George Crabbe was plagued by vertigo and fearful of apoplexy; his physician prescribed opium, which the author of The Village continued to take, without thinking too much about it, for the next forty-two years. At the time of Crabbe’s first prescription, the East India Company were already employing entire Indian villages in the cultivation of opium, their product traded with China for pure silver. In England, one might buy laudanum, a suspension of opium in alcohol, quite legally at any street apothecary’s. As Thomas De Quincey wrote, ‘happiness might now be bought for a penny.’ Queen Victoria herself was a regular user until she developed a taste for cocaine in later life.

Like Crabbe, the Romantic figures we most associate with laudanum, Samuel Taylor Coleridge and, in particular, Thomas De Quincey, first came to the drug for purely medicinal purposes. Coleridge is known to have first took the drug to relieve rheumatism while still a Cambridge undergraduate in 1791, five years later employing it as a sedative during a period of severe stress, then again for toothache and, most famously, for a bout of dysentery while staying in ‘a lonely farm-house between Porlock and Linton.’ By the turn of the century Coleridge’s emotional and physical health caused him so much pain that he became addicted to his painkiller for the rest of his life. De Quincey similarly records that he first used laudanum for a toothache which had led to severe neuralgia whilst living in London in 1804. He continued to experiment with the drug, for pain and for pleasure, over the next decade and was completely addicted by 1813. Conversely, Charles Armitage Brown wrote that his friend John Keats was secretly taking laudanum for depression in the winter of 1819 – 20, but had promised to stop the habit when discovered; apart from this and a record of some laudanum being stowed ‘in case of sea-sickness’ for his final voyage to Italy, whether Keats was a regular user or not remains a matter of conjecture. The relationship between Edgar Allan Poe and laudanum is similarly mysterious, although many seem to feel that he ought to have been an addict. But despite the portrayal of the central characters of ‘Ligeia,’ ‘The Fall of the House of Usher,’ ‘A Tale of the Ragged Mountains’ and the original ‘Berenice’ as obvious opium users, any traceable references to intoxication in the author’s own life probably signal his alcoholism. In both these cases it seems unlikely that the drug had any direct effect on artistic production; the same cannot be said of Coleridge and De Quincey.

As is well known, Coleridge’s 1816 preface to the ‘fragment’ of ‘Kubla Khan: Or a Vision in a Dream’ explains that the poem came to him in a dream engendered by a prescribed ‘anodyne’ (almost certainly opium). Coleridge then attempted to convey a semi-hallucinogenic experience through figurative language. While in a deep sleep, he wrote, ‘at least of the external senses’ (opium sends the user into a profound slumber and causes intense and vivid dreams), two to three hundred lines of verse ‘in which all the images rose up before him as things’ came to him ‘without any sensation or consciousness of effort.’ Upon waking, Coleridge immediately put pen to paper until he was distracted ‘by a person on business from Porlock,’ thereby losing the clarity of the vision. In the same volume, entitled Christabel; Kubla Khan, a Vision; The Pains of Sleep, the latter poem describes a series of nightmares that the poet later explained in correspondence were, ‘an exact and most faithful portraiture of the state of my mind under influence of incipient bodily derangement from the use of opium.’ Both for good and for ill, the drug was being acknowledged, at least indirectly, as a significant part of the imaginative process so crucial to Romantic theory and practice.

Nowhere in literature (with the possible exception of the work of William Burroughs), has this connection been pursued with more enthusiasm than by Thomas De Quincey in his Confessions of an English Opium Eater (originally published in the London Magazine in 1821). De Quincey’s Confessions inaugurated a genre of ‘junkie’ literature that persists to this day. His famous followers include Branwell Brontë and Francis Thompson in the nineteenth century, with Baudelaire’s meditation on hashish, Paradis Artificiels, translating him at length, and, in the twentieth century, Burroughs, Jack Kerouac, Hunter S. Thompson, Timothy Leary, Tom Wolfe and Irvine Welsh. Perhaps ironically, as an account of personal epiphany, De Quincey’s masterpiece ultimately has most in common with a narrative of religious conversion such as the Confessions of Saint Augustine. De Quincey took a household remedy and presented it as a revelation, with himself modestly presented as the head of ‘the true church on the subject of opium.’ To the creative temperament under the influence of opium, he argued, would be revealed in dreams the most stunning landscapes. But the process was an interactive one: ‘a man “whose talk is of oxen”,’ he wrote, will simply ‘dream about oxen.’ As with Coleridge, however, the drug had a double edge, and the section entitled ‘The Pleasures of Opium’ is followed by ‘The Pains,’ in which, in increasingly chaotic prose, the addict describes withdrawal pains and terrible nightmares, eventually achieving something like a resolution after a final, climactic dream.

Coleridge and De Quincey had a love-hate relationship with laudanum (and with each other), but it unquestionably informed their artistic vision while also, again particularly in the case of De Quincey, often undermining the ability to write. Largely as a result of the Confessions, laudanum was never viewed in quite the same way again, having not previously been considered either dangerous or inspirational. The Opium Wars (1839 – 42; 1856 – 60), also indicated a reliance on the drug by the British economy not unlike that of the addict, and public opinion increasingly divided. Eventually, from this one-time marriage of heaven and hell, hell won, leading to the regulation of opium and its derivatives outside the medical profession in Britain under the Dangerous Drug Act of 1920.

Originally published in The Routledge Encyclopedia of the Romantic Era, 1760 – 1850, edited by Chris Murray (2003)

Further Reading

Abrams, M.H. The Milk of Paradise: The Effect of Opium Visions on the Works of De Quincey, Crabbe, Frances Thompson, and Coleridege. 1934; repr. New York: Harper & Row, 1970.
Barrell, John. The Infection of Thomas De Quincey: A Psychopathology of Imperialism. New Haven: Yale University Press 1991.
Burroughs, William. ‘Letter from a Master Addict to Dangerous Drugs,’ The British Journal of Addiction Vol. 53 No. 2 1956. Appended to Burroughs, The Naked Lunch 1959 London: Flamingo, 1993.
De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. 1821 Ed. Alethea Hayter. London: Penguin, 1986.
—. Confessions of an English Opium Eater, Together with The English Mail-Coach and Suspiria de Profundis. London: Constable & Co., 1927.
Hayter, Alethea. Opium and the Romantic Imagination. London: Faber and Faber, 1968.
Holmes, Richard. Coleridge: Early Visions. London: Hodder & Stoughton, 1989.
Lyon, Judson S. Thomas De Quincey. New York: Twayne, 1969.
McDonagh, Josephine. De Quincey’s Disciplines. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1994.
Motion, Andrew. Keats. London: Faber and Faber, 1998.
Schneider, Elisabeth. Coleridge, Opium and Kubla Khan. Chicago: University Press, 1953.

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