Samuel Taylor Colerdige-
Ode on Indolence: Romantic Writers and Opium
The blissful cloud of summer-indolence
Benumb'd my eyes; my pulse grew less and less;
Pain had no string, and pleasure's wreath no flower:
O, why did ye not melt, and leave my sense
Unhaunted quite of all but-nothingness?
-from "Ode on Indolence,"
May 1819 by John Keats (1795-1821)
the opium poppy, Papaver somniferum, during 100 A.D. in
Egypt and Asia Minor, opium was first used as a medication
by physicians. Later, its uses in medicine spread to ancient
Greece, yet it was also considered a mystical agent in ancient
mythology and in the epic poems of Homer. Not long after,
opium traveled to Rome, where the opium-extracted compound
"mithridate" gained long-lasting popularity as
a medicine. It disappeared in Europe after the fall of the
Roman Empire, and only reappeared after European travelers
returned from the East in the 11th century. By the 17th
century, opium was used strictly for medication in Western
Europe. The first known English opium-addict writer was
Thomas Shadwell, a 17th century playwright. By the end of
the 17th century, opium-addiction became more widespread.
At this time, the specific effects of opium on the human
body and psyche remained a mystery. Several used it as a
therapeutic drug to relieve depression, as well as physical
pain. In addition, many children's patent medicines contained
potent amounts of opium, which were often administered to
cure crying and fits.
Hayter's Opium and the Romantic Imagination, it was not
until the British writer Thomas De Quincey theorized the
effects of opium on the imagination that many other British
poets and writers began experimenting with it. De Quincey
believed that opium, especially the dreams that resulted
from its use, was an important part of the creative process
that contributed to his art. It was upon this theory, unveiled
to the world in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
(1821), that De Quincey advocated the use of opium.
However, not everyone accepted it; 19th century American
and French physicians disapproved of the recreational use
Among the suspected
dabblers and addicts of opium-eating were Edgar Allan Poe
and John Keats; among the definite, Charles Pierre Baudelaire
and obviously, the members of the Club des Haschischins.
British poet George Crabbe was never suspected of it, for
he never wrote of opium dreams; he only mentioned the drug
once, specifically in his poem, The Flowers. After
his death, his son revealed Crabbe's opium addiction. Samuel
Taylor Coleridge suffered from addiction, yet he believed
that there was no association between his dreams and his
opium habits until 1814, when he acknowledged that his nightmares
came as a result of his drug abuse. He later goes on to
say that The Pains of Sleep, written in 1803, was
"an exact and most faithful portraiture of the state
of my mind under influence of the incipient bodily derangement
from my use of Opium, at the time that I yet remained ignorant
of the cause" (Hayter 199). Also, It is suspected that
"Kubla Khan" was written under the influence of
Coleridge's opium dreams.
Even Lord Byron,
Wilkie Collins and Francis Thompson practiced and wrote
of their experiences with opium. Among writers who took
opium for medicinal purposes, and seldom experienced or
wrote of its effects were Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Gaskell,
Sir Walter Scott, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, James Thompson,
and Gérard de Nerval. Nevertheless, many Romantic
writers were fascinated with the output of creativity and
imagination that they believed opium could induce.
"Opium," Microsoft® Encarta®
Online Encyclopedia 2001
http://encarta.msn.com © 1997-2001 Microsoft Corporation. All rights reserved.
Hayter, Alethea. Opium and the Romantic Generation. Berkeley and Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1968.
Bremness, Lesley. Herbs. London:
Dorling Kindersley, 1994.