The Romantic Age was roughly defined by the years 1798-1832. In England, those writers generally categorized as Romantic were; William Blake, William Wordsworth, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Percy Bysshe Shelley, John Keats, and Lord Byron. The ideals embraced by Romanticism rebelled against the prevalent ideas of neo-classicism. These Romantic ideals “contained a new awareness of nature and the natural world, emphasized the need for spontaneity in thought and action, and attached considerable importance to natural genius exhibited through imagination.” 1 Imagination, to The Romantics was man’s capability to both perceive and create. They “embodied a more liberated and subjective expression of passion, pathos, and personal feelings in their work.”2
In this liberated awareness, “there existed an occult relationship between man and nature, man and man, and man and beast, and any combination thereof. This relationship was a spirit of oneness and beauty manifest in the many yet emanating from the One.”3
The Romantics sought a profound spiritual grasp of the truth. They embraced the belief that the ultimate nature of Reality resides within each and every sentient being.
In this paper I will focus on the widespread use of opium in England during the Romantic Age. Opium use was completely legitimate. “There was no shame in taking opium, because everybody did, at some point or another. Doctor’s, aristocrats, and especially writers.”4 In particular, I will focus on how the life and work of Samuel Taylor Coleridge was affected by his addiction to this drug. I will demonstrate how opium, and the liberty of thought it produced, was both instrumental and detrimental in Coleridge’s quest to develop the Romantic ideal.
Coleridge was born on October 21, 1772, in the small market town of Devon, England. It was a bleak period of history known as the Industrial Revolution. Opium was a vital means of relief for a society plagued with cholera, dysentery, and tuberculosis. Diseases born of the horrific living conditions of the Industrial Revolution. Opium seemed to be a panacea, reducing the physical manifestations of these diseases, many of which were incurable. It helped ease the pain, and was not only affordable, but readily available.
“In Britain alone, opium-based medicines saved countless adults and children from death.”5 But it did more than save lives- it provided an escape from the miseries and uncertainties of working-class life. It helped men and women calm their fears and doubts, as they struggled to raise and feed a family in the harsh reality of grinding poverty.
The use of opium was widespread and unregulated. People were introduced to it as soon as they left the breast and possibly before. “There were a great number of baby calming liquids on the market which contained up to one grain of morphine per oz. These were advertised to reduce colic and sooth the pain of teething.”6 They were sold to all classes but primarily bought by the poor.
Babies, being the inevitable by-product of poverty, were a hindrance to a household where both parents typically had to work menial or physically demanding jobs for long periods of time. Therefore, most children ended up in the hands of baby-minders, who often looked after as many as a dozen children at a time. These women often had a second job, say as a laundry-woman. In order to keep their charges quiet, they fed them these soothing syrups: in this way, many children in poor areas were not only “habituated to opium but spent much of their time in a semi-comatose state. What compounded the problem further was that, when the mother returned from an exhausting day, she too dosed the child so she could get an uninterrupted night’s rest.7
There was another convenient side effect:
Opium suppresses the appetite, so young children were less likely to be hungry and strain
the already tight domestic budget. Inevitably, these children were frequently
undernourished and in continual poor health, with a characteristic yellow pallor to their
skin. By the age or three or four, many were, as one observer wrote, ‘shrank up into little
old men or wizened like a little monkey’. When they grew older, few of these children
were able to benefit from even the modicum of education available to them and they
ended up providing the next generation of working class, illiterate and condemned to a
cycle of poverty and opium use.
There is little doubt that opium was one of the first medicinal substances known to mankind. Coleridge was most likely introduced to opium at the tender young age of eight, when he suffered from a sever fever. Although he possessed a brilliant mind, he was not immune to tragic misfortune. Shortly before his ninth birthday, he heard his mother “shriek” in the night and instantly realized that his father had died. As a result of this traumatic event, he was sent away to a boarding school called Christ’s Hospital.
Opium was again administered to him at Christ’s Hospital when he contracted jaundice and rheumatic fever. Later, as an undergraduate at Cambridge in 1791, he was prescribed Laudanum8, to combat rheumatism. He took it again as a tranquilizer in 1796; (Coleridge caught an agonizing eye infection. For two weeks he took laudanum ‘almost every night’ and this…soothed both physical pain and mental worry, but unfortunately set a sinister precedent for future times of trouble.)9 He used it November and December of the same year to treat neuralgia, again the following year for dysentery, and in 1778 to kill a toothache. Yet, it was not until the winter of 1800, when Coleridge began taking laudanum and brandy to conquer acute back pain and swellings in his joints, that he became unequivocally addicted. Contemporary medical opinion of the time had no concept of addiction:
For Centuries, “addiction” was regarded as an unavoidable inconvenience of opium
consumption and was rarely considered a problem: 100 years ago, doctors frequently
referred to users without any alarm or censure, not as addicts but as ‘habitues’. Addiction
was not seen as evil, but as a minor social vice.10
Society’s ignorance of the dangerously addictive properties of opium at this time was astounding, given that its presence predates civilization:
Around 3400BC, the Sumerians cultivated opium poppies in the Tigris-Euphrates River
system of Lower Mesopotamia. They referred to it as the “joy plant” Their
contributions to mankind included the gift of literacy. This contribution
has greatly benefited society, however, as their writing spread to other societies, so did
their knowledge of opium, one of mankind’s greatest problems.11
We are now aware that few substances on Earth provoke dependency as thoroughly as opiates, from which the powerful drugs, heroin and morphine are derived.
Our cultural past is soaked in opium. It alters the recognition and perception of certain sensations and has therefore had a profound effect upon the arts, literature in particular:
In the Odyssey, Homer writes of ‘nepenthe’, the drug of forgetfulness, which was an
opium preparation. When Telemachus visited Menelaus in Sparta, the memory of
Ulysses and the other warriors lost in the Trojan War so saddened the gathering [that a]
banquet was commanded for which Helen prepared a special cordial:
Helen, daughter of Zeus, poured a drug, nepenthe, into the wine they were drinking
which made them forget all evil. Those who drank the mixture did not shed a tear all
day long, even if their mother or father had died, even if their brother or beloved son
was killed before their own eyes by the weapons of the enemy.12
Opium offers transcendence. In addition opium promotes indifference towards everything. If a man possesses repressed emotions within, the calm euphoria of opium will allow an apathetic unveiling of these. As Coleridge admits in Richard Holmes’ biography, Early Visions, “I have at all times a strange dreaminess about me…if at any time thought troubled, I have swallowed some spirits, or had recourse to opium.” (P.53n)
In 1801, his physical symptoms were spectacularly varied and unpleasant: rheumatic fevers, swollen joints in his legs, boils, agonizing nephritic pains, and a swollen testicle diagnosed as a hydrocele. With his health in such a weakened state, his medicinal use of opium increased. Soon, his dependence on the drug was inescapable.
By early 1802 he was taking over 100 drops per day. The following winter he reduced this amount to 12-20 drops per day to combat nightmares and severe diarrhea, which, unbeknownst to him were caused by withdrawal.13 When attempts are made to stop using, the intense craving for the drug brings its own physical suffering.14
This was the first period of really serious opium addiction. On April 9th, 1804, quite aware of his addiction, he took a voyage on the Speedwell in search of health and milder breezes, to Gibraltar, Malta, and Sicily to fight his own battles against opium and despair.
He wrote to Thomas Poole, “I hope that shortly I shall look back upon my long and painful illness only as a Storehouse of wild Dreams for Poems, or intellectual facts for metaphysical Speculation.”15
What he did not know was that by now complete withdrawal from the drug was physically impossible without skilled medical aid. He could no longer do it alone, by simple effort of will. So each time his will was broken he suffered a loss of confidence in his own powers.16 In Sicily, as he walked the road between the classical ruins, he was haunted by the discovery that the fields were full of poppies cultivated for opium. The entire island was a paradise of narcotics.17
Needless to say, he failed. Half of him expected to die, but the other half was hoping to be reborn. He wrote to John Morgan and Charles Lamb that he had been “crucified, dead, buried, and descended into Hell, and am now, humbly I trust, rising again, tho’ slowly and gradually.”18 He was only able to abstain for the first fortnight.
Upon heading out to sea from Gibraltar, on the 25th of April, storms interspersed by calms took their toll on Coleridge’s health and spirits. Conditions deteriorated aboard the Speedwell. He became incapable of holding down food, and began to resort to opium again. Desperately ill, he drank one deep dose after another. Conditions didn’t improve. On May 6th the wind first turned into a squall, then into a storm… he sank further into opium. He was now in serious pain, with violent stomach pains… the others aboard the ship had hung a cloth about his bed. He began to hallucinate, seeing ‘yellow faces’ in the cloth.
“The opium doses had completely blocked his bowels. A surgeon had to be called to administer an enema.”19 He was humiliated by this experience. For him, it was a secret sign and punishment for his addiction. This was different from any other illness because it could not be talked about “openly to all” like other chronic complaints, such as rheumatism. Profoundly shaken, he resolved to do without opium all together, yet, with his health in continual decline, this earnest desire became one of a successive series in a spiral of resolution and failure.
Addiction would not only ruin his moral nature and his lecturing career; it caused him to neglect his family duty and, “most barbarously” to mistreat his friends “by silence, absence, or breach of promise”. He was unsparing now in the acknowledgement of his guilt.
He had essentially abandoned his wife and two children to the care of his once good friend, Robert Southey while he remained adrift in the Mediterranean for three years. Although Southey was cruelly impatient with Coleridge’s struggles, he nevertheless took on the role of substitute father to Coleridge’s children. “He not only established an annual fund for the family, he also helped send Hartley to Merton College in Cambridge.”20
In a letter to John Rickman, Southey complains of Coleridge’s behavior, “His habit are so murderous of all sense of domestic comfort…he besoots himself with opium or with spirits, till his eyes look like a Turks who is half reduced to idiocy by the practice.”21
Yet, however precarious his addiction became, there was no doubt it was also an integral part of his literary career, which added to his extraordinary imagination, provided some of the most remarkable poetry of the English language.22
At the heart of Romantic literature was a need to passionately pursue flights of fancy through use of the Imagination. The warping effects opium had on the senses, in addition to the intense dreams and visual images, intensified the Imagination and therefore had an impact on the work of the Romantic writer. Although it is certain that such a talented intellect as Coleridge possessed would’ve produced fine poetry without the aid of opium, it’s influence is clearly present in the poems Kubla Khan and The Pains of Sleep.
In Kubla Khan, which was composed in the summer of 1797 following a laudanum-induced dream, the ruler, Kubla Khan is depicted, existing within vast and fertile grounds. This lush garden encased by walls is so sublimely depicted that one may interpret it as a kind of Garden of Eden. This garden for Coleridge represents the Romantic vision of nature. Alph, the sacred river running through this garden, may be seen as a symbol of life and the beginning of all things. Alph is a mysterious river flowing over hills and beyond sight. “Through caverns measureless to man/ Down to a sunless sea.”
Just as he cannot unravel nature’s mysteries, man cannot comprehend Alph’s ultimate destination, for knowledge can only be demystified by few. This river where Kubla Khan wishes to build his home, symbolizes Coleridge’s lifelong quest for esoteric knowledge. The brilliant imagery here illustrates a picturesque paradise:
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here where forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery.
It’s the kind of place one wishes he could spend eternity, but like all things in Coleridge’s life, this sunny sloped utopia was soon to be usurped. He spent a lifetime seeking his “sunny spot of greenery”, losing and finding it again and again in his endless struggle to control his addiction. The second stanza demonstrates a break from peace when the path of the river suddenly ploughs beneath the surface to a magical and blessed spot described as a romantic chasm:
A savage place! holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!
This is a haunting image. Could this savage, holy, and enchanted place represent transcendence through nature by the use of opium? After all, opium “provided an escape from reality, and offered a temporary entry into heaven – or at least to another place apart from the here and now”23 Opium addiction is also as controlling as a possessive lover. I believe Coleridge is demonstrating in these lines, the fear of – yet, attraction to – this mystical substance. This is a primitive and a wild place incomprehensible to man. It exists in a mode of constant turbulence:
And from this chasm, with ceaseless turmoil seething,
As if this earth in fast thick pants were breathing,
A mighty fountain momentarily was forced…
Coleridge’s passionate response to wild nature is apparent. The language within this section burns with highly charged sexual symbolism as well as the image of Mother Earth giving birth to this mighty fountain, the source of the sacred river. The gentle, meandering river described at the poem’s introduction is in stark contrast to this tumultuous, seething pit of creation, yet they are one and the same. It epitomizes both the visible and the hidden nature of man as well as the internal struggle with addiction experienced by the poet himself.
Coleridge struggles to exist in a dichotomy of an endless churning of rebelliousness and passionate creation and the peaceful flow domestic life.
Through wood and dale the sacred river ran,
Then reached the caverns measureless to man,
And sank in tumult to a lifeless ocean:
And ‘mis this tumult Kubla heard from far
Ancestral voices prophesying war!
The earthly paradise Khan has constructed, the pleasure-dome is now an illusion, described as a shadow, no longer able to be viewed directly. This represents the illusion of happy domesticity. Perhaps this is a prophecy of Coleridge’s unhappy marriage to Sara Fricker.
Khan’s creation is described as, “a sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice”. This image, though beautiful, demonstrates strangely opposite extremes striving for harmonious balance. There is a sense of loss; perhaps symbolic of a creative loss suffered by the poet.
There is a significant shift in focus from the vision of Kubla Khan’s creation to the poet’s own vision in stanza 4. On line 37, Coleridge describes a dream-like vision of, “A damsel with a dulcimer,” whose beautiful song, dripping with fertility would deeply delight him, if only he could remember how it went. This damsel is his muse. She comes from a foreign place, Abyssinia, which is another name for Ethiopia. She sang of Mount Abora, an area of Ethiopia believed to be the actual location of the Garden of Eden.
Her figure emerges from the Fertile Crescent from which all life has sprung. She symbolizes the procreant ground of Coleridge’s sub-conscious, but she could also symbolize the origins of his other mistress, opium.
This damsel is a feast for the senses. Her song is like a seduction luring the poet closer. He knows that if he revives her symphony, endless possibilities await. Life would come from death, hope would spring from fear, and everything he wished for would come to pass. Her song is the key to creation. The shattered dome would be reconstructed and harmony between man and nature would be restored:
Could I revive within me
Her symphony and song,
To such a deep delight ‘twould win me,
That with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air!
If the poet were able to recapture the essence of this super-natural song, the damsel’s powers would allow him to create a kingdom of words. He fears the alluring prospect of allowing this song’s mysterious power to be unleashed unrestrained upon the world. Coleridge’s creative energies emerge from a dark and secret place within. He has repressed most of these energies for the larger part of his life, and now he’s toying with the idea of their release. However appealing, it is at the same time frightening. What would the consequences be? Would he be responsible? Could he maintain control? The next passage is a hypothetical situation of what quite possibly could occur:
…with music loud and long,
I would build that dome in air,
That sunny dome! Those caves of ice!
And all who heard should see them there,
And all should cry, Beware! Beware!
His flashing eyes, his floating hair!
They cry, “Beware!” because in this lucid and creative state, transfixed by opium, he’s a vision of a man possessed. In this state he is powerful and unpredictable, almost like a god. Coleridge was obsessed with a fascination over his own psyche. The “problem” of creativity became his most compelling concern. The Greeks believed creativity to be a type of momentary madness. That belief is veridical, for when he began his new phase of life in the Lake District in 1800, he told his friend, William Godwin that he hoped the landscape would turn him into a god.24 Perhaps this is why the people decided the best course of action was to:
Weave a circle round him thrice,
And close [their] eyes with holy dread,
For he on honey-dew hath fed,
And drunk the milk of paradise.
Coleridge admits to having drunk the milk of paradise and fed from honey-dew, which suggests that he possessed knowledge not readily attained by just anyone. I believe these last lines to represent the seductive sap of an opium poppy, which he regularly feeds upon. This last stanza portends a warning to society regarding the nature of his beastly addiction. This is certainly a warning offered for our protection.
Kubla Khan clearly depicts Coleridge’s imaginative and extravagant strengths. However, it also depicts a long withdrawal into illness and opium:
Isolated in the remote fire-lit world of his study, a sort of hermit’s retreat, served
Coleridge in its own way. Imaginatively speaking, it was a question of taking stock of his
powers. Digging back into his own mind and beliefs, he found the beginning of a new
literary identity, the poet-philosopher in a mist, whose very bafflement and intellectual
frustrations gave him a new form of Romantic subject matter.25
He wrote wildly to Poole that metaphysical excitements and “intensity of thought” had left him feverish and sleepless, and Wordsworth had feverishly entreated him to desist. “Indeed his philosophic claims and references to ‘minute experiments with light and figure’, have the grandiose tones of opium.”26
He had nightmares so terrible that he began to fear the onset of sleep itself. These were characteristic of opium addiction. The Pains of Sleep is a poem he wrote in an effort to describe the night-horrors, which accompany withdrawal symptoms of the drug.27 It begins with a feeling of the childhood prayer; “Now I lay me down to sleep…” The end of the first stanza is an affirmation:
A sense o’er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, everywhere
Eternal strength and wisdom are.
The next stanza reveals the reason for these affirmations:
But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me:
These “shapes and thoughts that tortured” him were images of opium. Although he desperately wished to free himself it’s grasp, his body and soul remained sick with desire:
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed.
Fantastic passions! Maddening brawl!
And shame and terror over all!
It is amazing to fathom the psychological effects from which he clearly suffers. He fears exposure and experiences guilt over what he perceives as his weak moral character:
Deeds to be hid which were not hid,
Which all confused I could not know
Whether I suffered or I did:
For all seemed guilt, remorse or woe,
My own or others still the same
Life-stifling fear, soul-stifling shame.
Sleep was depriving him of peace:
Sleep, the wide blessing, seemed to me
Distemper’s worst calamity.
The third night, when my own loud scream
Had waked me from my fiendish dream,
O’ercome with sufferings strange and wild,
I wept as I had been a child;
He realized upon waking, when his tears had subsided, that he was somehow enduring just punishment for the crime of addiction:
Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin,-
For aye entempesting anew
The unfathomable hell within
The horror of their deeds to view,
To know and loathe, yet wish and do!
The last lines are an entreating plea begging for the mercy of Love. He suggests that if he were only loved, then he would not crave opium. He would have redemption:
Such griefs with such men well agree,
But wherefore, wherefore fall on me?
To be beloved is all I need,
And whom I love, I love indeed.
Coleridge once stated, “Dreams are no shadows with me, but the real, substantial miseries of life.”28 The themes in his writing were those, which he lived and breathed. “Failure, procrastination, and imaginative crisis became something upon which he could exercise brilliant lines of poetic enquiry and self dramatization.”29
From 1810 until 1816, Coleridge moved in comparative obscurity. His livelihood, almost always dependent on friends, now became wholly so. “His health, never robust, now became entrapped in a vicious war between actual illness and illness brought on by overindulgence in opium.”30 He was destroying himself, destroying his capacity for work, and destroying the love of those around him. He felt isolated, rejected, and disapproved of, by people who were far happier and better established than he would ever be. He strove in vain for many years, to wean himself from his captivity to opium.
“He tried to exorcise his opium demons in a mad, non-stop walking bout of eight days, during which he covered 263 miles. On this journey, he pushed himself to the extremes of physical and mental exhaustion.”31 He continually relapsed, and at times it seemed that he would never recover his mental balance.
In 1812 and again in 1814, Coleridge sought medical help but to no effect. “He even went so far as to hire a man whose job it was to stand between him and the door of any chemist he might approach and forcibly eject him from it.”32 December 1813 was one of the loneliest and desperate periods in his entire existence.
Upon suffering the most acute opium overdose of his life, Dr. Caleb Parry took charge of him. “He called several times a day and sat by his bedside for two to three hours at a time. He acted as a nurse, sponging his face and talking him through the worst of his hallucinations. It was to Perry, said Coleridge later, ‘under God’s mercy I owe that I am at present alive’.”33 The main reason for his overdose was “the unreliable strength of opium mixtures, the non-standardization of doses, and the uneven levels of adulteration: laudanum from one druggist could be very much stronger than that from another.”34
Sadly, just a few months later he again came face to face with his dark, shadowy self. He was as close to homeless as he had ever been, staying at the Grey Hound Inn. This time Josiah Wade came to his rescue. “A carriage arrived at the Grey Hound Inn and delivered him to a large guestroom where Wade’s personal physician, Dr. Daniel began treating him for his addiction and suicidal depression.”35 Razors, knives, and any possible instrument of suicide had to be removed from the room. He remained there for nine months.
He had a physical compulsion closely related to his opium habit, which required him to wash himself repeatedly during the day, and to feel disgust at the slightest sensation of dirt anywhere on his body. This obsessive washing had begun in Malta in response to the sweat and heat of Mediterranean life. It became a ritualized, symbolic form of reassurance, which proved that he had not entirely lost control of his body…36
Perhaps he had lost control over his will. In November 1815 he collapsed again into opium and continued to be intermittently ill throughout the spring. With some sense of agonizing failure, he made a sincere plea, “…after my death I earnestly entreat that a full and unequal narration of my wretchedness, and of its guilty cause, may be made public, that at least some little good may be effected by the direful example.”37
His life had become a series of tumultuous storms and sunlit spells chasing each other over the horizon. He was hoping that all his misery would procure at least some degree of good. His addiction controlled him. He was lost in the spell of his enchanted mistress.
In 1816 he returned to London and fell straight back into opium use- this time he called John Morgan for help. Morgan found Coleridge a new physician, Dr Joseph Adams. It was Dr. Adams who brought the serious case to the attention of Dr James Gillman, the man under whose care he was to stay for the rest of his life. Since Coleridge’s need to procure the drug would drive him into “evasion, and the cunning of a specific madness,”38
Gillman “adopted a policy of deliberately allowing Coleridge a small illicit supply of opium, to be surreptitiously added to the prescribed medical dose. This method was an acute way of dealing with the psychology of Coleridge’s addiction. It allowed him the guilty release of obtaining his own secret supply- an almost unconquerable instinct in the confirmed addict- while in practice restricting the overall dose within reasonable bounds.” (Holmes, p.542)
From 1829 he was more and more frequently ill, suffering from progressive heart disease and confined to his bedroom. “The premise that opium was harmless finally began to erode in the 1830’s.”39
Coleridge had a fought a long, losing battle with addiction, yet it never stopped his pursuit of knowledge and its mysteries. He fearlessly faced death, knowing he had endured far worse:
He wrote his own Epitaph and discussed the design of his tombstone with a great deal of
interest. He wavered long over a tender, voluptuous Muse figure; then on a broken harp;
but finally decided that an old man under an ancient ‘yew tree’ was suitable.40
At 6:30AM on the 25th of July 1834, his extraordinary eyes closed forever. “The end of his life was like the end of a symphony, whose music has ended but is in no way finished. His notes echo into the future.”41 I have heard his music transcending centuries through the pages of his poetry, and I’ve come to listen.