Influence of opium on romantic, Victorian English literature
“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.”
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
These are the opening lines of the famous poem “Kubla Khan,” which the distinguished poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge admits having written from his opium-influenced dream of Kublai Khan, an emperor of the Mongol Empire. In fact, there were many authors and poets, apart from Coleridge whose creativity and imagination were influenced by their opium-induced states.
The influence of opium since centuries has extended far beyond the common masses to people with creative minds. It has been allegedly hailed as a source of creativity and imagination due to which the traces of opium can be discovered even in the texts of romantic and Victorian period.
One primary reason behind such an increased popularity of opium among writers of the romantic and Victorian era could be the usage of opium for medicinal purposes. Presumably, opium and its alcohol derivative laudanum have been prescribed for any illness under the sun, such as different types of fever, cholera, mumps, rheumatism, physical injuries, asthma, etc. During the 19th century, opium was extensively traded by barbers, tobacconists and stationers. It was only in the later years that the debilitating effects of opium and similar substances were highlighted.
Drug-induced literary works and writers
The greatest of musicians, poets, writers, artists, etc. were found to have a predisposition toward mind-altering substances. Before long, several writers, poets, artists, etc. were absorbed under its influence. The most popular and extensively used opium derivative laudanum was used in several Victorian households as a painkiller. Laudanum, the aspirin of the nineteenth century, was used to treat a number of ailments, such as a cough, diarrhea, rheumatism, menstrual cramps, cardiac disease and delirium tremens.
The works of the English Romantic era often have to witness literary criticisms due to the description of opium. In Thomas De Quincey’s’ “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater,” the English essayist characterized his addiction to opium and its impact on his literary works by depicting the accounts of pleasures and pains brought on by opium.
There is also a number of references to opium and its derivatives in the Victoria literature. Several noteworthy poems, essays, novels and dramas were apparently created under the influence of opium consumed because of the above-mentioned reasons. In addition, traces of opium can be witnessed in the works of Charlotte Brontë, Charles Dickens, William Makepeace Thackeray, Elizabeth Gaskell, Wilkie Collins, Bram Stoker, Oscar Wilde, Robert Louis Stevenson or Sir Arthur Conan Doyle.
The mention of opium use can also be found in George Eliot’s “Silas Marner,” where Molly Farren gets addicted to the substance. Dr. Lydgate in “Middlemarch” found relief from his problems while Will Ladislaw was trying to deduce artistic inspiration from opium. In the case of the famous “Alice in Wonderland,” it was widely presumed that the effects of opium instigated Lewis Carroll to design a dream space where Alice comes across the mysterious bottles filled with bizarre substances, hookah-smoking caterpillars and magic mushrooms that played a key role in depicting the magical world. However, in 1814, Coleridge confessed that his poem “The Pains of Sleep” accurately depicts his state of mind under the influence of opium.
Holistic treatment: Hymn for sobriety
Though creativity may be influenced by an opium-induced state, however, it will be wrong to generalize such a relationship based on just a few writings and discussions. To allege that creative minds need substances like opium is to degrade all creative writings as nothing but a figment of imagination witnessed in an altered state of mind.
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