Influences of Opium on English Romantic Literature

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Opium Poppy

“The Opium-Eater Boasteth Himself a Philosopher,” says Thomas De Quincy. Image by Clarita.

Thomas De Quincey (1785-1859) pre-empted both Sigmund Freud and Carl Jung when, according to The Oxford Companion to English Literature, he described how “…childhood experiences and sufferings are crystallized in dreams into symbols which can form and educate the dreamer’s personality and can also give birth to literature, either as poetry or impassioned prose.” 

De Quincey was acquainted with Romantic poets William Wordsworth and Samuel Taylor Coleridge, and for a time he lived in Dove Cottage in Grasmere, formerly occupied by the Wordsworths until lack of space motivated them to move in 1808.

Like many literary artists of that period, De Quincey experimented with the drug opium, derived from poppies, and became an addict. As a result of this, he wrote his autobiographical work, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater,” which was first published in 1821.

What brought about this strange western fascination with the exotic and all things Oriental?

Publish and Be Damned, Nineteenth-Century Style

From the beginning, De Quincey knew he was taking enormous risks in publishing his work. In his “Confessions,” he describes “…breaking through that delicate and honourable reserve which, for the most part, restrains us from the public exposure of our own errors and infirmities.” 


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The work was an immediate success.

However, in taking it upon himself to explain and expose the pleasure and the torture, the visions and the nightmares, of becoming an opium-eater, he did some damage to his own reputation.

The Cambridge Guide to Literature in English mentions “[h]is pragmatic advocacy of the drug as the most efficient available artificial means of inducing intellectual clarity, and, above all, visionary waking dreams.” This approach hardly suffices as a caution to the unwary. 

De Quincey makes it clear that he does not believe that “forgetting… the terrifying experiences of childhood that have moulded the mind of the adult” is possible, says The Cambridge Guide.

A Terrible Bondage

Nigel Leask in “Colonialism and the Exotic” in Romantic Writings explains how, in spite of the misery and pain it brought him, De Quincey regarded opium as a commonly available and inexpensive substitute for the pleasures of the imagination described in Romantic poetry.

In the “Confessions,” De Quincey says: “Happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket: portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pin bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down in gallons by the mail coach.”

This seems especially shocking when considering “the powerful and terrifying dreams resulting from his medical condition as a dependent,” says Leask.

There are some disturbing and racist references to a “Malay” whom De Quincey encountered in some of his more bizarre imaginings. He assumes the Malay is familiar with the drug and gives him a lump of opium which he describes in the “Confessions” as being “big enough to poison three dragoons and their horses.” 

Leask says: “Despite feigning compassion as the motivation for this lethal ‘gift,’ it is just possible that De Quincey employs the drug to overpower the Malay, just as the British East India Company sought to overpower the Far East by flooding it with cheap opium (exchanged for tea…).”

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“I was kissed with cancerous kisses by crocodiles,” says Thomas De Quincey. Image by Janet Cameron, all rights reserved.

Opium-Induced Literature and Its Responses to Historical Events

“One point of contact between quite disparate literary works has been their response to common historical events, for example, in the years between 1789 and 1815, the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars contributed to an atmosphere of ferment in which fundamental notions about politics, social class, gender and religion were thrown into question in a veritable ‘war of ideas,'” says Nigel Leask in his chapter Colonialism and the Exotic” in Romantic Writings.

Nevertheless, much of the literature from the Romantic Period is escapist and exotic, and it seems far removed from the serious political issues of the day, which also informed the literature.

Certainly, a fascination with Oriental matters runs through the work of poets and writers such as Coleridge, Shelley, and Byron, as well as Thomas De Quincey.

De Quincey was a great influence on the mystery writer, Edgar Allen Poeand, according to The Oxford Companion, half of Baudelaire’s Paradis Artificiels is a direct translation from De Quincey’s work. Today, of course, we would frown on this as plagiarism.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote his famous Oriental poem “Kubla Khan” while heavily under the influence of opium. Coleridge identified with the Hindu god, Vishnu, and Nigel Leask quotes Coleridge from Earl Leslie Grigg’s Collected Letters of S. T. Coleridge:

“I would much wish, like the Indian Vishna [Vishnu] to float about along an infinite ocean cradled in the flower of the Lotos, and wake once in a million years for a few minutes – just to know that I was going to sleep for a million years more.” 

On the other hand, Coleridge also threatened to leave behind his rural roots and enter into political and religious activism.

These two positions are clearly in opposition each to the other, one being a position of Christian political activism, the other of timeless Indian mysticism. The contradiction lies in the culture of the stereotypical Oriental with no control over individual life, and the active, powerful and progressive western tradition.

Stephen Bygrave says: “The [O]riental stereotypes tell us more about western culture than they do about [O]riental culture.”

The History of the “Confessions” and Their Consequences

“The Confessions of an Opium-Eater” were, originally, published in two parts in The London Magazine in 1821. They appeared as one volume with appendix the following year.

Then, in 1856, De Quincey extended the “Confessions” for a collected edition of his works. This caused considerably more damage than the original, less comprehensive, texts.

A Nightmare World

To understand why this might have damaged De Quincey’s reputation, here is a taste of his prose from the “Confessions” which follows an episode where the writer describes being overwhelmed by other Malays, who were much worse than the Malay originally encountered.

I was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos. I ran into pagodas and was fixed for centuries at the summit, or in secret rooms. I was the idol, I was the priest, I was worshipped, I was sacrificed. I fled from the wrath of Brama through all the forests of Asia. Vishnu hated me.

“I came suddenly upon Isis and Osiris. I had done a deed, they said, which the ibis and the crocodile trembled at. I was buried for a thousand years in stone coffins, with mummies and sphinxes, in narrow chambers at the heart of eternal pyramids. I was kissed with cancerous kisses by crocodiles and lay confounded with all unutterable slimy things amongst reeds and Nilotic mud.”

Leask’s analysis of this passage is that De Quincey deeply feared being overcome and absorbed into the so-called nightmare world of the Orient, a focus of dreadful stereotypes and associations.

The West labours under the anxiety that it will be destroyed by its unquenchable and lawless desire for the ‘[O]riental other.” In Leask’s view, this is an attraction that the western world is unable to conquer, and it is this attraction that evokes its most deepfelt anxieties.

Post-Colonial Theory – The Mutations of Context

The influence of opium and the Orient have made an indelible stamp on the future of English literature, motivating academics to analyse the racist and patronising perceptions of the Orient (the other) by the West.

Jonathan Culler, in “Meaning, intention and context” in “Literary Theory” believes that readers should interpret Jane Austen’s novels while bearing in mind the exploitation of the colonies of the British Empire. In truth those issues of exploitation provided much of the wealth that supported the lifestyles to which Austen’s characters aspired.

Culler says, “Meaning is context-bound but context is boundless, always open to mutations under the pressure of theoretical discussions.”

Post-colonial theory is an attempt to understand issues arising from exploitation, colonisation and its aftermath, such as occurred in the Middle East, North Africa and Asia. Culler says:

“Since the 1980s a growing corpus of writings has debated questions about the relation between the hegemony* of Western discourses and the possibilities of resistance, and about the formation of colonial and post-colonial subjects; hybrid subjects, emerging from the superimposition of conflicting languages and cultures.”

Post-colonial theory facilitates an important intervention in the construction of history and knowledge. This is the possibility for modern intellectuals from post-colonial societies “to write their way back into a history others have written.” As a result, literature is becoming richer and, effectively, more truthful to reality.

Note: *Hegenomy is an arrangement of domination accepted by those who are dominated. Ruling groups dominate not through force but through a structure of consent.” ~ Jonathan Culler.

Reading De Quincey and Coleridge Today

It is difficult, at times, especially when reading directly from the “Confessions,” not to feel shock when reading De Quincey’s patronisation of the Orient, and the way he lumps nations together, without sensitivity to their differences and their dignity. Europeans assumed a godlike power in their domination of Asiatic and African countries, while seeming, paradoxically, to feel threatened by the mythology and mystery of the East.

Leask remarks that “Coleridge’s dream of the million years’ sleep of Vishnu, and the ‘forests ancient as the hills’ in ‘Kubla Kahn’ revolve upon the ancientness of the Orient.” At the same time, the antiquity of Asiatic things, its history and its diversity of faiths impresses De Quincey. It is this antiquity, Leask feels, that overwhelms and challenges the Western sense of superiority and purpose. Like De Quincey and his opium, the West becomes “fixated and addicted to the Orient which it had set out to dominate.”

As a result the West is afraid of the idea of its own destruction, yet like the opium-eater when under the influence of his vision-creating drug, it is powerless to resist the attraction of the East. The idea of Western anxiety makes it question the actual nature of its triumph as colonialists, as it dominates, through its imperialism, the passive and mysteriously unknowable East.

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© Copyright 2014 Janet Cameron, All rights Reserved. Written For: Decoded Past

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