Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Consolations in Opium: The Expanding Universe of Coleridge, Humphrey Davy and "The Recluse" (1986)

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Consolations in Opium: The Expanding Universe of Coleridge, Humphrey Davy and "The Recluse" (1986)

Article excerpt

The Romantics experimented with many drugs, within the respective contexts of pharmacy and picturesque experience. Opium was the best known and most used because it was the most accessible and the most effective. Throughout history it has been the most valuable medicinal drug known to man; also throughout history opium has been resorted to for purposes other than the purely medicinal: "It is in the faculty of mental vision, it is in the increased power of dealing with the shadowy and the dark, that the characteristic virtue of opium lies," De Quincey assures us in his essay, Coleridge and Opium. While Coleridge himself says that opium has the power, "To bring forth Thoughts--hidden before ... and to call forth the deepest feelings" (NB 3320 21 1/2. 14).

Opium: the Milk of Paradise: the miraculous drug that, in its divine, first or honeymoon phrase, can be physician, philosopher, companion; fund of inexhaustible invigoration, or source of dreams, profound and delicious consolations! So-called opium dreams occur not in true sleep, but under conditions of pleasurable morphine narcosis; De Quincey describes them as spectra rather than dreams and Coleridge too defines the experience of opium dreaming as a condition in which voluntary ideas pass before the eyes more or less transformed into vivid spectra.

These day dreams or visions (as the Romantics loved, euphemistically to call them) are founded on real events and situations, or at least ideas arising from real events and situations, around which (to quote Coleridge) are constructed a series of desirable, pleasure fulfilling variations which, to use his highly descriptive term, "stream" along, "yet with reason at the rudder" (NB 1718 16.105). He tells us what it was like, "When in a state of pleasurable & balmy Quietness I feel my Cheek and Temple on the nicely made up pillow ... the fire gleam on my dear Books, that fill up one whole side from ceiling to floor of my Tall Study-- & winds, perhaps are driving the rain, or whistling in frost, at my blessed Window, whence I see Borrodale, the Lake, Newlands--wood, water, mountains, omniform Beauty--O then as I ... sink on the pillow ... what visions have I had, what dreams--the Bark, the Sea; all the shapes & sounds & adventures made up of the Stuff of Sleep and Dreams, & yet my Reason at the Rudder/ O what Visions ... & I sink down the waters, thro' Seas & Seas--yet warm, yet a Spirit" (Ibid).

And all the time everything is expanding; the opium universe is literally an expanding one. "Space swelled," says De Quincey in Confessions, "and was amplified to an extent of unutterable and self-repeating infinity." Endless, bottomless oceans; fathoms measureless to man; vast deserts; giant cities. Time, likewise, holds no terrors; the opium eater feels in possession of eternity. The capacities too of the heart, the mind, appear to be miraculously limitless; again to quote De Quincey, "The moral affections are in a state of cloudless serenity, and high over all the great light of the majestic intellect." And he exults, "Thou has the keys to Paradise, O just, subtle, and mighty opium!"

A yearning to escape, a longing for distant unknown shores, not necessarily physical, permeated Romanticism. The dream, the dream world, afforded the very essence of escape. Opium produced dreams of particular beauty, nightmares of peculiarly gothic horror. Thus inevitably the dream-possessed Romantic imagination was also an opium impregnated imagination. Coleridge knew what he was doing when, in 1816, desperately short of money, he sold Murray Kubla Khan, The Pains of Sleep and Christabel, to be released to the world as a trio of opium dreams, or visions. To what extent these poems were influenced by opium is not our concern here; the point is that Romantic popular taste was overwhelmingly for so-called opium poems. Similarly, when De Quincey's Confessions of an Opium Eater appeared it was an instant stupendous success and remained the most successful work that he ever wrote. …

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