Primarily taken as a tincture to remedy everyday ailments such as menstrual cramps, diarrhoea, wind, and piles, opium was also used recreationally in the 19th century and has often been associated with Victorian writers.
Before the Pharmacy Act of 1868, which restricted the sale of ‘dangerous’ substances to pharmacies only, opium was widely available from a number of commercial outlets, including barbers, confectioners, stationers, tobacconists and wine merchants. Poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge took opium regularly until his death in 1834. Literary historians have argued that he used opium medicinallyto address his regular periods of‘mental anguish’ and ‘physical pain’; however, it is has also been seen as corresponding with the period when his ‘poetic geniusburstinto full bloom’. Kubla Kahn, written in 1797 while Coleridge was taking opium to alleviate the symptoms of dysentery,describes fantastical and sublime hallucinations experienced during one drug-induced slumber:
“But oh! that deep romantic chasm which slanted
Down the green hill athwart a cedarn cover!
A savage place! as holy and enchanted
As e’er beneath a waning moon was haunted
By woman wailing for her demon-lover!”
In 1821 Thomas De Quincy, an alumnus of Manchester Grammar School, published his Confessions of an English Opium Eater, in which hedescribed candidly the pleasurable effects of (hitherto undocumented) recreational opium use. He wrote that opium contained the ‘secret of happiness about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages’. The drug wasaffordable and practical, too: ‘bought for a penny’ and ‘carried in the waistcoat-pocket’.
It has been extensively debated whether or not Lewis Carroll’s Alice in Wonderlandcontains references to drug use. As Kristina Aikens writes, ‘the substances Alice consumes in Wonderland are never called drugs specifically, but her encounters with mysterious bottles filled with strange substances…hookah-smoking caterpillars— all of which appear to Alice in a dream-space, and which distort her sense of her body, space, time and logic’. However, Aiken notes that we should be careful attributing contemporary perceptions of drug use to Carroll’s literature.
Nevertheless, the output of literary figures rumored to be taking opium meant that drug-use became synonymous with creativity, a belief that was sustained into the 20th century and beyond, with writers such as Hunter S. Thompson and William Burroughs openly writing about their personal drug use. However, as the 19th century progressed, perceptions of opium became more negative. Coleridge’s The Pains of Sleepdescribes agonizing and terrifying nightmares experienced as a result of opium withdrawal:
“But yester-night I prayed aloud
In anguish and in agony,
Up-starting from the fiendish crowd
Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me”
Similar to Coleridge, De Quincy also wrote about the terrors and nightmares experienced when suffering withdrawal. He wrote that the pain of coming off the drug was too severe that he could not bear to, even though it was in fact affecting his creative output rather than stimulating it.
As the 19th century progressed and the negative effects of opium became more apparent, the drug became associated with a criminal underworld.Charles Dickens’ The Mystery of Edwin Drood(1870) has been attributed with bringing the image of the ‘Opium Den’ into public consciousness:
“He lies, dressed, across a large unseemly bed…lying, also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing at a kind of pipe, to kindle it.”
More negative portrayals of opium and the people who consumed it are found in other later Victorian novels. Arthur Conan Doyle’s character Sherlock Holmes was a regular user of cocaine, and is found by Watson in an unfavourable position in an opium den in the 1891 novel The Man with the Twisted Lip. Also published in 1891, in Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Graythe image of the opium den as a place of iniquity is utilized, where the main character Dorian goes to ‘buy oblivion’ – the language of drug use as an illicit commodity becoming apparent here, too – a contrast to the medicinal discourse surrounding the drugat the beginning of the 19th century. Although we cannot argue that opium directly influenced writers’ literary output, we can draw parallels between common themes in literature written by authors who are alleged to have used opium. Whether or not the authors discussed used opium medicinally, recreationally, or at all, opium offers a useful inroad into understanding Victorian literature and society.