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A Poet’s Opium Tryst

A Poet’s Opium Tryst
  • Confessions of an Opium-Eater (by )
  • Kubla Khan and Other Poems (by )
  • Sonnets from the Portuguese, And Other P... (by )
  • The poetical and dramatic Works of Samue... (by )
  • The poetical Works of John Keats (by )
  • Ode on Indolence (by )
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The Romantic poets Percy Bysshe Shelley and Samuel Taylor Coleridge used it heavily. The poet maudits Charles Baudelaire and Arthur Rimbaud went through bouts with it as well. Victorian poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning said in a 1843 letter to her brother: "I ... long to live by myself for three months in a forest of chestnuts and cedars, in an hourly succession of poetical paragraphs and morphine draughts."

Many of them took laudanum, a liquid form of opium freely prescribed by doctors between the late 17th and 19th centuries for reasons ranging from sedation, insomnia, cholera, dysentery, consumption, and pain. No wonder it was so easy to manifest an addiction. Browning started a doctor’s prescribed laudanum treatment at age 14 and continued to use it throughout her life for various pains. Another Romantic poet, John Keats, also was given laudanum at a young age to battle his tuberculosis. 

In those times, people viewed opium as a panacea. Poets, in particular, never had a history of aversion to substances. After continued application, each inevitably reached some form of the "opium reverie," as Coleridge described it. This reverie indelibly led to stylistic departures in their work, and it pushed them into territory they might not have reached otherwise.

This is not to say that their talents depended on it. It is the marriage of talent with the opium reverie that created the great mystical poems.

Most famous of the opium-induced poems is “Kubla Khan; Or, a Vision in a Dream: A Fragment,” probably the greatest poem to never find an ending. Coleridge said of it in a preface to the work:

The following fragment is here published at the request of a poet of great and deserved celebrity, and as far as the Author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the ground of any supposed poetic merits.

Yes, it is a fragment. In a deep sleep induced by another opium high, Coleridge dreamt of Xanadu. Upon waking, he set the dream to paper, only to be famously interrupted by “a person from porlock.” After the interruption, he found that he had forgotten what the next lines were supposed to be and left the poem unfinished. The fragment remained unpublished until years later upon the insistence of Coleridge’s friend and fellow romantic poet Lord Byron.

For more opium-induced poems, look no further than “Ode on Indolence” and “Ode to a Nightingale” (begins on page 26 of Ode on a Grecian Urn and Other Poems) by John Keats, “A True Dream” by Elizabeth Barrett Browning, and “Season in Hell” (begins on page 140 of The Selected Poems) by Arthur Rimbaud.

By Thad Higa

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