Representations of drugs in 19th-century literature

Representations of drugs in 19th-century literature

Opium was widely available in the 19th century, sold by barbers, tobacconists and stationers. Writers including Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Elizabeth Barrett Browning and Charles Dickens all used the drug, for pleasure or as medicine. Professor Sharon Ruston explores how drugs provided both inspiration and subject matter for the literature of the period.

‘Kubla Khan’ and opium

The image of the ‘stately pleasure dome’ decreed in Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ was the direct result of his drug taking. Coleridge famously admitted that the entire poem occurred to him during a sleep brought on by the prescription of an ‘anodyne’, widely believed to be opium.[1] In this drug-fuelled slumber, he recalled, ‘all the images rose up before him as things’. Though he tried his best to record them in writing when he awoke, he claims that a visit from ‘a person on business from Porlock’ interrupted him and left him with just scattered memories of these fantastic dreams.[2] ‘Kubla Khan’ was finally published in its fragmentary state in 1816, nearly two decades after this dream, when it was clear that it would never be finished. In the same volume, Coleridge published ‘The Pains of Sleep’, a poem originally written in 1803 while he was suffering the most agonising and terrifying nightmares as a result of withdrawal from opium. Pursued in his nightmares by a ‘fiendish crowd / Of shapes and thoughts that tortured me’, he feels both ‘Life-stifling fear’ and ‘soul-stifling shame’.[3] The appearance of these two poems in the same volume of poetry demonstrates the starkly different ways in which drugs were represented in literature of the 19th century.

Manuscript of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan'

Manuscript of S T Coleridge's 'Kubla Khan' [folio: 1v]

The ‘Crewe manuscript’ of ‘Kubla Khan’, in Coleridge’s handwriting, was made before 1816. Here, Coleridge claims that the fragment of the poem came to him after taking 'two grains of opium'; this story differs to his published version.

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The use of drugs in the 19th century

Before the 1868 Pharmacy Act, ‘barbers, confectioners, ironmongers, stationers, tobacconists, wine merchants’ all sold opium.[4] It was easy to come by and many people took it, including numerous authors, such as Elizabeth Barrett-Browning, Lord Byron, Wilkie Collins, George Crabbe, Charles Dickens, John Keats, Percy Bysshe Shelley, and Walter Scott.[5] Other drugs were legally available too: it is possible that Queen Victoria, a figure considered the epitome of respectability, was prescribed a tincture of marijuana for menstrual cramps; there are unconfirmed reports that she wrote a testimonial for the hugely popular product Vin Mariani, a mixture of alcohol and cocaine, and she certainly enjoyed the ‘delightful beyond measure’ effects of chloroform when it was administered to her during childbirth.[6] Opium in particular was commonly and routinely prescribed for an alarming number of ailments to both children and adults, including ‘nervous cough’, hooping cough, inflammation of the intestines, toothache, dropsy and the hiccups.[7] Laudanum, the most popular form in which opium was taken (dissolved in alcohol) was recommended in cases of fever, sleeplessness, a tickly cough, bilious colic, inflammation of the bladder, cholera morbus, diarrhoea, headache, wind, and piles, and many other illnesses.[8] The concept of addiction was not understood at this time and it was not until the late 19th century that people fully appreciated the horror associated with habitual use and withdrawal.

Bottle of opium tincture or laudanum

Bottle of opium tincture or laudanum

A bottle of laudanum tablets (i.e., in tabloid form). Each tablet contains 5 minims, the equivalent of around 0.3 gram.

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Bottle of 'Lead with Opium'

Bottle of 'Lead with Opium'

A bottle of lead and opium pills: ‘One may be swallowed, with a little water, every three or four hours, until relief is obtained’, 1901.

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Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

One author who wrote candidly about both the pleasures and pains of opium use was Thomas de Quincey. His Confessions of an English Opium-Eater was first published in the London Magazine in 1821 to mixed reviews. He claimed in this publication to have ‘taken happiness, both in solid and liquid shape’, referring to opium in its different forms. De Quincey’s account was sensational because it openly detailed the enjoyable effects of drug taking: his activities looked suspiciously like recreational use rather than opium use for medical reasons. For example, recording the early days of his drug use, he remembered how he would determine upon a day in the coming week to take the drug. On that same day he would go to the opera to listen to a favourite singer. He claims that the delights to be had were specific to him as an intellectual Englishman. No ‘Turk’ or ‘Barbarian’ could experience the opera’s chorus in the way that he did: as though it displayed the whole of his past life like a tapestry, ‘but the detail of its incidents removed, or blended in some hazy abstraction; and its passions exalted, spiritualized, and sublimed’ (Part II, 'The Pleasures of Opium').

De Quincey’s explicit racism fed many of the images found in the horrendous nightmares he encountered while trying to give up his habitual use of opium, which had increased as he got older. He dreamed of jumbled and merged associations of the ‘Orient’: he ‘was stared at, hooted at, grinned at, chattered at, by monkeys, by paroquets, by cockatoos’ (Part II, 'The Pain of Opium'). It seemed as though he was trapped in such nightmares for thousands of years unable to escape. The transition from a nightmare to waking and seeing his children at the side of his bed was such that he wept. Despite the warning implicit in these accounts, De Quincey’s intriguing depiction of drug use was a huge influence on later writers in the 19th century and beyond, including Edgar Allan Poe, Charles Baudelaire, Jack Kerourac and William S Burroughs.

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Confessions of an English Opium-Eater

Thomas de Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, first published in 1821, is a diary of the writer’s experience of taking laudanum over a long period of his life. The first part of the book outlines his early life, and the second moves from The Pleasures of Opium to The Pains of Opium. De Quincey’s subjective text, in the absence of scientific study of the effects of opium, was long treated as the authority on the subject.

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Drugs and criminal underworlds

As the 19th century progressed drug taking changed. Opium in particular could be associated with the criminal underworld as well as with medical use, though many drugs continued to be legal. Sherlock Holmes injects cocaine regularly and is found by Dr Watson in an opium den in ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’. Speaking to Watson, Holmes refers to his cocaine habit as one of those ‘little weaknesses on which you have favoured me with your medical views’.[9] Conan Doyle’s ‘The Man with the Twisted Lip’ features two characters who, while leading outwardly respectable lives in suburbia, are frequent visitors to clandestine East London opium dens.

In the decadent world of Oscar Wilde’s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Lord Henry smokes ‘opium-tainted cigarettes’ – a fitting detail for a character whose intoxicating amorality seduces Dorian. Lord Henry proved to be the most dangerous influence upon the innocent and naïve Dorian Gray and after the murder of Basil Hallward, it is the memory of Henry’s advice that persuades Gray to seek solace in an opium den where he attempts to ‘buy oblivion’. Gray becomes increasingly desperate to reach this oblivion as the ‘hideous hunger for opium began to gnaw at him’, and despite the horror of the opium den – ‘The twisted limbs, the gaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes’ – he envies those who are experiencing such new, ‘strange heavens’ (ch. 16).

Though unfinished at his death, opium and opium dens also feature importantly in Charles Dickens’s The Mystery of Edwin Drood. A now famous image by Gustav Doré, ‘Opium Smoking – The Lascar's Room in “Edwin Drood”’ (1872), allegedly depicts the very room in which Dickens’s novel opens. Drugs continued to be a source of both fascination and terror to writers throughout the 19th century.

London illustrations by Gustave Doré

An illustration by Gustave Dore of an opium den from London: A Pilgrimage (1872).

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[1] S. T. Coleridge, Christabel &c., 3rd edn. (London: John Murray, 1816), p. 52.

[2] Ibid., p. 52.

[3] Ibid., pp. 62–63.

[4] Mike Jay, Emperors of Dreams: Drugs in the Nineteenth Century, rev. edn. (Cambridgeshire: Dedalus, 2011), p. 61.

[5] Barry Milligan, ‘Introduction’ to Thomas de Quincey', in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, ed. by Barry Milligan (London: Penguin, 2003). p. xxxiii.

[6] Quoted in Kristina Aikens, ‘A Pharmacy of Her Own: Victorian Women and the Figure of the Opiate’ (submitted PhD Thesis, Tufts University, 2008), p. 32.

[7] William Buchan, Domestic Medicine: Or, A Treatise on the Prevention and Cure of Diseases by Regimen and Simple Medicines (London: A. Strahan and T. Cadell; Edinburgh: J. Balfour, and W. Creech, 1790), pp. 285, 287, n., 294, 359, 377, 437.

[8] Ibid., pp. 149, 262, 281 n., 298, 303, 311, 313, 356, 444, 685.

[9] Arthur Conan Doyle, Adventures of Sherlock Holmes (New York: Harper and Brothers, 1892), p. 131.

  • Sharon Ruston
  • Professor Sharon Ruston is Chair in Romanticism at Lancaster University. She has published Creating Romanticism (2013), Shelley and Vitality (2005), Romanticism: An Introduction (2007), and has edited Literature and Science (2008) and co-edited with David Higgins Teaching Romanticism (2010). She is currently co-editing the Collected Letters of Sir Humphry Davy.

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