How opium captivated and haunted 19th-century authors

In the shadowy recesses of the 19th century, a seductive darkness wound its way through salons, parlours and the very ink of literary giants: opium. For many of Europe’s most celebrated authors, opium was not merely a recreational indulgence but a muse that coloured their narratives, transporting themselves and their readers to ethereal landscapes of dreams and nightmares. Yet, as with all potent tales, a more sombre undertone lies beneath the surface, revealing the perilous dance between inspiration and addiction.

This journey delves into the heart of this era, where industrial advances, urbanisation and shifting social norms were transforming the world. It traces the story of opium’s rise in Britain, its beguiling influence on literature and the lives of those who penned it.

The historical context of opium in the 19th century

The 19th century, sometimes dubbed the “Opium Century,” saw a dramatic surge in the substance’s use and cultural significance. Historically, opium had been consumed in various forms for medicinal purposes across cultures. However, in the 19th century, amidst the backdrop of the Opium Wars, shifting colonial dynamics, and increased global trade, its availability and recreational use skyrocketed.

The substance was predominantly sourced from the poppy fields of Asia, and its trade became an economic cornerstone. This was especially true for the British Empire, which exported it to China, leading to significant political and social upheaval. On European shores, laudanum, a tincture of opium and alcohol, was easily accessible and widely used as a remedy for numerous ailments, from physical pain to melancholic episodes.

At the same time, the Romantic movement in literature was blossoming, emphasising emotion, individualism and the sublime. This zeitgeist created the perfect environment for opium to flourish. The drug’s dream-inducing qualities resonated with Romantic ideals, allowing users to traverse the boundaries of reality and imagination, confronting profound philosophical and existential questions.

In urban hubs like London and Paris, opium dens began to sprout, often tucked away in dimly lit alleys. These establishments, sometimes depicted in the literature and art they inspired, became places of refuge where individuals, including writers, could escape societal pressures and immerse themselves in opium’s embrace.

Opium’s allure to 19th-century authors

For the literary world of the 19th century, opium’s hallucinogenic and soporific effects provided a novel avenue for creativity and introspection. Several renowned authors of the time were regular opium users, with literary historians today agreeing that many were suffering from opium addiction.

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, best known for his poem “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner,” was among the most notable figures experimenting with opium. His fragmented and phantasmagoric poem “Kubla Khan” is believed to be the result of an opium-induced dream, with Coleridge himself writing:

“On awakening he appeared to himself to have a distinct recollection of the whole, and taking his pen, ink, and paper, instantly and eagerly wrote down the lines that are here preserved.”

Thomas De Quincey’s “Confessions of an English Opium-Eater” is another seminal work that accounts firsthand the author’s opium experiences. De Quincey described how opium initially made him feel and how easy it was to obtain, stating:

“Here was the secret of happiness, about which philosophers had disputed for so many ages, at once discovered; happiness might now be bought for a penny, and carried in the waistcoat pocket.”

John Keats Image
The poet John Keats is believed to have taken laudanum to alleviate the agonies of his tuberculosis. Some critics argue that the drug’s influence can be discerned in the otherworldly imagery and deep introspection present in poems like “Ode to a Nightingale,” where he writes:

“A drowsy numbness pains My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk.”

Hemlock is a toxic plant which was used for a variety of ailments during the 19th century, but some critics believe Keats is actually referring to the effects of opium in these lines.

The darker side of opium

While opium provided 19th-century authors with unparalleled euphoria and creative depths, its sinister consequences became alarmingly evident over time. For many literary figures, the initial embrace of opium’s comforts eventually spiralled into physical and psychological opium addiction.

Celebrated for his poetic prowess, Samuel Taylor Coleridge saw his life increasingly dominated by opium. His famed work “Kubla Khan” may have arisen from an opium-influenced dream, but it remains unfinished, a testament to the drug’s debilitating effect on his creative process. More than just impacting his work, opium disrupted Coleridge’s personal life, and he grappled with bouts of severe depression, often exacerbated by his dependency. Sadly, as is often still the case with addiction, Coleridge’s daughter Susan also became addicted to opium, likely due, at least in part, to parental exposure.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning, one of the most prominent English poets of the Victorian era, took opium medicinally for health issues, much like Keats. But, its prolonged use led to opium addiction, and she spent her entire fortune on the drug. Eventually, her brother attempted to wean her off the drug, but his efforts proved unsuccessful without the knowledge of addiction that we have today.

Charles Dickens, perhaps the most celebrated figure in the 19th-century literary scene, used his novels to portray opium’s effects on society vividly. Although not a known user, Dickens’s keen observational skills and commitment to social realism allowed him to sketch poignant portrayals of opium dens and their frequenters.

In “The Mystery of Edwin Drood”, Dickens describes an opium den in London run by Princess Puffer, also known as Opium Sal. The novel offers a detailed glimpse into the eerie, dream-like haze of the opium den and the allure the drug held for people from all walks of life, while Princess Puffer’s decrepit state serves as a cautionary image of prolonged opium use:

“The chin of the old woman is a very ghastly sight to look at. It is all but hidden by the disorderly dank growth of yellowish-grey hair, like moss; but one cannot help seeing how dropsical it is, as one cannot help seeing, if one looks at the unsavoury tide-mark on her dress, how her bloated neck discharges.”

Echoes in the modern era

Opium’s dark allure did not end with the 19th century; its legacy has cast long shadows into modern times. As the century turned, so did the manifestations of opium. Heroin, a derivative of opium, was first synthesised in the late 19th century as a less addictive form of morphine. However, as we now know, this proved to be a huge mistake, as heroin addiction is now a global issue affecting tens of millions worldwide.

Modern media has not shied away from addressing the topic of addiction, with heroin frequently taking centre stage. Movies, television shows, books and songs, especially from the latter half of the 20th century onwards, offer a raw, unfiltered look into the lives of those ensnared by heroin addiction. Just as De Quincey and Coleridge provided firsthand accounts of their opium experiences, modern-day artists have given voice to the tumultuous journey of addiction in today’s world.

The poignant portrayal of heroin addiction in works like Irvine Welsh’s “Trainspotting” or the haunting strains of The Velvet Underground’s song “Heroin” serves as a testament to heroin’s influence in contemporary media. Such creations are a mirror, reflecting societal concerns, much like the works of the 19th-century authors did in their era.

However, it is worth noting that while opium provided an exotic, dreamy escape for 19th-century authors, modern media often emphasises the brutal, debilitating effects of heroin addiction. The romanticism that once shrouded opium has been largely stripped away in contemporary portrayals, revealing a stark, harrowing narrative that serves as a warning to the audience.

Final thoughts

The journey from the opium-induced dreams of 19th-century authors to the stark realities of modern depictions of heroin addiction demonstrates the fine line between pleasure and despair. These tales, woven from the fabric of personal experiences, highlight humanity’s age-old yearning for escape and the transformative realms of consciousness. Yet, just as vividly, they underscore the haunting grip of addiction and the cost it exacts on the mind, body and soul.

Fortunately, our understanding of addiction has come on leaps and bounds since the days of Coleridge and Browning. With organisations like UKAT providing evidence-based rehab, individuals struggling with addiction today can access comprehensive treatments designed to address their unique challenges. If you or a loved one is grappling with the chains of addiction, remember that help is within reach. Contact Oasis Bradford today and let our dedicated professionals guide you to a life free from addiction’s shadow. Your story truly can have a hopeful next chapter; let us help you write it.

(Click here to see works cited)

  • Berridge, Virginia. Opium and the People: Opiate Use and Drug Control Policy in Nineteenth and Early Twentieth Century England. Free Association Books, 1999.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. Christabel, Kubla Khan, and the Pains of Sleep,. 2nd ed., London, William Bulmer, 1816.
  • Coleridge, Samuel Taylor. “Featured news – The Female Romantic poets who used opium for its “tranquilising power.”” University of Exeter, 9 March 2018, Accessed 25 September 2023.
  • De Quincey, Thomas. Confessions of an English Opium Eater. London Magazine, 1821.
  • Dickens, Charles. The Mystery of Edwin Drood. London, Chapman & Hall, 1870.
  • Keats, John. Ode to a Nightingale. 1819.