A forlorn Sunday morning in the autumn of 1804. Thomas de Quincey, tormented by acute neuralgia, submits to a chemistry that will quell his malady but will alter his mind and his life. He vanishes into a Chemist on Oxford Street in London where, for no more than a shilling, he scores the elixir that would give him ‘an abyss of divine enjoyment’. He had emerged into ‘the Paradise of an Opium-Eater’.

Opium has contributed to Western literature for at least 400 years. One of the first known references is in Samuel Purchas’ Purchas his Pilgrimage; a portrayal of Chinese rituals and the addiction to the drug that is also known as the ‘tears’ of the poppy plant, from which it is obtained. This very portrayal was a catalyst for the Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan; the idea for the poem came from an opium-induced vision while reading Purchas’ voyages. From the Romantic period and onwards, opium and its derivatives have been the stimulation and the scourge of a glut of creative writers – Baudelaire, Keats, Dickens, Huxley, Southey, Crabbes, Shelley, Francis Thompson, Poe, Burroughs – to name but a few. But has it been a hidden rapture that has embarked each on enlightenment? Or a derisive impairment to their creative genius?

De Quincey, famous for penning The Confessions of an Opium-Eater, saw the drug as the principal instrument of his imaginative flair. Impugning his own talent, he made the case that without the effects of opium his visions were ordinary and prosaic. Many writers felt that they had been endowed with exceptional insight into the experiential architecture of all creation; that opium somehow unlocked an ethereal world beyond natural perception. Yet, the idea that opium prevailed as an underground fashion, the cocaine of its time, is a common misconception. Opium was freely available from the 1700s and many medical professionals spoke of it as a solely beneficial and wholesome drug. Dr John Jones, member of the Royal College of Physicians, wrote in 1700 in The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d that its recipient would encounter:

A most delicious and extraordinary refreshment of the spirits upon very good news, or any other great cause of joy, at the sight of a dearly-loved person thought to have been lost at sea.

The initial medical purpose of opium in the Western world was exhaustive; it served to relieve and assist anything from gout, cholera, amputations, asthma, insomnia and indeed depression. Usually, the ‘Tincture of Opium’, or laudanum – a drug 10% by weight as strong as pure opium – was administered in medical practise. Children were given laudanum for toothaches and as a cough depressant (although many died from overdose). King George IV even used laudanum as relief for a hangover. And it was cheaper than a pint of ale. However, although the intentions were to consume laudanum as a remedial drug, or at the very most a regular indulgence (a relish rather than hedonism), a chemical dependency was formed.

The attachment of underground murky worlds to the literary circles is mostly fallacious. Opium-use of the literati was first viewed as a supplementary effect, akin to pro plus or coffee in professional or educational circles today. It fought off the distraction of pain and disease and helped channel creativity, not be its sole facilitator. A brief study of many of the writers of this era corroborates these facts: Charles Lamb took laudanum for bad colds, Percy Bysshe Shelley for nervous headaches, Robert Southey for hay fever and insomnia.

According to the 1920s psychiatrist, Dr Lawrence Kolb Sr, who led the way in perceiving drug users as subjects of addiction not criminals, drug addicts can be split into two classes – according to whether they were seeking ‘positive euphoria’ or ‘negative euphoria’. Kolb thought that a person either feels that a drug normalises him from a state of chronic dysphoria (a depression or anxiety) or take him to a high from a normal state. The archetype of the opium-using writers from the Romantic era was the former.

Although opiates are generally regarded as a behavioural depressant, for some they produce an enhanced increase in activity. This is because of the effect they have on neurotransmitter substances and energy metabolism. An opiate produces a similar effect to naturally-occurring endorphins – they give an intense feeling of euphoria, reduce pain and induce sleep. The latter effect is something that many writers were acutely aware of and it possibly heralds the strongest link between opium-taking as a facilitator of creativity.

Countless writers have been preoccupied with dream-states and the vast majority of the Romantics recorded, recounted and analysed their dreams. Opium allowed them to enter a state of mind that is not unlike poetry itself. Most people at some point in their life will experience a dream of crystalline quality, where the scene, narrative and emotion contained remind us of a story in conscious life. This ability in sleep to create such candid dreams simulates the creation of poetry and other forms of literature. It was recognised as a fertile space for effulgent imagination or as Lord Byron reflected:

Our life is two-fold. Sleep hath its own world,
A boundary between the things misnamed
Death and existence: Sleep hath its own world,
And a wide realm of wide reality.

De Quincey thought that the human mind in a dream-state could manufacture something that the conscious mind could not; it was ‘the magnificent apparatus which forces the infinite into the chambers of a human brain and throws dark reflections from eternities’. However, two factors are consistent with these tales – for one, they all took a form of opium, but crucially they were all persons of creative proclivity. In fact, growing evidence from neuropsychology and biochemistry is that only those with predilections for particularly imaginative thought are likely to achieve positive effects from opium or other morphine derivatives in creative pursuits – it is not the property of the drug that is the agent of soporific visions and reveries, but the user.

Coleridge was known to have taken opium from the age of eight; he took it throughout his life for anything from rheumatic fever, toothache, dyssentry, gout, or as a sleeping pill. Coleridge died at the age of 61, spending the last 18 years of his life in wretched health, all the time consuming laudanum like water.

Stories of degradation arrive hand-in-hand with these writers’ achievements. More recently, William S. Burroughs, spent a life in and out of using and withdrawal. A dilettante chemist of multiple drugs, Burroughs favoured eukodol, a weaker morphine that made it almost impossible for him to work. One time during a particularly difficult withdrawal episode, Burroughs injected himself with hyoscine (a drug used, in tandem with others, to provide relief from motion sickness and fever – taken solely it can cause hallucinations and paranoia) in order to increase the effects of the anti-addictive drug, dolophine, that he had been prescribed. Later, Burroughs was found naked in a hallway in the middle of the night, sitting on a toilet seat that he had yanked from a toilet, crooning Perry Como’s ‘Deep in the Heart of Texas’.

But de Quincey topped them all. He was entirely devoured by his habit; he could think, and certainly write, of little else. Ironically, in order to write ‘the Confessions of an Opium-Eater’ he required stronger and stronger doses of opium to give him the strength to pen the manuscript of the book.

Of all the writers mentioned, de Quincey is an exception – he was the only one that Kolb would classify in the class of people habituated to drugs in order to achieve ‘Positive Euphoria’. He searched for incrementally bigger highs to advance his mind, pleasure and writing. He was impatient for creativity, greedily lusting after the production of something transcendental and ultimately unattainable. He writes in and of the Confessions of an Opium-Eater:

This is the doctrine of the true church on the subject of opium: of which church I acknowledge myself to be the only member.

Accompanying illustration by JMC

Further images courtesy of the High Society exhibition at the Wellcome Collection and the Royal Pharmaceutical Society of Great Britain. The Wellcome Collection’s exhibition runs until February 27th 2011 and explores the role of mind-altering drugs in history and culture. ‘High Society’ challenges the perception that drugs are a disease of modern life.