Opium and the Romantic Imagination by Alethea Hayter
The following review of Alethea Hayter’s ‘Opium and the Romantic Imagination’ (1968) has been written by Mark Bromberg, and was originally published in Bellemeade Books. The review is republished on the Psychedelic Press UK by kind permission of the author.
One of the most obvious effects of opium addiction on a writer’s powers is that it induces indolence, absence of feeling, a state in which the power to observe is detached from the power to sympathize with what is observed. At it’s very outset, this state of mind can be useful to a poet; there are times when he needs detachment. But in the long run it is deadly. The dislocation of objects and events from the feelings which they normally arouse is in the end destructive of poetic truth.
— Alethea Hayter, Opium and the Romantic Imagination (1968; 2009)
In the 21st century, writing about drugs—when it does happen—seems to center around two conflicting poles: the confessional tell-all of the reformed, or the boosterism of the pharmaceutically relieved. The power of big pharma has ruled out most other approaches to the role of drugs in our collective health, mental, physical, or otherwise.
Back when the term drug culture meant different things to different people, however, the role of drugs (most of them now illicit in America and Europe unless under the care of a physician) on the imagination was a topic of some debate. Alethea Hayter’s Opium and the Romantic Imagination is a rich study of literature’s most famous, mostly British, users of opiates. Her book is a careful examination of a group of writers who had little in common besides their daily doses of opium, usually in liquid form or in combination with alcohol available as a pain-killer called laudanum.
As the opening quote above suggests, Hayter found nothing to really surprise the general reader of Romantic literature. Although she finds that the regular ingestion of opiates created in the individual writer a paradise-like state of reveries and dreams, she does conclude with a creative paradox for the writer: “Though opium may then present him with unique material for his poetry, it will take away from him the will and the power to make use of it.”
In other words, the artist may fall under the spell of fantastic ideas and visions induced by drug use and then, in a diabolical twist, the drugs themselves take away the ability to transcribe these ideas through the resulting indolence and detachment. Hayter is also quick to describe the majority of Romantic writers associated with drug use (de Quincey, Crabbe, and Coleridge especially) as prodigious procrastinators — victims of their own drug use. Creativity may be a gift, but industry is a virtue: whether or not their opium use made them indolent, the combined output of these writers is, substantially, not of the first rank:
It is the great plans that are destroyed. Writers can still write, and in fragments write well, when they have been addicted for many years; and this is not necessarily only during withdrawal periods. … But the holding-together has gone, the great luminous images which shed light and pattern across all the wide tracts of a writer’s imagination do not radiate any more. The images are still there, but some are darkened, some are luridly spot-lit, all are enclosed. The effect (is) what Baudelaire called the ‘paysage opiace’ … some of these images — the fairly obvious poppy, the honey-dew, the temptress, the buried temple — may be conscious or unconscious equivalents for opium itself.
Fragments written well: the most famous being Coleridge’s Kubla Khan (1815), which the author describes as “a vision.” The writing of the poem was interrupted by a visitor, and when Coleridge sat down to resume writing he found the images had vanished. There are more detailed experiments, and expressions of the opium dream, from other lesser-known writers. Erasmus Darwin’s recreation of an opium dream in The Loves of the Plants (1789) is based on his medical knowledge and is an outline of what became familiar to many readers as the imagery of opium visions:
Sofa’d on silk, amid her charm-built towers,
Her meads of asphodel and amaranth bowers,
Where sleep and silence guard the soft abodes
In sullen apathy PAPAVER nods.
Faint over her couch in scintillating streams,
Pass the thin forms of Fancy, and of Dreams;
Froze by enchantment on the velvet ground,
Fair youths and beauteous ladies glitter round;
On crystal pedestals they seem to sigh,
Bend the meek knee and lift the imploring eye. …
Flushed with new life, descending statues talk,
The pliant marble softening as they walk,
To viewless lutes aerial voices sing,
And hovering lovers are heard on rustling wing …
The pinnacle of the book is an imaginative leap: Hayter describes a creative mind under the influence of opium. She imagines a writer inside Piranisi’s 1790 Carceri di’invenzione (Imaginary Prisons). The result is a horror story, all the scarier if one imagines the daily frame of mind of Coleridge, de Quincey, and other addicts in their advanced state of addiction. For some this was a considerable burden, rather than a relief from pain: Hayter quotes a contemporary of Coleridge, who estimates his opium usage at “a hundred drops a day” in 1801; in 1814, when the writer was receiving surreptitious supplies from a local chemist, this was as much as two pints a day — the equivalent of 20,000 drops of opium!
The success of Hayter’s imaginative description she details in the book’s postscript: “I was often asked while I was writing this book whether I had completed my researches by taking opium myself. No curiosity or wish for new experience could nerve me to enter such a world of wretchedness … Their (the addicts’) paradises may have been wholly or partly artificial; their hells were real.”
Filled with great detail and an eyebrow-raising theory or two — did Coleridge really create homemade heroin? — Hayter’s well-researched and entertaining book is a scholarly look at drug use and its role in the creation of Romantic literature. By looking at the settings, theory, and practice of drug use through the 17th-19th centuries, Hayter provides historical context to an otherwise loosely-grouped list of writers: the careers of DeQuincey, Poe, and Baudelaire are examined in detail as well as lesser lights such as Francis Thompson and Wilkie Collins. Published in 1968 when interest in the culture of drugs, its uses and effects were at a peak, this book is certainly an artifact of the period, but Hayter’s research is thorough enough to remain an excellent source of material, as well as debate, on the value of drug use in art.