Opium & dreams in the romantic period Essay

This essay has a total of 3231 words and 13 pages.

Opium & dreams in the romantic period

During what is generally defined as the Romantic period, many poets, scientists and
philosophers were greatly intrigued by dreams. Southey kept a dream journal, as did Sir
Hymphry Davy, a close friend of Coleridge's; Thomas Beddoes wrote of dreams from a medical
perspective in Hygeia and dreams were often a hot topic of conversation at the dinner
parties of those who kept company with poets and the like (Ford 1998:5). There were many
contradictory theories on the importance, interpretation and origin of dreams, at this
time. Some believed that dreams were a form of divine inspiration, others that they were
caused by spirits that temporarily possessed the body of the sleeper, while there were
those who thought that dreams were a manifestation of the body's physical condition. De
Quincey and Coleridge were two writers who both held an exceptional interest in dreams,
each with their own ideas on the subject. In this essay I propose to examine De Quincey's
and Coleridge's ideas on dream and daydream, and to show that opium was a profoundly
influencing factor in their lives, works and dreams. I shall start by briefly outlining
some of De Quincey's and then Coleridge's ideas on dreams; I shall then move on to ask
what was the effect of opium on their creativity, dreams and imagination, before looking
at how dream and daydream are distinguished in their ideas. Finally I wish to include a
brief section on the anticipation of Freud, and to close with the question of how
important opium was to the writing of my chosen authors. Since dreams and opium are so
intertwined in both Coleridge and De Quincey I feel it is appropriate to consider the two
subjects alongside each other.

In Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, dreams and opium are
considered simultaneously because he records the largest effect of his opium-eating to
have been on his dreams. He first became aware of the effects by a re-awakening of a
faculty generally found in childhood:

I know not whether my reader is aware that many children, perhaps most, have a power of
painting, as it were, upon the darkness, all sorts of phantoms; in some, that power is
simply a mechanic affection of the eye; others have a voluntary, or a semi-voluntary power
to dismiss or summon them…In the middle of 1817, I think it was, that this faculty
became positively distressing to me: at night, when I lay awake in bed, vast processions
passes along in mournful pomp; friezes of never-ending stories… (De Quincey 1996:67).

This seems to concern his daydreams, or at least dreams or visions that he had when he was
not asleep. At the same time he notes that a sympathy arose between the waking and
sleeping states of his brain and that what he called up and painted on the darkness, was
then transferred into his sleeping dreams: he attributes all of these circumstances to his
increasing use of opium. De Quincey also records two other important changes attributed to

For this and all other changes in my dreams, were accompanied by deep-seated anxiety and
gloomy melancholy…I seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally to
descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed
hopeless that I could ever re-ascend. Nor did I, by waking, feel that I had re-ascended
(De Quincey 1996:68).

This is the first and the second is that his sense of space and time were both powerfully
affected, ‘Buildings and landscapes, &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the
bodily eye is not fitted to receive…This, however, did not disturb me so much as the
vast expansion of time' (De Quincey 1996:68). It is not clear whether these effects took
place in dream or waking or both; for De Quincey dream meant many things including
imagination itself, but I would venture to suggest that both his waking visions and his
dream were distorted in such a way.

Although De Quincey does not deal with the importance of dreams directly, his emphasis on
the subject belies his fascination. He wrote the Confessions primarily to demonstrate the
‘marvellous agency of opium' (1996:78), but the agency of dreams comes a very close
second in his concerns. In the sequel to Confessions, entitled Suspiria de Profundis, De
Quincey develops some of his ideas further, but it is mainly an autobiographical piece,
his childhood thoughts, however, remembered through the darkness of the opium nightmare
that consumed him in adulthood. De Quincey uses some of his dreams to construct a series
of prose poems around their imagery. Levana and our Ladies of Sorrow is a personal
mythology of terror; The Apparition of the Brocken, a distancing exercise through use of a
double image; and Savannah-La-Mar, a beautiful metaphor for the past, visible through the
waves of time, but never to be returned to. Thus here we see De Quincey's use of dream in
the composition process, dream as a kind of poetic imagination.

De Quincey writes with much candour and from a seemingly objective stance on his
adventures, or misadventures with opium. He allows us to see how his waking visions, his
dreams and thus his imagination were affected by the use of the popular drug; and this in
turn can be very useful in analysing the work of other writers, who may have used opium
but did not write about its effects. Coleridge was much coyer than De Quincey was about
his opium habit; he refers to it as an anodyne, in the preface to Kubla Khan, which lulled
him into a profound sleep. It is therefore unclear as to whether Coleridge's vision of the
pleasure dome was a sleeping dream or a daydream, what is almost certain is that it was
induced by opium.

While De Quincey's notions on dream were relatively diminutive and distinct, Coleridge's
were much deeper and harder to trace. There is a widespread difference of opinion between
critics as to just what Coleridge's philosophies on dream actually were, and some conclude
that he saw no moral connection between his dreams and his waking life whatsoever (Ford
1998:2). This is quite a ridiculous conclusion, when he was clearly preoccupied with many
aspects of dream, if he had felt that they were in no way related to his waking life,
surely his interest would have been as passing as Southey's who kept his dreams as nothing
more than curiosities.

One particular area that Coleridge spent much time musing over was whether or not his
dreams were creations of his mind, the supernatural or complex physiological processes
(Ford 1998:27); the notion of dreams as possessing the dreamer was also a great source of
anxiety for him and other Romantic writers. While De Quincey made little of the
distinctions between waking dream and sleeping dream, other than that opium seemed to
affect them both, Coleridge sought to understand and define the various different types of
dream state, from daydream and reverie, to sleep and opium vision. Jennifer Ford in her
Coleridge on Dreaming writes, ‘He…subtitled two of his most intriguing poems a "Poet's
Reverie" and a "Vision in a Dream" carefully choosing the descriptions of reverie and
dream. These different moods and awarenesses could be seen as degrees or species of
dreaming' (1998:84). Just as De Quincey linked imagination and dreaming, Coleridge
believed there was a connection too. He thought that imagination was a link between
dreaming and disease; that disease could be influenced (either cured or caused) by dreams,
and that the physical state of health of the body was influential upon his dreams (Ford

Such were some of Coleridge's thoughts on dreaming, scattered around his notebooks and
marginalia and only relatively recently brought together and explored by Ford. By 1827
Coleridge was still not satisfied with any explanation of the origin of his dreams and was
left with three possibilities from which he chose to make up his own mind (Ford 1998:130).
These were that dreams are intervention from the gods; they were malignant spirits
possessing the dreamer; or they were a direct result of the body's health and position
when sleeping. De Quincey was equally stumped, declaring in Suspiria de Profundis that
‘No man can account for all things that occur in dreams' (1996:156).

In the recent feature film Pandemonium on the subject of the life and drug use of Samuel
Taylor Coleridge, Coleridge's use of opium is presented as practically his sole source of
inspiration. We are shown scenes of Coleridge and Wordsworth sitting at a table attempting
to write The Wanderings of Cain in one night. Both sit without making a start for some
time then Coleridge is prescribed some laudanum by his wife to soothe a toothache, and
from that first sip his nib begins to scurry across the page. He awakes the next morning
to find the laudanum finished, the work complete and poor Wordsworth still facing a blank
piece of paper. From this point onwards Coleridge is an instant addict and all of the
opium induced poetry flows (mostly in the wrong order), while the rest of the film becomes
one long opium vision surrounding the composition and loss of Kubla Khan. It is
disappointing to assume that it was merely the opium that produced these poems, but it
certainly can be seen as affecting them deeply.

In Suspiria de Profundis De Quincey praises the power of opium to excite the imagination and dreaming:
…It is certain that some merely physical agencies can and do assist the faculty of
dreaming almost preternaturally. Amongst these is intense exercise; to some extent at
least, and for some persons: but beyond all others is opium, which indeed seems to possess
a specific power in that direction (1996:88).
Continues for 7 more pages >>