Reading List: Opium

"A New Vice: Opium Dens in France", cover of Le Petit Journal, 5 July 1903.

“A New Vice: Opium Dens in France”, cover of Le Petit Journal, 5 July 1903.

In nineteenth-century England, opium was both a popular recreational drug and pharmaceutical (in the form of laudanum or poppy tea). The mysterious effect of the narcotic and the gloom of the “Oriental” opium dens spread across London appealed to many Victorian authors, and some Romantics claimed that the drug fueled dreams were a great source of creative inspiration.

“Kubla Khan” (1816), Samuel Taylor Coleridge

The shadow of the dome of pleasure
Floated midway on the waves;
Where was heard the mingled measure
From the fountain and the caves.
It was a miracle of rare device,
A sunny pleasure-dome with caves of ice!

Confessions of an English Opium Eater (1821), Thomas De Quincey

[…] 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; portable ecstasies might be had corked up in a pint-bottle; and peace of mind could be sent down by the mail.

The Moonstone (1868), Wilkie Collins

For ten years past I have suffered from an incurable internal complaint. […] The one effectual palliative in my case, is—opium. To that all-potent and all-merciful drug I am indebted for a respite of many years from my sentence of death. But even the virtues of opium have their limit. The progress of the disease has gradually forced me from the use of opium to the abuse of it. I am feeling the penalty at last. My nervous system is shattered; my nights are nights of horror. The end is not far off now.

The Mystery of Edwin Drood (1870), Charles Dickens

Through the ragged window-curtain, the light of early day steals in from a miserable court. He lies, dressed, across a large unseemly bed, upon a bedstead that has indeed given way under the weight upon it. Lying, also dressed and also across the bed, not longwise, are a Chinaman, a Lascar, and a haggard woman. The two first are in a sleep or stupor; the last is blowing at a kind of pipe, to kindle it. And as she blows, and shading it with her lean hand, concentrates its red spark of light, it serves in the dim morning as a lamp to show him what he sees of her. ‘

Another?’ says this woman, in a querulous, rattling whisper. ‘Have another?’

Mary Barton (1890), Elizabeth Gaskell

But before you blame too harshly this use, or rather abuse, try a hopeless life, with daily cravings of the body for food. Try, not alone being without hope yourself, but seeing all around you reduced to the same despair, arising from the same circumstances; all around you telling (though they use no words or language), by their looks and feeble actions, that they are suffering and sinking under the pressure of want. Would you not be glad to forget life, and its burdens? And opium gives forgetfulness for a time.

The Picture of Dorian Gray (1891), Oscar Wilde

Dorian winced and looked round at the grotesque things that lay in such fantastic postures on the ragged mattresses. The twisted limbs, the gaping mouths, the staring lustreless eyes, fascinated him. He knew in what strange heavens they were suffering, and what dull hells were teaching them the secret of some new joy. They were better off than he was. He was prisoned in thought.

“The Man With The Twisted Lip” (The Aventures of Sherlock Holmes, 1892), Sir Arthur Conan Doyle

In a very short time a decrepit figure had emerged from the opium den, and I was walking down the street with Sherlock Holmes. For two streets he shuffled along with a bent back and an uncertain foot. Then, glancing quickly round, he straightened himself out and burst into a hearty fit of laughter.

“I suppose, Watson,” said he, “that you imagine that I have added opium-smoking to cocaine injections, and all the other little weaknesses on which you have favored me with your medical views.”

 


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