Poverty was rife, and there was a very poor understanding of hygiene and medicine coupled with rising numbers of inner-city slums. Against this grim background of suffering, people turned to their local pharmacy where they could buy for as little as one penny a dose of laudanum or some similar concoction, and with this drug soothe the physical aches and pains which plagued their lives. Rich and poor alike used these drugs and it soon became evident that those who indulged too often became enslaved to them, not only because of the pain relief that the drugs undoubtedly brought but also because they induced fantastic dreams and visions and a feeling of wonderful wellbeing. This quality of opium and its derivatives were highly prized by many creative writers and led to a fascination which has influenced literature ever since. (Murray: 2004, pp. 296-297).After a brief review of the origins of opium and its use in Western Europe at the end of the eighteenth century, this paper will look at the Romantic poets William Wordsworth (1770-1850) and Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), and the prose essayist Thomas de Quincey (1785-1859), comparing and contrasting their views on the subject of opium. In conclusion, the effects of the drug on their work will be traced, along with wider influences in English Romantic Literature and beyond.Opium is derived from the poppy plant with the Latin name Papaver somniferum through a process of cutting the seedpod so that the juice oozes out and then drying it and combining it with other substances (Booth, 1998, pp. 1-4). It has a soporific effect and is a relaxant and an efficient painkiller. Side effects include appetite suppression and vivid dreams, along with addiction over time, and depression/anxiety during withdrawal periods.
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