Coleridge and Opium Use


Scholars can find a degree of empathy for Samuel Taylor Coleridge because they can relate to writing in an altered state of consciousness, much like the poet himself; for students the condition is often due to the lack of sleep or proper nourishment whereas for the poet the condition was the result of the use of opium. The following is an attempt to discredit the drug-induced poetic reverie to which Coleridge often credited some of his works.

Fruzsina Iszáj and Zsolt Demetrovics posit that writers from the Romantic Era used opium to heighten some emotions while repressing others and ultimately reach a state of consciousness that permitted poetic expression (1614). Though Coleridge attacked gothic fiction for being “low,” “vulgar,” and “pernicious” it is evident that he would have to read a great deal of the genre to reach such a conclusion (Hogle 18). He protests preemptively that his work is original in the preface to “Christabel” and deflects anticipatory charges of plagiarism by insisting that he composed the first part of the poem in 1797 (Halmi et al. 161). Despite the ingenuity of the composition, scholars such as Jerrold Hogle have established connections to Ann Radcliffe’s The Mysteries of Udolpho, Volume 3, Chapter 1; Hogle states that Christabel and Geraldine are extensions of each other and specifically of Radcliffe’s Emily St. Aubert (19). Hogle also links the character Geraldine to Matthew Gregory Lewis’s Matilda, from The Monk, as well as noting startling similarities between the Bleeding Nun’s rattlesnake-like eyes Geraldine’s serpent-like eyes (19).  Hogle further indicates that the two heroines of The Monk, Antonia and Agnes, are separated by distance from the knights whom they love, just like Christabel and her lover. The use of opium for Coleridge allowed for creativity and word flow around themes and subject matters that were already a part of his psyche.

“Kubla Khan” was also composed after the subject matter was already on the poet’s mind. Coleridge prefaces “Kubla Khan” with an explanation saying that he wrote the poem after waking from a profound opium induced sleep (Halmi et al. 181). He took two grains of opium because he was ill with dysentery and he fell asleep while reading the following or something akin to it in “Purchas’s Pilgrimage”: “Here the Khan Kubla commanded a palace to be built, and a stately garden thereunto. And thus ten miles of fertile ground were [i]nclosed with a wall” (180). In writing “Kubla Khan” Coleridge was feeding upon imperialism as well as supplying his readers with a similar diet (118). It is heartbreaking to admit that although the vocabulary describing the landscape is sumptuous, the poem is feminizing and exoticizing an unknown land in an attempt to possess it. Purchas’s travel narrative, and especially that of Mungo Park’s journey to central Africa in 1799, inspired other explorers like Joseph Ritchie (117). Keats had asked Ritchie to carry a copy of Endymion with him on his travels, and the poet had been delighted when he heard from Ritchie that his work was on camelback on the African sands (117-118). This anecdote of Ritchie’s and the words in “Kubla Khan,” both allow for mental travel. Hence, the composition of “Kubla Khan” is more likely to be attributed to what was already a part of the British zeitgeist as opposed to using opium, a product of the orient, to reanimate a segment of the orient.

Fruzsina Iszáj and Zsolt Demetrovics mention that Coleridge had first taken opium at the age of eight and had experienced several traumatic events which led to a life of addiction (1618). His poetic prowess is due more to his innate ability and the subject matter of his poetry reflects the culture of the late 1700’s: opium is more likely an excuse, than the muse.


Works Cited

Fulford, Tim and Debbie Lee. “Mental Travelers: Joseph Banks, Mungo Park, and the Romantic Imagination.” Nineteenth-Century Contexts 24:2 (2002): 117-137. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 16 Nov 2016.

Halmi, Nicholas, et al. eds. Coleridge’s Poetry and Prose. New York: W. W. Norton and Company, 2004. Print.

Hogle, Jerrold E. “‘Christabel’ as Gothic: The Abjection of Instability.” Gothic Studies 7:1 (May 2005): 18-28. Ingentaconnect. Web. 16 Nov 2016.

Iszáj, Fruzsina and Zsolt Demetrovics. “Balancing Between Sesitization and Repression: The Role of Opium in the Life and Art of Edgar Allan Poe and Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Substance Use and Misuse 46:13 (2011): 1613-1618. Taylor and Francis Online. Web. 13 Nov, 2016.



2 thoughts on “Coleridge and Opium Use

  1. I liked this blog post! Having also written about Coleridge and opium, I thought it was interesting to read about how it may have been an excuse, rather than a means of inspiration. Moreover, I think the idea is noteworthy when taking in concert with Coleridge’s prefatory note, and other sources that we looked at wherein he writes in a self-deprecating way when compared with other writers.
    With that in mind, one might find an exploration into Coleridge’s self-depreciation an interesting and informative area of inquiry. Especially taken in combination with some of his biographical details. His family relations were strange – his father and him had a very strong relationship, but he found his mother cold and distant. Then, moving onto his various romantic relationships and failure of a marriage, one can see how his self-deprecating nature becomes a little more understandable.
    ….On the other hand, it could also just be a form of poetic vanity – putting down your own work invites readers to protest against the self-depreciation and praise the work.

    Either way, I found your exploration of Coleridge and opium use interesting and informative.. When one ascribes to one side of an argument in order to write about it, it is always enlightening to see the opposite argument articulated.

    Liked by 1 person

  2. It is always interesting to know some author’s private gossip that is relevant to the works. Coleridge used to take opium while he is writing, and I also found the trace in Kubla Khan. As you mentioned, his depiction on the palace may be based on the hallucination after he took two grains of opium. And I like your analysis on the composition of The poem, is “a product of the orient, to reanimate a segment of the orient.” Opium is popular among Literary authors, knowing the experience of taking opium of an author helps us understand his works.


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