Opium and Self-Reflection: Two Very Gothic Writers: De Quincey and Coleridge

Essay, 2019

11 Pages, Grade: N/A. professional essay


Opium and Self-Reflection: Two Very Gothic Writers: De Quincey and Coleridge

C. Manasseh c.2019, 2020

Opium has been around for a long time. Its use was known to ancient cultures and discovered back in 2100 BC in an old medical prescription. In 1552 BC, the Ebers Papyrus had referred to a mixture of substances which included its use to calm and anaesthetise children. It’s believed that “Hippocrates probably prescribed poppy juice as a purgative, a narcotic, and possibly a cure for leucorrhea.” (Dasgupta 2019)

Also, the Roman Emperor Galen made opium popular in Rome, while he also recognised that it could be overused and in the eighth century, merchants from the Middle East area brought it into India and China. It was brought in between the tenth and thirteenth centuries in Europe, and by the seventeenth century produced in alcoholic form as laudanum. Its addiction was widespread in China and coming after the 1799 ban on it, its importation became a common industry leading to an opium war in 1839 between Britain and China. In the nineteenth century, it was cultivated in the US and laudanum became easy to get. In North America, in the early twentieth century, even though it was universally taken with whiskey, it began to be used for relaxing patients for surgical operations (Dasgupta 2019)

With no safe level to be taken, Opium always carries some risk. It can be very dangerous depending on the person’s weight, size, health, rate of recurring usage and whether various other drugs are also consumed at the same time along with the size of dosages and can lead to a habit due to the need to take more to maintain the same effect. While short term effects may include euphoria, relaxation, analgesia, slower shallower breathing, lower heart rate, impaired reflexes and loss of appetite, long term ones include restlessness, irritability, insomnia, depression, crying, sweating, restless sleep, muscle cramps, nausea, vomiting, and a racing heartbeat. (Alcohol and Drug Foundation 2020)

Yet Lord Byron had taken it. So had Percy Bysshe Shelley. So just how much of what the great English Romantic poets had written had been written under its influence? In the Villa Diodati in Switzerland in the bad weather of 1816, (where Gothic scenes had taken place along with wine and laudanum - the liquefied opium that had filled them with hallucinations), Lord Byron had completed the third canto of his epic poem Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage and nearby, during the same period in Lausanne, he had written The Prisoner of Chillon, while Percy Shelley, his Hymn to Intellectual Beauty. It was also the Gothic scenario where Frankenstein had been written and where, his doctor, Polidori had penned the disturbing short story The Vampyre, “which would years later influence Bram Stoker’s Dracula.” (Perrottet 2011)

Both De Quincey and Coleridge who had taken forms of opium were heroes of their time and have gone down in history to help shape the world as we know it today. Where would we be without The Rolling Stones’ Sister Morphine - it’s all related back to De Quincey - the romantic essayist and poet who is thought of as being one of the greatest and most imaginative and stylistic exponents of English Romantic writing. Throughout his life, he had written productively and abundantly publishing his masterpiece Confessions of an English Opium Eater in 1821 at the age of thirty-six after using opium for almost twenty years at the age. (Documentary CDMA 2015) The huge number of different topics and genre boundaries he crossed have resulted in many of his works being unclassifiable, yet his opium-influenced writings would influence many that would become great and influential such as Poe, Baudelaire, Burroughs and singer/songwriter Lou Reed to name but a few.

Likewise, Coleridge’s thought has been very influential. In relation to “the intellectual history of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries in philosophy, religion, education, ethics, and politics…” (Ahern 2018, 596) this is especially related to the time before our age of postmodernism which had begun in the 1990s and after. As the first person to use the words conscious and unconscious as possible words long before Freud he has been influential on the philosophers, political thinkers and artists and musicians who all reference him. (St Paul’s Cathedral 2017) His Kubla Khan, which many feel is one of the greatest poems ever produced, is filled with emotive imagery and alliteration and in addition to his poems which number more than two hundred he was crucial in helping William Wordsworth to publish his Lyrical Ballads in 1798, “which was pivotal in the development of the Romantic Movement.” (Providence eLearning 2012) Among his main poems related to the Gothic, myth, and the psychological are The Rime of the Ancient Mariner (1798), the aforementioned Kubla Khan (1797), Christabel (1797) and Dejection: An Ode (1802). Fancy and imagination, with much emphasis on the sensations, were separate things for Coleridge and he had believed that the world we perceive is also something that is coming out of us. (St Paul’s Cathedral 2017)

Opium, De Quincey and Coleridge

Although it had really fit very well with the Romantic idea to get as drunk or become as drug influenced as possible, and to come up with a genius piece of writing, with both being drug dependent, liquid opium seemed to open up both their unconscious - emphasizing their connections to creativity, imagination and the sensations. Through their usage, both their poetic imaginations may have become fired up to see things in a more reflective and self-reflective way.

In fact, the bohemian De Quincey and Coleridge both began taking opium as a medicinal cure. For De Quincey, it was when he was only eighteen. (Documentary CDMA 2015) In the end, he was able to sort out the problems he was having with his family, and entered Worcester College, Oxford University in 1803. It was there that he had started becoming addicted and to relieve his toothache, he had taken laudanum. Yet, although De Quincey had been a brilliant student in English literature and in the Greek, Latin, and German languages and had undertaken his final exams, in 1808 he left before he had finished and wasn’t given his degree. (Encyclopedia World of Biography: Thomas De Quincey, 2020) Coleridge’s taking of laudanum, which finally became extreme, had probably started at childhood in order to cure “minor pains, including teething” and …“gout rheumatism.” At the time, opium had “no legal restrictions and was freely available.” (Marotta 2006, 8) Like De Quincey, after him, he had also left university without completing his degree. With a great memory and eagerness to learn, in 1791 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge University but left without finishing owing to an increasing friendship with the poet Robert Southey with whom he had shared an interest in poetry and a strong dislike for neoclassicism (Encyclopedia World of Biography: Samuel Taylor Coleridge, 2020)

The Enlightenment

In a perhaps overly scientific and technological age, when the spirit of what seemed to be wholly a human animal was felt to be fading out, intertwined with their opium-taking had perhaps been both their reactions against ideas that were being expounded during the Enlightenment, which for them had not been always satisfactory, “The Enlightenment Era, in general, was all about science, reason, logic, intellectuals, academics and empiricism and a rationalistic doctrine of natural rights. On the other hand, Romanticism was all about feelings and it was a counteraction against reasoning. It was all about experiencing life, hence the explosion in art, music and poetry. The Romantic movement rejected logic and reason to guide decisions, and instead used emotions to base decisions.” (Renthlei 2020, 1)

A dominant idea in the Enlightenment was that human society was based on contract, which had been discussed by philosophers Hobbes, Locke, and Rousseau. Yet the Romantic writers, would investigate and question all of this. Although they were not entirely against the increasing level of scientific and technological expertise of the time, they had often in fact been worried about the limits of scientific and mechanical explanation and if whether these things could destroy our need for human freedom and beauty (Timeline Theological Views 2013) since above all, for them human imagination and an emphasis on the sensations was the real way to perceive truth. Moreover, unlike the Enlightenment idea that subject and object - the subjective and the objective - were completely distinct from one another, many of the Romantic writers including De Quincey’s and Coleridge’s writings both appear to show that subject and object - were one and the same. (St Paul’s Cathedral 2017)

The Connection Between Self–Reflection and the Gothic - Opium and Self-Reflection

Perhaps, in their search for truth, and because of their disappointment and trepidation with Enlightenment ideas, and to try to counter-balance them, especially in relation to bringing in a human element, which included the imagination, a strong emphasis on the sensations and the appreciation and conception of beauty, much of what they had expressed in their works seems to take a form of self-reflection. In a sense, this can be described as being a form of prophetic romantic idealism, which seemed to stem from a wish for self-confirmation. (Brecht de Groote 2015, 1). In their works, often within a context filled with a “dynamic sense of “trauma and fear” this form of self-reflection would be related to, and manifested in external objects and things and could appear directly and literal as a mirror. We see this in De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium Eater where the essayist, using self-reflection as a form of prophetic romantic idealism describes a river as being like a mirror for self-refection,

“I was once told by a near relative of mine, that having in her childhood fallen into a river, and being on the very verge of death but for the critical assistance which reached her, she saw in a moment her whole life, in its minutest incidents, arrayed before her simultaneously as in a mirror; and she had a faculty developed as suddenly for comprehending the whole and every part.” (De Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium Eater 1821, Falflak 2009, 120)

Continuing to reflect upon himself and his state of mind in relation to the many opium induced dreams he was having, and using self-reflection as a form of prophetic romantic idealism which would manifest in external objects and things, De Quincey then reflects on how something of his life in London could be responsible for what he calls the “tyranny of the human face” which “began to unfold itself.” He describes how human faces “began to appear” when he had looked “upon the rocking waters of the ocean”. As he writes in Confessions,

“…the sea appeared paved with innumerable faces upturned to the heavens—faces imploring, wrathful, despairing, surged upwards by thousands, by myriads, by generations, by centuries: my agitation was infinite; my mind tossed and surged with the ocean.” (De Quincey, Confessions of and English Opium Eater, 1821, Falflak 2009 124)

Here is another passage:

“The waters now changed their character—from translucent lakes shining like mirrors they now became seas and oceans. And now came a tremendous change, which, unfolding itself slowly like a scroll through many months, promised an abiding torment; and in fact it never left me until the winding up of my case. Hitherto the human face had mixed often in my dreams, but not despotically nor with any special power of tormenting. But now that which I have called the tyranny of the human face began to unfold itself. Perhaps some part of my London life might be answerable for this.” (De Quincey, Confessions of and English Opium Eater, 1821, Falflak 2009, 123-4)

Moreover, in Suspiria De Profundis – a psychological fantasy in the form of a collection of essays (published posthumously in 1845), De Quincey fills the section he calls The Dark Interpreter with a similar focus and flavour where self-reflection again manifests in external objects and things,

“In after-life, from twenty to twenty-four, on looking back to those struggles of my childhood, I used to wonder exceedingly that a child could be exposed to struggles on such a scale. But two views unfolded upon me as my experience widened, which took away that wonder.” (From De Quincey’s Dark Interpreter 1845, Japp 2020 p.10)

In fact, De Quincey’s work is filled with much reflection and self-reflection of the characters’ “drug induced hallucinations” with many “multiple moments of reflection” and times in which a character struggles “with an experience of doubling” to give his own view “on that experience.” (De Groote 2015, 27)

We also see something similar in Coleridge’s Rime of the Ancient Mariner occurring as the entire poem seems to take the form of one whole opium influenced self-reflection. In relation to using self-reflection as a form of prophetic romantic idealism for example, in line 90 near the beginning of Part 2, while it is the shipmates who cry out at the mariner, for killing the bird of good luck - the albatross, (its words have given the English language the metaphor of an albatross around one's neck), Coleridge phrases it in the form of a moment of self-reflection related to the external object,

“And I had done an hellish thing, And it would work 'em woe: For all averr'd, I had kill'd the bird that made the breeze to blow. Ah wretch! said they, the bird to slay, that made the breeze to blow!” (Coleridge, Rime of the Ancient Mariner, Part 2)

Although there is much description of the details of what he sees all around him, which relates to the external, this self-reflection in the form of prophetic romantic idealism continues in a great sense throughout. In his Frost at Midnight (1798), Coleridge again uses self-reflection in similar ways to look at external objects and things,

“…With unclosed lids, already had I dreamt Of my sweet birth-place, and the old church-tower, Whose bells, the poor man's only music, rang From morn to evening, all the hot Fair-day, So sweetly, that they stirred and haunted me With a wild pleasure, falling on mine ear Most like articulate sounds of things to come! So gazed I, till the soothing things, I dreamt, Lulled me to sleep, and sleep prolonged my dreams! And so I brooded all the following morn, Awed by the stern preceptor’s face, mine eye…”.

In relation to the question and subject of romantic reflections in general, the dominating presence “of mirrors, echoes and related effects in Romantic literature and the singular enthusiasm that Romantic authors express for such instances of reflection have long been key points of reference.” (De Groote 2015,1) M. H. Abrams’s The Mirror and the Lamp ’s (1953) discussion of mirrors and self-reflection are never only used for literal or direct reflection – i.e. “of one-on-one duplication” but rather, the mirror or the inclination to self-reflect, or use self-refection as a device is related to “conform as well as to deform, to redouble and to dedouble…”. (De Groote 2015, 2) Through this, the motif of interpretation would exist “as a critique of criticism itself” (Brecht de Groote 2015, 2) helping ignite a way for the main character’s self-reflection as form of self-confirmation.


This contest between too much science versus what it is to be human can be also seen in Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein which would reveal and demonstrate an alienated and deformed tragic figure inspired from the German. As a reaction to what the Enlightenment made these writers think and feel, this story can also be seen to contain something where the subject is also the same as object. Although Frankenstein seems to be about a monster deformed etc. the story, also like much in the writings of De Quincey and Coleridge, comes from a position of something - a character or figure, that wants to confirm itself and its state, in fact, - its human existence and presence through self-reflection (in the Gothic sense) who, in Chapter 13 of the book as a form of self-confirmation asks Victor himself ”what was I”. (Shelley 1818) It is this self-reflection which can also be seen as a form of prophetic romantic idealism in relation to self-confirmation, and we can see whether this is similar by asking whether it is true if in fact the creature is a sensitive and tortured soul deep down and if this differs from the sentiments and Gothic sensibilities of both De Quincy and Coleridge.

In relation to the self-reflection elements in many of De Quincey’s works as well as many of Coleridge’s, the monster, who has a tortured inner state is a beast in despair. Although he “is an intellectually affluent and articulate character…..” he “is self-taught…learning to read literature” and influenced by, “…John Milton’s Paradise Lost and reading it he sees his status in life as being like that of Adam.” (Underwood 2017, 2) It is a self-reflection like no other and perhaps a way to find a way to confirm the self. As the monster states in Chapter 15, “Like Adam, I was apparently united by no link to any other being in existence; but his state was far different from mine in every other respect.” (Shelley 1818) As such, through an effort to confirm himself as something which feels legitimate,

“Not only does the monster identify with Adam, but he also identifies with Lucifer in John Milton’s Paradise Lost: “Many times I considered Satan as the fitter emblem of my condition; for often, like him, when I viewed the bliss of my protectors, the bitter gall of envy rose in me” revealing his self-reflection (Underwood 2017, 2)

In De Quincey’s Confessions of an English Opium Eater, as in Frankenstein, the protagonist within a context and dynamic of trauma and fear as mentioned earlier is also involved in an attempt of self-confirmation where the tormented internal is related to the external. This protagonist (the author De Quincey) is like Shelley’s creature who also appears to be looking at an external manifestation of itself and its eyes also appear to be “in search of a mirror” revealing a struggle to find some mark “for their speeches external to themselves yet entirely like themselves, everywhere/echo or mirror seeking of themselves.” As we can see, it is a search for a dispersed or disseminated other.” (Brecht de Groote, 5-6) Likewise, in Coleridge’s narrative poem Rime of the Ancient Mariner, which also tells a story, there is a focus on “the hypnotic powers of speech” (Noetic 2016), which perhaps is not so far removed from the creature’s own fascination with voices outside of himself. Under opium’s influence, which was popular and all too readily available, this spirit in fact was something permeating the time filling the writers’ consciousness/unconsciousness and in both De Quincey and Coleridge there is an emphasis on a Gothic sensibility.


Excerpt out of 11 pages


Opium and Self-Reflection: Two Very Gothic Writers: De Quincey and Coleridge
N/A. professional essay
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ISBN (eBook)
This essay is an adaptation of an English Course I was teaching at Luiss Guido Carli University in Rome in 2019
De Quincey, Coleridge, Shelley, Byron, Gothic, Walpole, Opium
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Professor PhD, Celta, BA Hons. Cyrus Manasseh (Author), 2019, Opium and Self-Reflection: Two Very Gothic Writers: De Quincey and Coleridge, Munich, GRIN Verlag, https://www.grin.com/document/917977


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