I’m standing in the Tate Gallery, years ago, staring at the painting by Sir John Everett Millais of Ophelia. I know the story, and the story of the model, Elizabeth Siddal. It was the Pre-Raphelite movement in painting, the romantic poets were just fading away. Elizabeth was a great beauty of her time, but in a subtle way. She was the wife, as well as the muse of Dante Gabriel Rossetti. Her and her husband both partook of Laudanum, her more than him. She became a full blown addict, lost a child, and died of an overdose. Upon finding her corpse, it took three doctors to convince Rossetti his wife was dead.
That painting always haunted me. The landscape looks like Wonderland. And as Ophelia floats down the stream to her doom, you don’t see the anguish. Or at least I don’t. I see Alice.
Laudanum is diluted opium, a ten percent solution in a tincture, some say the color of dried blood and very bitter. Many people think of opium as morphine, which it is, but it also contains the opiates codeine and thebaine, as well. The idea was hashed out by a Swiss-German alchemist, Paracelsus, known as the father of toxicology, in the sixteenth century. It went through many permutations, mixed with everything from alcohol to hashish, belladonna, mercury and even cayenne pepper. Along the way it picked up a devoted following.
And to think, it all came from poppies.
My favorite laudanum story, I got from a friend who swore it was true. Her mother in law, a nice little old lady here in the states decided to have a tea party, a real Victorian affair. She heard laudanum was a popular item in the Victorian era, and so managed somehow to score some, and proceeded to dose the tea with it. It did not turn out well, but all survived.
Into the Victorian era, Laudanum was cheap – cheaper at times than alcohol, available without a prescription and thought to cure almost whatever ailed you. Your kid keeps acting up? A few drops of opium will calm him down. Feeling a little down? It’ll pick you up. Diarrhea, bronchitis, colds, gout and of course anything to do with a woman’s reproductive system and cycle.
Being incredibly addictive, if you suffered from a prolonged illness you could come out of it with a nasty habit.
Or as was often the case, a fondness for the idyllic daydream state it gave you, or even your mind opened and creativity sparked. Until the addict’s habit takes over the creative part of the brain.
Being the artsy type, I’ve always been interested in the relationship between art and altered states. I freely admit, I’ve experimented on a number of occasions, with varying results. But the further you go down that path, the less and less work you do.
Usually. There are exceptions. But very few happy endings. You seldom read about anyone who speaks warmly of their time as an addict. I never got that far, but I got close enough to the edge to see what was on the other side.
To the Victorians in particular, laudanum provided haven in a horrifying world. Britain’s extensive trade network ensures a steady, and cheap supply of opium to manufacture it. And then the Brits got into the cultivation of the Opium Poppy.
In Poe’s Ligeia, the opium addict narrator eludes to a few ruby colored drops into his wife’s drink, which brings upon her death. It’s assumed this is laudanum, as the telling part is that Poe set this story in England.
Incidentally, the rumor that Poe was an opium addict is unlikely to be true. That’s not to say he never had laudanum, it was universal for certain common maladies of the day. The rumor gets its fuel from Ligeia and other opium references in his stories, and the common belief that writers are auto biographical in their work. Which with Poe in particular, wasn’t always true.
There were plenty of people who were experimenting with Laudanum and art. Wilkie Collins, who knew a thing or two about horror took it for gout and rheumatism, and used it in the plot of The Moonstone.
Elizabeth Barret Browning was up to 40 drops a day when she began corresponding with her future husband, Robert Browning, after starting on the drug following an injury at the age of fifteen. It’s believed that the drug contributed to her frail health for the rest of her life.
The example most often pointed to for laudanum use in art is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s Kubla Khan. The poem, written after waking from an opium induced dream is indeed visionary. But those visions turned to nightmares brought on later by Coleridge’s addiction.
From Uncle Tom’s Cabin, where Cassy uses laudanum to kill a child, to The Mystery of Edwin Drood by Dickens, which features the nefarious Uncle Jasper who swills the stuff, the drug became mainstream.
In horror novels, it plays a part in both Bram Stoker’s Dracula, and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein.
In a sense, Laudanum helped inspire both. Dracula was influenced by an earlier work, The Vampyre by John Polidori. Polidori was staying with Lord Byron, another noted laudanum consumer, at Byron’s villa in Switzerland. Byron was in exile for among other things, a rumored incestuous relationship with his half sister. A competition conceived one evening during a storm, to see who could write the best horror story led to Polidori’s book, expanded upon by an idea originally proposed by Byron. Perhaps as a doctor, Polidori’s main role was as supplier, we’ll never know. But his lasting work was The Vampyr.
The only other story to come out of that evening, was Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein, whose protagonist Victor takes laudanum to calm his nerves and sleep.
Mary Shelley’s husband, Percy was there and came up with only a fragment of a tale, poetry being his thing. His influence is keenly felt on his wife’s book though, as the genesis of the idea came from a conversation between him and Polidori. Percy kept a flask with laudanum, and by all accounts, it did seem to free up his creativity early on. But it took its toll, mentally and eventually physically. Byron’s daughter also became an addict.
I’ve never taken laudanum myself. It really first came to my attention from the Ken Russell film Gothic, a fictional (we hope) account of that night in Switzerland with Byron, Shelley and the rest. It’s filmed from the point of view of someone indulging right along with the poets, and does an admirable job of making the viewer feel it. How accurate it is I don’t know, but it pretty much warned me against it. I like strange, but I have my limits.
So is there a takeaway to these anecdotes? If so it’s this. Laudanum was made for occasional use, not prolonged use. It did have valid medical benefits. But those benefits were negated when it because a habit.
Some writers and artists did find a creative spark in laudanum, but like gout, if it became a regular habit, it stopped being useful and caused other problems. And if left unchecked, quite often misery and death.
From Wikipedia we learn that M. H. Abrams, whose most influential work to any American undergraduate was overseeing the Norton Anthology of English Literature, weighed in on the subject. He believed in what he called the mirror and the lamp. In short, he believed that the reader during the Romantic era saw literature as a mirror on their society. He believed the writers saw what they were doing as bringing out their inner soul to illuminate the world, and that the drugs helped access a place inside them that couldn’t be reached any other way.
He saw their opium use as a tool that freed their inner self and let it come pouring out in verse. But he also saw the dark side, Of Percy Bysshe Shelley, he wrote “The tragedy of Shelley’s short life was that intending always the best, he brought disaster and suffering upon himself and those he loved.”
Also from Wikipedia, Elisabeth Schneider counters that the euphoria produced by opium “merely frees the creativity naturally found within the poet.”
Either way, it had the desired effect, at least for a while. In our zero tolerance was on drugs, saying recreational drugs use has benefits is akin to farting in church. But it’s true, and our kids aren’t stupid enough not to realize it. They see it in popular culture all the time, in some of the most influential people of their age. And they see them die, and hopefully make up their own mind, not just react to slogans.
I’m reminded of Louis Armstrong who was an avid marijuana smoker in his youth. From reading about him I learned that in fact, marijuana slows down your perception of time, which is beneficial when you’re trying to cram sixty four notes in two seconds. The story was the same with him. The benefits he got from the drug were outweighed when he got busted in an era much more prohibitive than today.
In the end, art, be it visual or literary comes from inside. We all have different ways of reaching that place to yank it out. The romantics went deeper than we do in our art today, and perhaps it took a bit of nature’s wonder to set it free.