Tennyson and Opium

If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess ...

She blows at the pipe as she speaks, and, occasionally bubbling at it, inhales much of its contents.

‘O me, O me, my lungs is weak, my lungs is bad!  It’s nearly ready for ye, deary.  Ah, poor me, poor me, my poor hand shakes like to drop off!  I see ye coming-to, and I ses to my poor self, “I’ll have another ready for him, and he’ll bear in mind the market price of opium, and pay according.”  O my poor head!  I makes my pipes of old penny ink-bottles, ye see, deary—this is one—and I fits-in a mouthpiece, this way, and I takes my mixter out of this thimble with this little horn spoon; and so I fills, deary.  Ah, my poor nerves!  I got Heavens-hard drunk for sixteen year afore I took to this; but this don’t hurt me, not to speak of.  And it takes away the hunger as well as wittles, deary.’

She hands him the nearly-emptied pipe, and sinks back, turning over on her face.

He rises unsteadily from the bed, lays the pipe upon the hearth-stone, draws back the ragged curtain, and looks with repugnance at his three companions.  He notices that the woman has opium-smoked herself into a strange likeness of the Chinaman.  His form of cheek, eye, and temple, and his colour, are repeated in her.  Said Chinaman convulsively wrestles with one of his many Gods or Devils, perhaps, and snarls horribly.  The Lascar laughs and dribbles at the mouth.  The hostess is still.

Although we associate Opium consumption in London with the late Victorians, particularly in the 1870s, through the growing number of opium dens as dramatized in Charles Dickens’s final, unfinished, novel ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, the opium trade had been growing in London for a lot longer. The British first became involved in the Opium Trade abroad through the East India company in the 1690s and opium addiction had been a problem from as early as the 1820s, when Thomas De Quincey first published ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’.

‘If opium-eating be a sensual pleasure, and if I am bound to confess that I have indulged in it to an excess not yet recorded of any other man, it is no less true that I have struggled against this fascinating enthralment with a religious zeal, and have at length accomplished what I never yet heard attributed to any other man—have untwisted, almost to its final links, the accursed chain which fettered me.’

However, long before Charles Dickens wrote ‘The Mystery of Edwin Drood’, Alfred, Lord Tennyson was writing ‘The Lotos Eaters’, another well-known Victorian exploration of the problems surrounding a growing addiction to drugs that had not previously been available.

Branches they bore of that enchanted stem,
Laden with flower and fruit, whereof they gave
To each, but whoso did receive of them,
And taste, to him the gushing of the wave
Far far away did seem to mourn and rave
On alien shores; and if his fellow spake,
His voice was thin, as voices from the grave;
And deep-asleep he seem'd, yet all awake,
And music in his ears his beating heart did make. 

‘The Lotos Eaters’ in style is eerily reminiscent of Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, whose subtitle is ‘Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.’ Well known for being written after the effects of taking a dose of Laudanum, or, in other words opium. The dream like language of the poem, the sounds as well as the images suggest a drug-like state. 

In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
   Down to a sunless sea.
So twice five miles of fertile ground
With walls and towers were girdled round;
And there were gardens bright with sinuous rills,
Where blossomed many an incense-bearing tree;
And here were forests ancient as the hills,
Enfolding sunny spots of greenery. 

When reading Tennyson’s poetry people generally become aware that, like Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’, the sound is perhaps more important than the sense. A line often quoted in this regard is from Tennyson’s ‘Mariana’, a poem written at the same time as ‘The Lotos Eaters’.

With blackest moss the flower-plots
Were thickly crusted, one and all:
The rusted nails fell from the knots
That held the pear to the gable-wall. 

Tennyson aims for the reader to be carried away on the wave of sound, not only in ‘The Lotos Eaters’ but also throughout his poetry, he wants us to let go of our logic and drift away through our senses, aware only of the sonic and visual voyage that the language takes us on. In this sense he asks us to be a ‘Lotos Eater’, or even an ‘Opium Eater’, abandoning logic in favour of his dreamlike worlds, a distinctly Victorian journey.

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