Opium & Dreams in the Romantic Period

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During what is generally defined as the Romantic period, many poets, scientists and philosophers were greatly intrigued by dreams. Southey kept a dream journal, as did Sir Hymphry Davy, a close friend of Coleridge's; Thomas Beddoes wrote of dreams from a medical perspective in Hygeia and dreams were often a hot topic of conversation at the dinner parties of those who kept company with poets and the like (Ford 1998:5). There were many contradictory theories on the importance, interpretation and origin of dreams, at this time. Some believed that dreams were a form of divine inspiration, others that they were caused by spirits that temporarily possessed the body of the sleeper, while there were those who thought that dreams were a manifestation of the body's physical condition. De Quincey and Coleridge were two writers who both held an exceptional interest in dreams, each with their own ideas on the subject. In this essay I propose to examine De Quincey's and Coleridge's ideas on dream and daydream, and to show that opium was a profoundly influencing factor in their lives, works and dreams. I shall start by briefly outlining some of De Quincey's and then Coleridge's ideas on dreams; I shall then move on to ask what was the effect of opium on their creativity, dreams and imagination, before looking at how dream and daydream are distinguished in their ideas. Finally I wish to include a brief section on the anticipation of Freud, and to close with the question of how important opium was to the writing of my chosen authors. Since dreams and opium are so intertwined in both Coleridge and De Quincey I feel it is appropriate to consider the two subjects alongside each other.

In Thomas De Quincey's Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, dreams and opium are considered simultaneously because he records the largest effect of his opium-eating to have been on his dreams. He first became aware of the effects by a re-awakening of a faculty generally found in childhood: I know not whether my reader is aware that many children, perhaps most, have a power of painting, as it were, upon the darkness, all sorts of phantoms; in some, that power is simply a mechanic affection of the eye; others have a voluntary, or a semi-voluntary power to dismiss or summon them…In the middle of 1817, I think it was, that this faculty became positively distressing to me: at night, when I lay awake in bed, vast processions passes along in mournful pomp; friezes of never-ending stories… (De Quincey 1996:67).

This seems to concern his daydreams, or at least dreams or visions that he had when he was not asleep. At the same time he notes that a sympathy arose between the waking and sleeping states of his brain and that what he called up and painted on the darkness, was then transferred into his sleeping dreams: he attributes all of these circumstances to his increasing use of opium. De Quincey also records two other important changes attributed to opium: For this and all other changes in my dreams, were accompanied by deep-seated anxiety and gloomy melancholy…I seemed every night to descend, not metaphorically, but literally to descend, into chasms and sunless abysses, depths below depths, from which it seemed hopeless that I could ever re-ascend. Nor did I, by waking, feel that I had re-ascended (De Quincey 1996:68).

This is the first and the second is that his sense of space and time were both powerfully affected, ‘Buildings and landscapes, &c. were exhibited in proportions so vast as the bodily eye is not fitted to receive…This, however, did not disturb me so much as the vast expansion of time' (De Quincey 1996:68). It is not clear whether these effects took place in dream or waking or both; for De Quincey dream meant many things including imagination itself, but I would venture to suggest that both his waking visions and his dream were distorted in such a way.

Although De Quincey does not deal with the importance of dreams directly, his emphasis on the...
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