A Blupete Biography Page

Opium Use, Part 6 to the Life & Works of
Samuel Taylor Coleridge

Most people know little of Coleridge's writing. They will know of his The Rhyme of Ancient Mariner, and, maybe too, of his Christabel or of Kubla Khan; but for what Coleridge is most known, is -- well, he was a druggy. Coleridge took up the use of opium as a young man; it became a life long addiction. He was by all accounts a brilliant man, a delightful conversationalist; but Coleridge's career, his life, was ruined by the use of opium. His opium habit was a misery to him and to his friends. His addiction meant that "his existence became a never-ending squalor of procrastination, excuses, lies, debts, degradation, failure."36

Opium use in English society in the nineteenth century was completely acceptable when it was used at a time a person was in a painful circumstance, such as when suffering from a tooth ache. Most all households had a bottle of laudanum, viz., opium dissolved in alcohol. No one thought ill of a person for keeping such a remedy handy or using it on occasions. Opium and all of the concoctions made from it were unrestricted until 1868, when the first Pharmacy Act became law.37 The local chemists would prepare their own favourite medical potions, and there indeed was variety of ingredients; but always there was added a liberal dose of opium.

"There were nationally famous and long-established preparations like Dover's Powder, that mixture of ipecacuanha and powdered opium originally prescribed for gout ... An expanding variety of commercial preparations began to come on the market at mid-century [18th]. They were typified by the chlorodynes -- Collis Browne's, Towle's and Freeman's. The children's opiates like Godfrey's Cordial and Dalby's Carminative were long-established. They were everywhere to be bought. There were local preparations, too like Kendal Black Drop, popularly supposed to be four times the strength of laudanum -- and well known outside its own locality because Coleridge used it."38
An understanding of the wide spread use of opium will lead one to conclude that it was not the mere use of opium that lead to Coleridge's ruin but rather his extensive and continuous use of the stuff. Keats, Byron, Shelley, Scott: they all took it, laudanum, off and on.39 Bristol, at the close of the 18th century, was at the centre of a luminous drug circle revolving around a Dr. Beddoes, who had among his patients: Tom Wedgwood; James MacIntosh; Charles Lloyd; and, of course, Coleridge. De Quincey was as much known for his drug use as anyone else, but it did not take the same toll on his life as it did on Coleridge's. De Quincey freely made reference to his usage of drugs, and, in his Recollections, tells how Coleridge got hooked:
"... a toothache had obliged me [de Quincey] to take a few drops of laudanum. At what time or on what motive he had commenced the use of opium, he [Coleridge] did not say; but the peculiar emphasis on horror with which he warned me against forming a habit of the same kind, impressed upon my mind a feeling that he never hoped to liberate himself from the bondage my belief is that he never did."40


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Peter Landry

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