Opium and 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...

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...a fashion that had started long before; and there has only ever been written the one Kubla Khan.

De Quincey wrote that men are ‘disguised in sobriety’, so opium and dreams serve to expose the true mind of man and perhaps the unconscious mind. Whatever the effect of opium on Coleridge and De Quincey; on their philosophies, on their dreams and on their lives; one cannot truly know the depth or extent of it, but to take opium and go through the experience personally. It is certainly undeniable that it was an influence and an extremely important one that continues beyond the present: furthering the exposure of mans’ psychology through the portal of dreams.


Coleridge, S. T., Poems, Everyman’s Library, London, 1999.

Coleridge, S. T., Biographia Literaria, William Pickering, London, 1847.

De Quincey, T., Confessions of an English Opium-Eater and Other Writings, Oxford World’s Classics, Oxford, 1996.

Ford, J., Coleridge on Dreaming, Cambridge University Press, Cambridge, 1998.

Hayter, A., Opium and the Romantic Imagination, Faber and Faber, London, 1968.

Marcus, T., Opium in Literature and London, Issue 3. Zembla Magazine, London, 2004.
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