“In Xanadu did Kubla Khan A stately pleasure-dome decree Where Alph, the sacred river, ran Down to a sunless sea”
Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s most famous poem, “Kubla Khan,” was written after an intense laudanum-induced dream; poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning largely depended on laudanum to function; and Lord Byron’s daughter, the celebrated mathematician Ada Lovelace, claimed laudanum calmed her overactive mind. The fact that many writers and artists of the Victorian period used laudanum is clear—but what was it about this heady drug that ensnared so many creative people?
Opium has been known since at least 3400 BCE, when the Sumerians produced the first written reference to the drug. The power of opium to dull pain while allowing the user to remain functional meant it was the drug of choice for those suffering both mental and physical anguish. In the 16th century, the alchemist Paracelsus created laudanum (possibly named from Latin words meaning “something to be praised”) by mixing a tincture of opium with alcohol. By the 17th century, the physician and medical pioneer Thomas Sydenham had simplified and standardized the recipe, marketing it as a cure-all. (Today the word laudanum refers to any alcoholic tincture of opium.)
By the 1800s laudanum was widely available—it could be easily purchased from pubs, grocers, barber shops, tobacconists, pharmacies, and even confectioners. The drug was often cheaper than alcohol, making it affordable to all levels of society. It was prescribed for everything from soothing a cranky infant to treating headaches, persistent cough, gout, rheumatism, diarrhea, melancholy, and “women’s troubles.”
Laudanum became widely used throughout Victorian society as a medicine, and soon many writers, poets, and artists (along with many ordinary people) became addicted. Bram Stoker, Charles Dickens, George Eliot, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, Percy Bysshe Shelley, Lord Byron, and many others were all known to have used laudanum. Some managed to take it briefly while ill, but others became hopelessly dependent. Most famously, the English writer Thomas De Quincey wrote a whole book—Confessions of an English Opium-Eater (1821)—on his use of opium and its derivatives. The book proposed that, unlike alcohol, opium improved the creative powers, an opinion that only served to make the drug more appealing to those searching for artistic and literary inspiration. A number of other writers also played on the perceived glamor of the drug, praising its ability to enhance the imagination.
Laudanum’s association with the Romantic poets likely stems from Coleridge’s addiction. Like many of his contemporaries, the poet suffered from poor health, and resorted to laudanum as both a painkiller and a sedative. Coleridge famously admitted that he had composed "Kubla Khan" after waking from an opium-induced reverie. But the drug that was at first inspiring soon became enslaving, and Coleridge’s addiction and resultant health issues plagued him for the rest of his life. The once-vibrant young man became listless and wan, and suffered terribly from withdrawal if he did not get his fix. In an 1814 letter to his friend John Morgan [PDF], Coleridge admitted it was not just the physical effects of the drug that grieved him, but its effects on his character: “I have in this one dirty business of Laudanum an hundred times deceived, tricked, nay, actually & consciously LIED. – And yet all these vices are so opposite to my nature, that but for the free-agency-annihilating Poison, I verily believe that I should have suffered myself to be cut in pieces rather than have committed any one of them.”
The poet Elizabeth Barrett Browning first took laudanum at the age of 15 after suffering a spinal injury. After that, she used it for various ailments, including hemorrhaging of the lungs. When she began corresponding with the poet Robert Browning, who would later become her husband, she revealed to him that she took 40 drops of the drug a day—a pretty substantial dose even for an addict.
Golden-haired Elizabeth Siddal was another famous laudanum user. The muse, and later wife, of the great pre-Raphaelite painter Dante Gabriel Rossetti, she suffered from poor health and became hopelessly addicted to laudanum. For years she continued to function despite her addiction, until she lost a baby daughter in 1861—a tragedy that deepened her desire for the mindless oblivion offered by the drug. In 1862, when she had become pregnant once more, her husband returned from dinner one night to find her unconscious after an overdose. Rossetti called for a doctor, but when the physician sadly announced he could do nothing for her, Rossetti refused to believe the diagnosis and sent for three more doctors, who all confirmed Siddal’s untimely death.
Another famous victim of laudanum addiction was Branwell Brontë, the brother of Charlotte, Emily, and Anne. Together the four siblings shared the same tragic and lonely upbringing, which in the sisters unleashed a creative spark that kindled into some of the greatest works in English literature, including Jane Eyre and Wuthering Heights. Yet Branwell, who seemingly shared the same potential talent as a poet and artist (he created respected juvenilia alongside his sisters), instead descended into alcohol and laudanum dependency, his sensibilities seemingly too delicate to take the constant rejections an artist must endure. Branwell died a penniless addict at 31 years old in 1848, just a year after his sisters’ most famous novels were published.
That so many writers and artists were known to have taken laudanum is perhaps unsurprising considering that this was an era before aspirin, anti-depressants, or effective sleeping pills. But as the negative effects of laudanum became better-documented—the euphoria it provided was followed by crashing lows, restlessness, torpor, and sweats—it became clear that the drug needed to be better regulated.
Accounts by addicts helped sway public opinion: in one influential piece published in the Journal of Mental Sciences in 1889, a drug-addicted young girl revealed her anguish during withdrawal:
“My principal feeling was one of awful weariness and numbness at the end of my back; it kept me tossing about all day and night long. It was impossible to lie in one position for more than a minute, and of course sleep was out of the question. I was so irritable that no one cared to come near me; mother slept on the sofa in my room, and I nearly kicked her once for suggesting that I should say hymns over to myself, to try and make me go to sleep. Hymns of a very different sort were in my mind, I was once or twice very nearly strangling myself, and I am ashamed to say that the only thing that kept me from doing so was the thought that I would be able to get laudanum somehow. I was conscious of feeling nothing but the mere sense of being alive, and if the house had been burning, would have thought it too much of an effort to rise.”
By 1868 laudanum could only be sold by registered chemists in England and, in a nod to its dangers, had to be clearly labeled as a poison—the first restrictions on its use. In 1899 pure aspirin was developed, a far safer painkiller, heralding an era of better-regulated medicines. And although the tortured writer self-medicating with laudanum became a thing of the past, many other illicit substances soon stepped into the breach—leaving the trope of the drug-addled creative genius safely intact.