Edgar Allan Poe and opium

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My name is Josh Glick and I am a writer for the Walt Whitman Black and White School Newspaper. I am doing an article about famous writers and the influence of drugs on their writing. Please e-mail me back with any information on Edgar Allan Poe and his involvement with opium. I am on a deadline, so an e-mail as soon as possible will be appreciated.

-- Anonymous, March 27, 2001

Answers

Josh,

I too am working on Poe and opium at the moment, and I offer you a few thoughts (although, as you will see, they are just the sketchy outlines of a thesis and not yet a complete story).

Since most biographers are agreed that Poe did not use opium either to any great extent or even at all (see Kenneth Silverman 'Edgar A. Poe: Mournful and Never-ending Remembrance' (1991) and A.H. Quinn 'Edgar Allan Poe: A Critical Biography' (1948) for just two examples) the question becomes: Why did Poe use opium in several of his tales, since it is not autobiographical, and what does that tell us?

There are four important opium addicts in Poe's work: the narrators of 'Berenice', 'Ligeia' and 'A Tale of the Ragged Mountains', along with Roderick Usher in 'The Fall of the House of Usher'. We can add two more narrators to this list: those of 'The Oval Portrait' and 'Loss of Breath'. However, these last two use opium only in the originally published versions of the stories. When Poe came to revise these tales for republication he dropped the opium references, and it is these later versions which are reprinted in books today. It has also been suggested that some of Poe's poetry (especially 'The City in the Sea' and 'Dream-Land') may also be drawing upon opium dream- like images.

One of the best, in my opinion, descriptions which Poe offers of being under the influence of opium comes from 'Ragged Mountains': "The morphine had its customary effect that of enduing all the external world with an intensity of interest. In the quivering of a leaf in the hue of a blade of grass in the shape of a trefoil in the humming of a bee in the gleaming of a dew- drop in the breathing of the wind in the faint odours that came from the forest there came a whole universe of suggestion a gay and motley train of rhapsodies and immethodical thought."

Thomas Ollive Mabbott, who edited the best available edition of Poe's work, simply notes that Poe used opium in his tales in order to provide an alternative natural explanation for seemingly supernatural events. This is, undoubtedly, one of the reasons for the introduction of the drug. Part of the pleasure which a reader gets from reading an 'uncanny' story is in never knowing whether the events are real or unreal, natural or supernatural, true or false (these are especially true for horror movies when you think about it). Poe leaves this ambiguity intact even after you have finished reading his tales, since the narrators' self-confessed use of opium (especially in 'Ligeia') prevents you from coming to any conclusions about how reliable their story is.

This is very important because it lets us see that opium in Poe's work is a literary device, and tells us nothing about whether or not he used the drug. For that, we must depend upon biographers (who, as noted above, tell us that he did not imbibe it). However, this does not tell us why Poe chose opium to create this ambiguity: why not another drug, or something else altogether? The answer to this lies not with Poe, but with the world of magazine publishing.

When writing, in 1835, to Thomas White who owned the magazine the 'Southern Literary Messenger', Poe defended his tale 'Berenice' against the accusation that it was "far too horrible" (a copy of this letter is available online at www.eapoe.org). Instead, he drew White's attention to several other pieces in a similar style, including Thomas De Quincey's 'Confessions of an English Opium Eater'. Reading the letter it becomes evident that, by the age of 26, Poe was well aware that opium-related writing was popular with the general public, and would help a magazine sell. Another part of the answer to 'why opium?' is that it was a fashion for magazines to print such stuff in the 1830s, and Poe knew this.

A final thing to note is Poe's literary influences. One of the most important of these (although he seems to have gone off him in later life) was Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Coleridge, of course, was an opium addict and wrote poems which were inspired by its influence (e.g. 'Kubla Khan'). Because Poe was such a fan of Coleridge's work, several of his early tales (e.g. 'MS Found in a Bottle' which draws heavily on 'Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner') are indebted to him. It wouldn't be surprising, then, to find Poe writing about opium when one of his heroes did.

To sum up this long post: Poe was not an opium addict, he wrote about opium for three reasons - it helped create a weirder effect in his supernatural (or are they?) stories, it was a publishing fashion, and he was inspired by other authors who either took opium or wrote about it.

Hope this helps.

-- Anonymous, March 29, 2001


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