The Romantic and His Opium: The fragmented ‘dream-vision’ of Samuel Taylor Coleridge

QUOTES_SamuelColeridgeTaylorIn the summer of 1797, in an isolated farmhouse between Porlock and Linton, Samuel Taylor Coleridge fell asleep under the effect of some prescribed anodyne (“two grains of opium”), while reading Samuel Purchas’ Purchas his Pilgrimage. He tried to recollect the images of his stupor after he woke up, but couldn’t, because his writing was interrupted by a “person from Porlock”, an episode that has been read as the interruption of the poetic discrepancy of art by the starkness of life and reality.

Though its plausibility has been deemed questionable, the story goes on to confirm Coleridge’s reputation as the “random eclectic” and the inspired truant of the romantic literary period. This was an image that Coleridge was in no hurry to shed, and worked at maintaining.

tumblr_mvytgguvCC1rarsdao6_1280Kubla Khan”, one of Coleridge’s most beloved poems, is popularly believed to have been written under the influence of anodyne. Coleridge later explained that the poem “came to (him) in a dream”, which has been read as an obvious implication of a psychedelic trance resulting from his opium use. Coleridge’s “Conversation Poems” reflect a dependency on the ‘other’ figure, which rises out of his constant need for a hero, or an inspiration, something or somebody to aspire to. This dependency on other people translates into his dependency on opium and subsequently his interest in philosophy.

“Kubla Khan” unfolds like a fragmented vision, clustered and almost stuffed with vivid and evocative imagery. The hallucinatory effect of the poem is created with two distinct techniques. The first and more evident one is the use of fractured imagery, arranged (paradoxically) in a seeming flow. The poem adheres to the ‘structure’ of a dream- it is vivid, the images are stringed together by random association and it does not conclude, but peters out instead.

The second technique is the way Coleridge encompasses conflicting ideas in the poem. They seem to be welling out of his consciousness and spilling over without the poet willfully doing it. Therefore, Coleridge attributes a structure to something that came to him as a nebulous mass of images and ideas. The opium was seen to enable an activation of the mind in an irrational yet inspirational way. Coleridge was not a man of binaries; inspiration for him would rarely, if ever, stem from structures or formulae.

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