How did the use of opium and other drugs in Romantic Literature affect the authors' writing? How does this correspond to reaching the "sublime"?

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farouk23 | College Teacher | (Level 1) Associate Educator

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To answer this question we will first have to address what constitutes romantic literature, some of the authors of romantic literature associated with the use of opium and other hallucinogens and lastly what is meant by sublime in the context of romantic literature?

Romantic literature (Romanticism) refers to works authored during the Romantic era or Romantic period originating in late 18th century Europe. Romanticism was in response and in rebellion of the industrial revolution and the aristocratic socio-political norms of the period. Romanticism embodied ideas based on political and personal liberty, with an ideology based around radicalism and divergence from the accepted norm. Some of the major characteristics of Romantic literature are:

  1. An emphasis on ones imagination and emotion being superior to reason and formal rules. 
  2. The belief that intuition and instinct is a better guide to conduct than logic.
  3. An emphasis on the love for nature and a primitive simple existence, without the distractions of  the contemporary urbanization and industrialization of the time. 
  4. An emphasis on emotional introspection across a wide range of metal states.
  5. An interest in the spiritual, supernatural and the exotic.

Some notable Romantic era authors known for their drug use were:

  1. Samuel Taylor Coleridge ( Opium)
  2. Charles Baudelaire (Hashish)
  3. Robert Louis Stevenson ( Cocaine)
  4. Thomas De Quincey, (Laudanum)

In the context of Romantic literature, the sublime refers to the “realm of experience beyond the measurable”, the sublime are expressions that cannot be thought of in a rational context. Scholars like Edmund Burke and Immanuel Kant define the sublime as unquantifiable, beautiful and invoking of terror all at the same time. The sublime can best be described as a state that invokes all aspects of the senses at the same time, giving the perceiver a flush of multiple emotions and state of minds.

The effects of opium and other drugs that alter the state of mind can clearly be seen in writings of some of the Romantic era authors. This drugs have a know effect of causing a flush of emotions and altering ones state of mind. This altered state of mind while writing allowed the authors to look at things in a much broader context, which may not seem logical but was entirely rational given their state of mind at the time. So in essence they achieved the sublime by altering their state of mind and this is reflected in how they approach their literally works and in the subjects of the works themselves. 

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