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Victorian Poetry 40.2 (2002) 209-215

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"Like dull narcotics, numbing pain":
Speculations on Tennyson and Opium

Roger S. Platizky

IN TENNYSON: THE UNQUIET HEART, BIOGRAPHER ROBERT BERNARD MARTIN describes how Tennyson was haunted "from the time of his honeymoon until the end of his life" by the accusation that he was an opium addict. 1 He took umbrage with Charles Kingsley over what he thought was a caricature of himself in the novel Two Years Ago, a Spasmodic poet who dies of a drug overdose, and he was concerned about being guiltily linked with his brother Charles, whose addiction to opium was severe enough that it drove his wife Louise Sellwood (Emily's sister) to a nervous breakdown (Martin, p. 222). Fearing that he had inherited black blood from his father's line, Tennyson may have felt threatened by associations with his dissolute brother, especially since he suffered from some of the physical ailments and nervous disorders—including gout, chronic indigestion, and hypochondria—that were commonly treated with opiates. 2 In her chapter on Tennyson's treatments for such disorders in Tennyson and Madness, Ann C. Colley emphasizes that Tennyson chose doctors who did not believe in treating such symptoms with drugs like opium. 3 Despite his attempts to allay rumors, Tennyson's outward appearance—his gypsy look, long hair, watery wide eyes—along with his artistic temperament, habitual pipe smoking, and trance-like imagery, all lent themselves to his unwelcome characterization as a possible drug user. In The Unquiet Heart, Martin reports that Lady Frederick Cavendish, upon seeing Tennyson walking near Downing Street, described him as "a dirty man with opium-glazed eyes and rat-taily hair hanging down his back" (Martin, p. 421). While posing in this way could have drawn the kind of attention that Tennyson had consciously tried to avoid, it is even more paradoxical that Tennyson's aversion to being associated with opium use was highly atypical, especially in the early years of the Victorian period, since the use of opium was not only popular but "completely unrestricted" in England until 1868 when the first Pharmacy Act went into effect. 4

In Opium and the People: Opiate Use in Nineteenth-Century England, Virginia Berridge and Griffith Edwards document the extraordinary [End Page 209] popularity and ubiquity of opiates in Victorian England. The drug could be found in just about every household the way aspirin (discovered in 1899) can be today (Berridge and Edwards, p. xx). Different forms of opium, from laudanum (the most popular and literary) to lozenges, were sold to adults or children in drugstores as well as in grocery shops and pubs. Moreover, parents were not averse to giving children popular forms of opiates, like Godfrey's Cordial and Dalby's Carminative, for teething and restlessness(pp. xix, 24). Democratically unrestricted by age, class, or gender, opiate compounds were also prescribed for a plethora of ailments, ranging from sleeplessness, muscle spasms, nervous tension, diarrhea, and menstrual cramps to dysentery, hysteria, toothache, gout, and rheumatism. Opiates were also used to treat fatal diseases like tuberculosis, cancer, and cholera (pp. 66-67). With costs varying from penny doses of laudanum to pound doses of Turkish opium, everyone, from laborers to luminaries, had access to opiates. If Marx considered religion the "opium of the people" because it dulled political activism among laborers, many famous Victorian figures, including Charles Dickens, Elizabeth Barrett Browning, Jane Carlyle, Florence Nightingale, Dante Gabriel Rossetti, William Gladstone, and Wilkie Collins, took opiates for comfort and energy as well as for sedation (pp. 58, 60). Even Elizabeth Gaskell, who is critical of laborer John Barton's opium addiction in Marty Barton, still calls opiates given to the children of Manchester in times of crisis "mother's mercy." 5 Therefore, as an artist and a peer as well as an individual with personal likes and dislikes, Tennyson's aversion to opium use, especially in the early part of the Victorian period, entices speculation.

Although Tennyson privately disavowed any connection with opium use, he alludes to the drug both explicitly...


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