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June 25, 2013

The Opium Essayists

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Thanks to a chilly morning which got my annual yard sale off to a slow start, I had the leisure to power through the Norton Anthology’s selection of Romantic period essayists, Charles Lamb, William Hazlitt, and Thomas De Quincey.  They were all fond of laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol) which led the Norton editors to an overuse of footnotes defining laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol).  I will never forget the definition of laudanum: opium dissolved in alcohol.

Charles Lamb, had he been alive today, would no doubt have been a blogger.  The lively pieces he wrote under the pseudonym of Elia are just right for a post, if a bit long.  In “Old China” he describes the comings and goings of the figures on some cups and saucers, free associates to observations on human foibles and comes back to “Now do just look at that merry little Chinese waiter holding an umbrella, big enough for a bed-tester, over the head of that pretty insipid half-Madonna-ish chit of a lady in that very blue summerhouse.”

“The Two Races of Men” posits that the human species is composed of two distinct races: the borrowers and the lenders.  Here is his encomium to the borrowers:

“What careless, even deportment hath your borrower.  .  . what a beautiful reliance on Providence.  .  .what contempt for money—accounting it (yours and mine especially) no better than dross.  What a liberal confounding of those pedantic distinctions of meum and tuum*.  .  .what a noble simplification of language resolving those supposed opposites into one clear intelligible pronoun.”

William Hazlitt I have to thank for pointing out how great an effect the French Revolution had on the Romantic poets, especially Wordsworth.  It leaned him toward using the vernacular and writing about The Common Man.  I’m sure they told us this in college and I’m sure I wrote it in my notes: “Wordsworth influenced by Fr. Rev,” and wasn’t remotely curious as to what that had to do with anything.  Having more of a history myself than I did when I was 20, I can now appreciate what the flow of events birthed. 

I also have Hazlitt to thank for the phrase “we quaffed our flip,” flip being a sweet, spicy ale not unlike the Whisky Mac my friend Eileen introduced me to, and quaff being what I and my neighbor Gwen-who- knows-something-about-just-about-everything did with said Whisky Mac the other night.  We quaffed it.

One of Hazlitt’s essays is entitled “On Going a Journey” You read that correctly.  It’s an affirmation for those of us who like to travel alone: “We go a journey chiefly to be free of all impediments and of all inconveniences; to leave ourselves behind, much more to get rid of others.”

I liked Thomas De Quincey best.  His best known essay has the provocative title, “Confessions of an English Opium Eater.” De Quincey’s story has a contemporary resonance.  He became addicted to laudanum (opium dissolved in alcohol), which he originally began taking for pain.  Sometimes he was able to support himself, his family and his habit, and sometimes he lived rough on the streets of London.  Like many of the homeless that we today take for granted, he was an intelligent and sensitive human being. 

De Quincey seems to be writing in a dream state.  It’s unclear what are waking day dreams, nightmares, withdrawal hallucinations, fantasizing and illusion.  He writes movingly of Ann, a prostitute who befriended him.  One night when De Quincey became violently ill, Ann bought a medicinal tonic out of what little money she had and so helped him get through a bad patch.  Then she disappeared.  Nearly twenty years after the incident with Ann, and while in one of his trance-like states he imagines he sees her and says, “So then I have found you at last.”  Just that.  And I burst into tears.

On some other tangent in “Confessions.  .  .” De Quincey says “The dread book of account, which the Scriptures speak of, is, in fact, the mind itself of each individual.”  Now there’s a road I can go down.

It was a pleasant morning reading these guys, and sipping tea out of an old cup and saucer of my great Aunt Ann’s Johnson Brothers’ Blue Regency pattern: Do just look at that odd looking bird, a bird I don’t think resembles anything in nature, but rather might be some creature imagined while under the influence of laudanum. (Opium dissolved in alcohol.)

Blue Regency china

Blue Regency china

*I hope your intelligence isn’t offended if I tell you these words mean “mine and thine.”

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