13 March 2014 09:00

The Commission on Narcotic Drugs takes place in Vienna from Monday 17th to Friday 21st March 2014. Its purpose is ‘to review the progress made, and the challenges encountered, since the 2009 Political Declaration and Plan of Action on the World Drug Problem’. At such a moment, it is worth having a think about how differently drugs were thought about in a time before they had become illegal and when they seemed to hold such potential for good.

Thomas de Quincey, for example, in his 'Confessions of an English Opium-Eater', considered opium happiness itself. Referring to the practice of taking opium dissolved in alcohol (known as laudanum), de Quincey writes that he had discovered the ‘secret of happiness’ and a panacea for all human woes¹. He was soon, though, to experience the pains of opium withdrawal, hounded by terrifying nightmares that were filled with monstrous images and which seemed to be endless.

Still the possibilities that drugs might offer seemed to beckon at the start of the nineteenth century, particularly for the young Humphry Davy, who had yet to make his name as the inventor of the miner’s safety lamp. He bravely — some would say foolhardily — breathed nitrous oxide when it had been declared by another chemist to be fatal to do so. In doing so he discovered that the gas was in fact ‘pleasure-producing’². If he had not done so, we may never have realised nitrous oxide’s anesthetic properties, even though it took decades after Davy’s first inhalation for these to be properly acknowledged.

In Bristol in 1800, Davy was surrounded by a group of radical thinkers and poets and they provided the evidence he needed for his trial of nitrous oxide. Robert Southey, who would be poet laureate, experienced the urge to laugh: ‘The laugh was involuntary but highly pleasurable’³. A few of the subjects, including Peter Mark Roget, of Thesaurus fame, experienced feelings of vertigo or dizziness initially, which were soon replaced by pleasure. The poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge reported that he felt a ‘pleasurable sensation of warmth’, the desire to laugh, and an increased heartbeat. He stamped the ground with his feet, and felt ‘great extacy’ (Researches, 517). In the final trial he reports on, Coleridge tells Davy that his sensations were ‘of more unmingled pleasure than I had ever before experienced’ (Researches, 518). A poet himself, Davy wrote poetry on the subject of nitrous oxide.

In the early nineteenth century drug use was experimental, pioneering, and personally dangerous: in the case of nitrous oxide it turned out for the best. It also informed some of the most interesting poetical works of the nineteenth century, from Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ to John Keats’s ‘Ode to a Nightingale’.

What do you think? Share your comments with us below.


¹ Thomas de Quincey, Confessions of an English Opium-Eater, ed, Barry Milligan (London: Penguin, 2003), p. 44.

² 12 January 1801 Davy to John Tonkin; published in Humphry Davy, Collected Works, 9 vols. (London: John Murray, 1839), I, 81. See Professor Ruston's online edition of Davy’s Letters, which is currently being prepared for publication by OUP in 2018.

³ Humphry Davy, Researches, Chemical and Philosophical […] (London: J. Johnson, 1800), pp. 507- 508.

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