Learning from Laudanum

Early 19th century England was not a wonderfully glorious time the way many histories make it out to be. It was a time where close to thirty percent of the British population was addicted to opium through the form of Laudanum. This drug was a cough suppressant and pain reliever consisting of alcohol mixed with opium, among few other chemicals. Laudanum had so much of the British population addicted that it became an epidemic. People whose entire lives were becoming controlled by a substance their doctor told them was okay. This epidemic feels oddly familiar as we face the opiate crisis today in New Hampshire and America as a whole. No, thirty percent of our population is not strung out but in 2016 an alarming 42,249 people died as a result of an opioid overdose. History seems to be repeating itself and we’re sitting idly by. Thomas De Quincy’s piece “Confessions of an Opium Eater” delves into the pleasures and pains of opium addiction along with the harsh resentment and treatment of Asian people in England at the time, a piece very reminiscent to today’s society with our own opioid epidemic and our nation’s resentment towards Muslims and the culture of Islam.

De Quincy begins his piece by saying that it is both a retelling of his trials and tribulations, highs and lows if you will, of opium use but also states directly that it is both a cautionary tale and also one to be used for instruction and guidance. Although De Quincy received absurd criticism from his peers for his benevolent light cast on opium eating during the Pleasures of Opium portion of his piece, however his Pains of Opium section is much more in depth and lengthy. De Quincy was not looking to highlight the euphoria that is opium-eating but rather highlight the horrible sensations and nightmares brought on by excessive use and withdrawals. Rather, the language used by De Quincy during his piece, is what threw many readers off, his rhetoric is very positive even when speaking towards the harsh realities of opiate abuse and addiction. “I do not readily believe that any man having once tasted the divine luxuries of opium will afterwards descend to the gross and mortal enjoyments of alcohol, I take it for granted//That those eat now who never ate before; And those who always ate, now eat the more.” This is an excerpt from De Quincy’s introduction where he is outlying for the reader his true and honest opinion. He knows that opiate abuse and addiction is harmful and deadly but of all his peers who he knows to have taken opium, none could say no a second time; the pleasure too greatly outweighed the pain.

At the time of its publication, “Confessions of an Opium Eater,” a vast percentage of the British population was addicted to Laudanum. Originally the drug was given to patients to be used as a pain killer, anti-diarrehal medicine, and cough suppressant; oh yeah, and it did not require a prescription. This meant that every day people could walk into their apothecary and pick up a bottle of Laudanum at leisure and thus Britain’s first opioid epidemic was born. Similarly, in America today, many of those suffering from opioid dependency and addiction do so because their doctor introduced them to the drug. The family of opiates provides such fantastic painkillers that they are tremendously over-prescribed in America today and too many of our citizens are suffering and dying because of it. In 2016, 116 people in America died of an opioid related-drug overdose every single day. Were told to look at history as a means to learn for the future but clearly we have not opened the history book on opioid dependency and addiction in quite some time.

During De Quincy’s time there was a very serious feeling of shared indignation by the Asian population in England at the time because the English population saw all Asians as one in the same. This was a generalizing theme prevalent in the romantic period of British literature referred to as Orientalism. Orientalism, at the time, was the generalization of British citizens towards people of Asian decent and grouping them all into one race; that race being below and weaker than the majority Caucasian Britain at the time. In De Quincy’s piece “Confessions of an Opium Eater” there is one instance where he is staying at a cottage in what seems to be the hills of England, outside London’s limits. While staying at his house he is accompanied by an English servant girl who is beautiful and Caucasian. One afternoon a passing traveler, who happens to be of Asian descent, visits the pair. The servant girl, having never seen an Asian person before sits and stares at the “tiger-cat” before her as she waits for De Quincy to say something to him. To further drive home the English resentment towards people of Asian descent, De Quincy describes the juxtaposition of the features of the white English girl and that of the Asian before them. The English girl is described as having an “exquisite fairness” with an “independent and erect attitude” about her, in comparison to that of the Asian man (Malay as De Quincy referred to him) with his “sallow and bilious skin…enamelled or veneered with mahogany by marine air…restless eyes, thin lips, slavish gestures and adorations. De Quincy is making a judgment on the man before him simply because of his heritage and race.

To further show his lack of regard or remorse toward the Asian man standing before him, De Quincy, knowing only two words in an Asiatic language, the words for barley and opium, he decided to speak to the Malay through lines from the Iliad because he felt that of all his linguistic knowledge, Greek was the language longitudinally closes to the Orient and therefore the man before him must recognize what he is saying if only slightly. De Quincy opens his home to the Malay and allows him to rest for a little while but only because the man does not speak English at all and will not be able to tell De Quincy’s neighbors that he was helped by De Quincy. The piece gets even more racist and bigoted when, as the Malay goes to leave De Quincy’s residence, De Quincy presents him with a piece of opium under the pretext that because he is from “the orient” he must know exactly what opium is, considering that is its birthplace.

This entire scene plays in perfectly to the ideas of Orientalism during the Romantic period of British literature but also is very reminiscent and relevant to the society we live in in America today. For a vast majority of Americans if they were to board a plane carrying a large number of Muslim individuals, those Americans would be uneasy; likewise, our nation’s treatment of African Americans prior to and during the Civil Rights movement of the 1960’s. For too long white Europeans and white Americans have placed themselves at the top of the food chain and feel as though they are the superior race.

De Quincy, with this piece of literature describes heroically what society was like during the Romantic period of British literature. The entire nation was strung out on opiates while hating all other races simultaneously. Despite the fact the entire country was in a euphoric, drug induced haze, the literacy rate rose drastically during this time along with a rise in literature about nature and the egotistical sublime which dealt with the idea that everything that happened in the world was directly related to the author and his actions, hence the use of the word egotistical. The Romantic period of British literature gave rise to some of England’s most illustrious poets and gave rise to the growing fear of drug addiction among the British population. 1820’s England was not that different from 2018 America, and that is not okay. #RomanticPeriod #Laudanum #OpioidEpidemic

Advertisements

The Rape of the Lock or the Rape of the World, You Decide

The Restoration period of British literature was one of the most influential and impressive periods in the history of world, not just British, literature. During this time England was undergoing a great deal of change. King Charles the II had returned from France and taken the crown in 1660. As a result of having spent a great deal of time in France before taking the crown, King Charles II was much more worldly than previous Kings and because of that was destined to make England the greatest country in the world once more.

Out of the Restoration period came the concept of the novel, which was groundbreaking as it forever changed literature, as we know it. Along with the concept of the novel being born the use of the mock-epic became much more popular, during this time, as Alexander Pope published his timeless mock-epic The Rape of the Lock. This mock-epic follows a wealthy English woman, named Belinda, as she dresses and attends a dinner party. At the party she enters into what seems as a world shattering situation when a lock of her hair is stolen from her head. Alexander Pope, using the genre of the mock-epic, and the real life experience of his peer, Lord Petre, cutting off a lock of Arabella Fermor’s hair. Pope, to deride the British society, was able to tackle important issues such as colonization and self image in his piece The Rape of the Lock.

240px-arabella_fermor
Arabella Fermor

As Pope’s piece begins Belinda, the protagonist of the mock-epic, is getting dressed to attend a dinner party. In order to show off her social status and look the most attractive of the women at the party, Belinda adjourns herself with jewelry and linens from every corner of the world. “Unnumber’d Treasures ope at once, and here
The various Off’rings of the World appear.” Before Pope truly dives into the scene we are greeted with the idea that the many pieces of jewelry that Belinda is about to decorate her body with are offerings and unnumbered treasures from around the world. “This casket India’s glowing Gems unlocks,
And all Arabia breathes from yonder Box.
The Tortoise here and Elephant unite,
Transform’d to Combs, the speckled and the white.” If we take a closer look at the words offerings and unnumbered treasures something very interesting is brought to light. Pope, in this particular scene, is showing how England is working towards colonizing the entire world. Belinda is using ivory from elephant tusks in Africa, Tortoise shells from somewhere tropical, gems from India, and perfumes from the Middle East. To Belinda, these items are simply a part of her everyday life as she is not concerned at all with the “rape of the world” that her beloved country is creating. The word offerings tells us that what she is using are seen as no more than simply gifts from those foreign lands acquired through trade when in reality we, as the reader and knowing what we do about England’s relationship to the rest of the world during the Restoration period, know and understand that they are not offerings at all and they most certainly were not acquired peacefully.

What England was doing was duping her citizens into thinking that they were expanding and spreading their way of life to other parts of the world that needed to resemble England greater rather than the reality which was England entering into foreign lands, killing or enslaving the people who lived there, and then completely exploiting every resource that that nation had until there was nothing more to take and then they moved on. But to a character such as Belinda who cares more about the “unnumbered treasures” than she does about the well-being of the rest of the world, this “rape of the world” was welcomed and cherished.

As the mock-epic continues Belinda arrives at the dinner party and enters into a card game called Ombre. It is during this scene where we, as the audience, see the traditional characteristics of the epic broken down into a smaller scale. The card game scene is symbolizing a battle scene from traditional epics. This scene is then followed by the climax of the story. As the card game comes to a close, the Baron, another member of the dinner party tries three times to cut a lock of hair from Belinda’s head.

On his third attempt the Baron is successful in his endeavor and the lock of hair falls from Belinda’s head. The screams from Belinda echo throughout the dinning room as she realizes what has happened. To the audience member, this simple act of cutting a lock of hair from Belinda’s head is perceived as such; simple. It is through this scene where Pope shows the hyperbolic feature of his mock-epic as he takes something mundane and irrelevant and blows it completely out of proportion. This scene especially seems elaborate and unrealistic coming from our 21st century point of view.

If we examine the scene of the “rape of Belinda’s lock” closer we see a new idea being presented. Belinda reacts very differently than we would expect as an audience member. She is sent into a world of self-pity and sadness about the loss of her lock of hair. Because she no longer has that particular part of her hair she no longer sees herself as beautiful or desirable due to the fact that she is more concerned about her self image than she is her self worth.

As the scene develops further we see just how damaging the act of cutting off her lock of hair truly was to her. She appears to feel as though she would have rather been sexually assaulted and raped by the Baron than have her hair cut from her head. By his doing so, she no longer can go in public without the other women recognizing the fact that she does not have that lock of hair. “Gods! shall the Ravisher display your Hair,… Methinks already I your Tears survey,
Already hear the horrid Things they say,
Already see you a degraded Toast,
And all your Honour in a Whisper lost!”
Had the Baron sexually assaulted her instead her honor would not have “been lost” and she would still be able to appear as though she had no hardships on the surface. She would still have her exterior pride and would be able to go out in public without her contemporaries knowing anything of the deed and therefore would have been able to “save face.”

Alexander Pope’s The Rape of the Lock successfully navigates the tumultuous world of Restoration period British literature through his use of the mock-epic. The Rape of the Lock examines the perception of colonization and self image in British society during the time through a hyperbolic and fantastical mock-epic.

 

Citations

Parlett, David. “OMBRE.” Ombre: Historic Card Game Described by David Parlett. N.p., Jan. 2015. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

Pope, Alexander. “The Rape of the Lock.” Currents in British Literature II Course Packet. Comp. Ann McClellan. Plymouth, NH: 2014.

“The Rape of the Lock.” Wikipedia. N.p., 22 Jan. 2017. Web. 9 Mar. 2017.

“The Restoration and 18th Century.” Volume C: The Restoration and 18th Century | The Norton Anthology of English Literature, Ninth Edition: W. W. Norton StudySpace. N.p., 2011. Web. 09 Mar. 2017.

Restoring Much More than Just the Throne

 

Having always been one of the World’s most powerful and influential countries, England had seen a very impressive yet also very tumultuous past. Focusing specifically on the years 1660-1789 we can see just how influential England was on the rest of the world. The years of 1660-1789 are specifically being pulled out in this instance because it is during that time that England was in the Restoration period of literature. This period began with King Charles II being restored to the throne in 1660. The years that followed saw some of the greatest changes that England and her literature have seen to date.

With the restoration of the crown by King Charles II in 1660 the reopening of the theatres of England also came. The theatres of England were reopened after having been closed for a number of years because the previous King had seen them as anti-religious and too blasphemous to be a part of everyday life. With the reopening of the theatres, a new style of drama was also created that allowed for much more freedom for the playwright as well as allowed women to actually act in the plays. Previously women were not allowed to act in plays and men had played the roles of women.

This shift in drama was seen as a direct result of the religion of England switching over from Protestant to Catholic and also as a direct result of King Charles II’s time spent in France prior to taking the throne of England. During his time in France he developed a great interest in the arts and in the sciences that left him curios and that aided in his country’s switch in literature from a very conservative past to a much more open and critical present.

With the new style of drama many new ideas and strategies were being used in the plays. Satire started to play an enormous role in the world of literature as a way for the playwrights and authors to criticize and make fun of the British government and the rest of the British society at the time. One of the most notable plays that came out of this time was a play written by William Wycherley entitled The Country Wife. This play was riddled with both satire and allegory from start to finish. During the play there are numerous characters that are introduced, all of whom have names that reflect their personality. For instance, there is a character from the play whose goal is to sleep with every other character’s wife; this man is named “Horner” because he is perpetually “horny.” Another character mentioned frequently goes by the name of Mr. Pinchwife. Pinchwife’s name is very fitting for him because he does not let his wife do as she pleases and in turn is instead “pinching” his wife or not letting her get any freedom by keeping such a tight hold on her at all times. It was also during this time that comedy was being added to the world of drama again along with literature and drama being more widely available to all social and economic classes.

“Arabella Fermor”

 

The newly revised style of literature that was being produced took on fresh angles that had yet to be used. With the emergence of new ideas and more authorial freedom genres such as the mock epic and the idea of the novel were beginning to be produced in much greater quantities. The Rape of the Lock, by Alexander Pope was one of the more popular mock-epics of the time. This five-canto poem was written as a short epic that had all of the same qualities of a traditional epic but in a much shorter piece of literature. This particular mock epic shows a quest and a battle when Belinda has her lock of hair cut from her head. In this piece we see also the face of satire show through as Belinda states how she would have rather been sexually assaulted than to have had her hair cut from her head the way that it was. She was more concerned with her hair and her physical appearance being unharmed that she would have rather had her emotional self harmed and raped.

At this time a new genre of writing was also born, the novel. One of the first novelists came out of the restoration period and was an author named Aphra Behn. She wrote for a white, British audience but focused around an African slave as her protagonist. During her novel, The Royal Slave, Behn gave her protagonist, Oroonoko, many traditional British characteristics so that her audience would still be able to relate to her protagonist. The first novels written in English were written about faraway lands and were the inspiration of many great adventurers. This period saw a time for people to explore and discover places that had yet to be discovered and mapped.

Prior to the restoration period, drama was seen as a place for poor people to go to get entertainment but after King Charles II took the crown the whole world of drama saw a great change. Along with women finally being able to act on stage as women in female roles, theatre saw a great shift in who was in attendance as people from every social and economic class began to go to the theatre for their entertainment. It was during this time that literature also saw a great deal of change as it was becoming more and more available to all socio-economic classes. Prior to the restoration of the crown, literature was only available to first class citizens but with more and more authors publishing their work, more literature was published that was not just for the rich but literature for the poor and for the working class citizens. It was not until the year 1710 that the first law regarding copy writes was passed making all work published unavailable to be copied or reproduced in anyway whatsoever for its first 14 years of life. This allowed for authors to publish more literature and allowed for more authors to publish because they were finally able to make money off of the literature that they were producing.

The restoration period was a very influential period in English literature history and also in world history. With the introduction of women to the world of literature and the introduction of copy write laws into society great waves were created that helped pave the way for the world we live in today.

Works Cited

“Arabella Fermor.” Wikimedia.org. Accessed March 7, 2017.

Pope, Alexander. The Rape of the Lock.