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Tennyson and attitudes to opium

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August 6 (2009) marks the 200th anniversary of the birth of Alfred, Lord Tennyson.

His father lost his inheritance after a disagreement with his own father, and young Alfred was brought up in relatively straitened circumstances. He had a lifelong fear of mental illness, for several men in his family suffered mild epilepsy.

His father made his case worse through excessive drinking and, in 1827, Alfred escaped his troubled domestic environment, becoming an undergraduate at Cambridge.

Tennyson was sensitive to criticism, and following the mixed reception of his 1832 “Anthology” he refrained from publishing for nine years. However, over the next decade his fortunes changed, and by 1845 he was awarded a civil list pension. In 1850 he succeeded Wordsworth as poet laureate and, after several offers, at Queen Victoria’s insistence he finally accepted his title.

His brother Charles was an opium addict, a condition that led to marital breakdown, and Alfred was troubled by accusations that he was also a user. He wrote of his opposition to opium use in his 1832 poem “The lotos-eaters”, but his artistic temperament, habitual pipe-smoking, and trance-like appearance fuelled speculation of opium use. He was once described as “a dirty man with opium-glazed eyes and rat-taily hair”.

While posing in this way could have drawn the type of attention Tennyson was seeking to avoid, it is paradoxical that his aversion to opium use was atypical, especially in the early years of the Victorian period, since opium use was totally unrestricted and hugely popular among all sections of society.

From the middle of the century, however, as the Opium Wars between England and China developed, and statistics on opium addiction, poisoning, and an increase in suicides became available, the cultural viewpoint changed.

Tennyson’s “Lucretius”, containing indirect references to opium, was published in 1868, the same year as the Pharmacy Act, which for the first time restricted the sale of a range of poisons, including opium.

Although the suicide of Lucretius in the poem may have had philosophical and psychological meanings, as well as dramatic ones, it has also been suggested that it may be a direct reference to the Pharmacy Act 1868, which was brought to statute to help prevent just such an occurrence.

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From: Beyond pharmacy blog

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