Writers and Their Drugs of Choice

Does credit belong to the drugs or the writers? A look at how some of the best English language writers have struggled with addiction and often lost.

minute read

Drug-Inspired Creative Works

We have a rich legacy of poetry and novels written whist under the influence of mind altering chemicals, whether or not it affords a way for writers to create something better than they otherwise would is debatable. It does seem that in moving away from stone cold sobriety into to the borderlands of the traditional literary canon, fixed endings and fixed categories become blurred or even hyper real. From this new perspective things are renewed and brought out into the light.

Perhaps it can be said that the nature of drug inspired creative work tends toward a more open, contradictory, and negotiable space.

Poets, Artists, and Mind-Altering Chemicals

A jewel in the crown of this legacy is Samuel Taylor Coleridge’s often cited ‘Kubla Kahn’,
which he wrote while under the influence of opium,

Kubla Khan
Or, a vision in a dream. A Fragment.
In Xanadu did Kubla Khan
A stately pleasure-dome decree:
Where Alph, the sacred river, ran
Through caverns measureless to man
Down to a sunless sea.

Though Coleridge’s opinion on the merits of the poem seem rather subdued, “The following fragment is here published as far as the author’s own opinions are concerned, rather as a psychological curiosity, than on the grounds of any supposed poetic merits.” Kubla Khan is much anthologized and loved.

The poem is a particular curiosity in that it has no proper ending, Coleridge was interrupted by the now notorious ‘person from Pollock’ to attend to the demands of business, never to return to the work. The unfortunate interrupter from Porlock has been immortalized in the work of many a writer including Jorge Luis Borges, Douglas Adams, and Arthur Conan Doyle.

Arthur Rimbaud’s long poem “A Season in Hell” was influenced by opium addiction, critics often suggest that he was writing about the horror of detoxification when he wrote “Night in Hell”. Reading this in college I was struck by the emotional starkness the work, Rimbaud writes in a way that demands courage of the reader, “My guts are on fire. The power of the poison twists my arms and legs, cripples me, and drives me to the ground. I die of thirst, I suffocate, I cannot cry.”

Other notable poets that struggled with addiction include Romantic poet Percy Bysshe Shelley who was addicted to the liquid opium of the time laudanum, a struggle shared by Charles Baudelaire, who once wrote, “You have to be always drunk. That’s all there is to it—it’s the only way. So as not to feel the horrible burden of time that breaks your back and bends you to the earth, you have to be continually drunk. But on what? Wine, poetry or virtue, as you wish.” More on Baudelaire and his mood and mind altering preferences below.

The Beat Generation openly cited drug use as and to aid in composition and legitimized the practice in that they produced great works. The Poetry Foundation writes that “Allen Ginsberg stated “that some of his best poetry was written under the influence of drugs: the second part of Howl with peyote, Kaddish with amphetamines, and Wales—A Visitation with LSD. While I wouldn’t recommend his methods, it’s hard to argue with Ginsberg’s results: his “angelheaded hipsters burning for the ancient heavenly connection to the starry dynamo in the machinery of night” are a part of the American literary canon.”

Writers and the Drugs They Userd

Samuel Taylor Coleridge, opium

The Romantic poet composed the hypnotic ‘Kubla Khan’ one of his most famous pieces after waking from an opium induced stupor in which he’d dreamed of the stately pleasure-domes of a Chinese emperor, Coleridge’s addiction finally killed him in 1834.

Thomas De Quincey, laudanum

The autobiographical account of his addiction ‘Confessions of an English Opium Eater’, published in 1821, brought De Quincey fame, Baudelaire widened the readership in 1860 when he published a French translation ‘Les paradis artificiels’.

Charles Baudelaire, hashish

Baudelaire was an established member of the Club de Hachichins (Hashish Club), which met between 1844 and 1849 and counted Alexandre Dumas and Eugène Delacroix among its numbers. Baudelaire wrote on hash, ‘among the drugs most efficient in creating what I call the artificial ideal… the most convenient and the most handy are hashish and opium.’

Robert Louis Stevenson, cocaine

Robert Louis Stevenson, suffering from the effects of tuberculosis and medical cocaine wrote ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ (1886). As his wife, who hated the book and tried to destroy it, noted, ‘That an invalid in my husband’s condition of health should have been able to perform the manual labour alone of putting 60,000 words on paper in six days, seems almost incredible.’

Aldous Huxley, mescaline

In ‘The Doors of Perception’, (1954), Huxley recounts at length his experience on the hallucinogenic mescaline which is to be found in the Peyote cactus. The book is the inspiration behind Jim Morrison’s band name ‘The Doors’.

William Burroughs, heroin

Burroughs used his experience of addiction as inspiration throughout his writing, most notably in Junkie (1953) and Naked Lunch (1959).

Philip K Dick, speed

The great sci-fi writer, author of ‘Do Android’s Dream of Electric Sheep’ – the adaptation of which is of course Blade Runner, the new version of which is currently showing) Philip K Dick’s intensive use of speed and hallucinogens inspired much of his work. It is said that his use of Semoxydrine – similar to speed – fueled his epic production of 11 sci-fi novels, essays and short stories all in the space of one year between 1963 and 1964.

Credit to the Drugs or the Writers?

You could argue that credit for the amazing works of these authors should be given to the chemicals that they used to facilitate their writing, but that would be doing the writers a great disservice. Instead we should credit the writers who, despite their struggles with addiction, wrote with magical, burning creative skill to produce literature which lifts us as readers into new worlds.

About the author
Jason Shiers, Dip Psych, MBACP is a Transactional Analysis Psychodynamic Psychotherapist, and Head of Digital for addictionhelper.com and ukat.co.uk. Jason has been helping people with all types of addictions for 23 years. He practices holistically calling on various modalities including, psychotherapy, 12 steps, mindfulness, energy and meditation to help people empower themselves to make positive change in their lives.
I am ready to call
i Who Answers?