Opium dream

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Dear Artist,

On recent afternoons, we can be found sitting beneath our red cedars, daydreaming under what Dad describes as “sharp, vibrant, individual foliage and light.” He’s observing what it’s like to be under the influence of palliative morphine.

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From what source do these imaginative waves arise? The Rime of the Ancient Mariner – “I looked upon the rotting sea, and drew my eyes away” wood engraving by Gustave Doré, 1789.

When Samuel Taylor Coleridge wrote The Rime of the Ancient Mariner in 1798, he’s said to have been addicted to the 19th century English opium product laudanum. Godfrey’s Cordial, Dalby’s Carminative, McMunn’s Elixir, Batley’s Sedative Solution, and Mother Bailey’s Quieting Syrup were sold in Victorian apothecaries as a cure-all, and recommended for pain, sleeplessness, relaxation and nerve-calming. The more serious laudanum was prescribed for typhus, cancer, cholera, smallpox, malaria, venereal disease, hysteria, and gout. Coleridge suffered from rheumatism and, under the influence, came to feel that opium harmonized his body and soul. In a letter to his brother George, he wrote, “Laudanum gave me repose, not sleep; but, you, I believe, know how divine that repose is, what a spot of enchantment, a green spot of fountain and flowers and trees in the very heart of a waste of sands!”

While most of us are not in the habit of taking opium, there might be some ideas to glean from those who have. For example, an artist on opium “utilized the imagery from these dreams in his literary creations, and sometimes, under the direct inspiration of opium, achieved his best writing,” says English literature critic M. H. Abrams. Imagine a portal to the vivid, to a heightened vision and clarity, to an altered sense of time.

Alethea Hayter’s 1968 Opium and the Romantic Imagination describes an opening of the mind, allowing one to draw upon raw material all the memories of a lifetime. And that moment between wakefulness and sleep, described as “the nod,” is a place of tumbling insight — fleeting, seductive reorganization of thought. “The action of opium may reveal some of the semi-conscious processes by which literature begins to be written,” says Hayter. She also reminds us of our responsibility to grab hold of our dreams. Opium won’t make art. We make art.

Percy Shelley, Lord Byron and John Keats experimented with the hidden powers of opium. Charles Dickens The Mystery of Edwin Drood, Oscar Wilde‘s The Picture of Dorian Gray, Thomas De Quincey‘s Confessions of an English Opium-Eater
and Hector Berlioz‘s Symphonie Fantastique are but dreams conjured from a few drops. Here, under the branches, with a little notebook ready to grab, we’ll do our best to enjoy the view.

Sincerely,

Sara

PS: “Here is the gift of unfulfilled, incomplete ideas, of new and better ways to make paintings — frustrating, yet elucidating — and the feeling that many more things are still to do.” (Robert Genn)

Esoterica: Under the red cedar is a floating smile. A limb swoops, and cradles us in her pine-cone palm. The low-lying strip of evening cloud sinks near. A star appears.

“But soon there breathed a wind on me,

Nor sound nor motion made:

Its path was not upon the sea,

In ripple or in shade.

It raised my hair, it fanned my cheek

Like a meadow-gale of spring —

It mingled strangely with my fears,

Yet it felt like a welcoming.

Swiftly, swiftly flew the ship,

Yet she sailed softly too:

Sweetly, sweetly blew the breeze —

On me alone it blew.”

(Samuel Taylor Coleridge, from The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, 1789)

 

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Prelude

acrylic painting 36 x 30 inches
Charles Spratt, Ottawa, ON, Canada

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