The Opium Eater by John Greenleaf Whittier

Story type: Literature


Heavens! what a revulsion! what an upheaving from its
lowest depths of the inner spirit! what an apocalypse
of the world within me! Here was a panacea, a pharmakon
nepenthes for all human woes; here was the secret of
happiness about which philosophers had disputed for
so many ages: happiness might be bought for a penny,
and carried in the waistcoat pocket.
–DEQUINCEY’s “Confessions of an Opium Eater.”

HE was a tall, thin personage, with a marked brow and a sunken eye.

He stepped towards a closet of his apartment, and poured out a few drops of a dark liquid. His hand shook, as he raised the glass which contained them to his lips; and with a strange shuddering, a nervous tremor, as if all the delicate chords of his system were unloosed and trembling, he turned away from his fearful draught.

He saw that my eye was upon him; and I could perceive that his mind struggled desperately with the infirmity of his nature, as if ashamed of the utter weakness of its tabernacle. He passed hastily up and down the room. “You seem somewhat ill,” I said, in the undecided tone of partial interrogatory.

He paused, and passed his long thin fingers over his forehead. “I am indeed ill,” he said, slowly, and with that quavering, deep-drawn breathing, which is so indicative of anguish, mental and physical. “I am weak as a child, weak alike in mind and body, even when I am under the immediate influence of yonder drug.” And he pointed, as he spoke, to a phial, labelled “Laudanum,” upon a table in the corner of the room.

“My dear sir,” said I, “for God’s sake abandon your desperate practice: I know not, indeed, the nature of your afflictions, but I feel assured that you have yet the power to be happy. You have, at least, warm friends to sympathize with you. But forego, if possible, your pernicious stimulant of laudanum. It is hurrying you to your grave.”

“It may be so,” he replied, while another shudder ran along his nerves; “but why should I fear it? I, who have become worthless to myself and annoying to my friends; exquisitely sensible of my true condition, yet wanting the power to change it; cursed with a lively apprehension of all that I ought now to be, yet totally incapable of even making an effort to be so! My dear sir, I feel deeply the kindness of your motives, but it is too late for me to hope to profit by your advice.”

I was shocked at his answer. “But can it be possible,” said I, “that the influence of such an excessive use of opium can produce any alleviation of mental suffering? any real relief to the harassed mind? Is it not rather an aggravation?”

“I know not,” he said, seating himself with considerable calmness,–“I know not. If it has not removed the evil, it has at least changed its character. It has diverted my mind from its original grief; and has broken up and rendered divergent the concentrated agony which oppressed me. It has, in a measure, substituted imaginary afflictions for real ones. I cannot but confess, however, that the relief which it has afforded has been produced by the counteraction of one pain by another; very much like that of the Russian criminal, who gnaws his own flesh while undergoing the punishment of the knout.’”

“For Heaven’s sake,” said I, “try to dispossess your mind of such horrid images. There are many, very many resources yet left you. Try the effect of society; and let it call into exercise those fine talents which all admit are so well calculated to be its ornament and pride. At least, leave this hypochondriacal atmosphere, and look out more frequently upon nature. Your opium, if it be an alleviator, is, by your own confession, a most melancholy one. It exorcises one demon to give place to a dozen others.

‘With other ministrations, thou, O Nature!
Healest thy wandering and distempered child.’”

He smiled bitterly; it was a heartless, melancholy relaxation of features, a mere muscular movement, with which the eye had no sympathy; for its wild and dreamy expression, the preternatural lustre, without transparency, remained unaltered, as if rebuking, with its cold, strange glare, the mockery around it. He sat before me like a statue, whose eye alone retained its stony and stolid rigidity, while the other features were moved by some secret machinery into “a ghastly smile.”

“I am not desirous, even were it practicable,” he said, “to defend the use of opium, or rather the abuse of it. I can only say, that the substitutes you propose are not suited to my condition. The world has now no enticements for me; society no charms. Love, fame, wealth, honor, may engross the attention of the multitude; to me they are all shadows; and why should I grasp at them? In the solitude of my own thoughts, looking on but not mingling in them, I have taken the full gauge of their hollow vanities. No, leave me to myself, or rather to that new existence which I have entered upon, to the strange world to which my daily opiate invites me. In society I am alone, fearfully solitary; for my mind broods gloomily over its besetting sorrow, and I make myself doubly miserable by contrasting my own darkness with the light and joy of all about me; nay, you cannot imagine what a very hard thing it is, at such times, to overcome some savage feelings of misanthropy which will present themselves. But when I am alone, and under the influence of opium, I lose for a season my chief source of misery, myself; my mind takes a new and unnatural channel; and I have often thought that any one, even that of insanity, would be preferable to its natural one. It is drawn, as it were, out of itself; and I realize in my own experience the fable of Pythagoras, of two distinct existences, enjoyed by the same intellectual being.

“My first use of opium was the consequence of an early and very bitter disappointment. I dislike to think of it, much more to speak of it. I recollect, on a former occasion, you expressed some curiosity concerning it. I then repelled that curiosity, for my mind was not in a situation to gratify it. But now, since I have been talking of myself, I think I can go on with my story with a very decent composure. In complying with your request, I cannot say that my own experience warrants, in any degree, the old and commonly received idea that sorrow loses half its poignancy by its revelation to others. It was a humorous opinion of Sterne, that a blessing which ties up the tongue, and a mishap which unlooses it, are to be considered equal; and, indeed, I have known some people happy under all the changes of fortune, when they could find patient auditors. Tully wept over his dead daughter, but when he chanced to think of the excellent things he could say on the subject, he considered it, on the whole, a happy circumstance. But, for my own part, I cannot say with the Mariner in Coleridge’s ballad, that

“‘At an uncertain hour My agony returns;

And, till my ghastly tale is told,
This heart within me burns.’”

See also  The King of Clubs and the Queen of Hearts By Louisa May Alcott

He paused a moment, and rested his head upon his hand. “You have seen Mrs. H——, of ——-?” he inquired, somewhat abruptly. I replied in the affirmative.

“Do you not think her a fine woman?”

“Yes, certainly, a fine woman. She was once, I am told, very beautiful.”

“Once? is she not so now?” he asked. “Well, I have heard the same before. I sometimes think I should like to see her now, now that the mildew of years and perhaps of accusing recollections are upon her; and see her toss her gray curls as she used to do her dark ones, and act over again her old stratagem of smiles upon a face of wrinkles. Just Heavens! were I revengeful to the full extent of my wrongs, I could wish her no worse punishment.

“They told you truly, my dear sir,–she was beautiful, nay, externally, faultless. Her figure was that of womanhood, just touching upon the meridian of perfection, from which nothing could be taken, and to which nothing could be added. There was a very witchery in her smile, trembling, as it did, over her fine Grecian features, like the play of moonlight upon a shifting and beautiful cloud.

“Her voice was music, low, sweet, bewildering. I have heard it a thousand times in my dreams. It floated around me, like the tones of some rare instrument, unseen by the hearer; for, beautiful as she was, you could not think of her, or of her loveliness, while she was speaking; it was that sweetly wonderful voice, seemingly abstracted from herself, pouring forth the soft current of its exquisite cadence, which alone absorbed the attention. Like that one of Coleridge’s heroines, you could half feel, half fancy, that it had a separate being of its own, a spiritual presence manifested to but one of the senses; a living something, whose mode of existence was for the ear alone.–[See Memoirs of Maria Eleonora Schoning.]

“But what shall I say of the mind? What of the spirit, the resident divinity of so fair a temple? Vanity, vanity, all was vanity; a miserable, personal vanity, too, unrelieved by one noble aspiration, one generous feeling; the whited sepulchre spoken of of old, beautiful without, but dark and unseemly within.

“I look back with wonder and astonishment to that period of my life, when such a being claimed and received the entire devotion of my heart. Her idea blended with or predominated over all others. It was the common centre in my mind from which all the radii of thought had their direction; the nucleus around which I had gathered all that my ardent imagination could conceive, or a memory stored with all the delicious dreams of poetry and romances could embody, of female excellence and purity and constancy.

“It is idle to talk of the superior attractions of intellectual beauty, when compared with mere external loveliness. The mind, invisible and complicated and indefinite, does not address itself directly to the senses. It is comprehended only by its similitude in others. It reveals itself, even then, but slowly and imperfectly. But the beauty of form and color, the grace of motion, the harmony of tone, are seen and felt and appreciated at once. The image of substantial and material loveliness once seen leaves an impression as distinct and perfect upon the retina of memory as upon that of the eyes. It does not rise before us in detached and disconnected proportions, like that of spiritual loveliness, but in crowds, and in solitude, and in all the throngful varieties of thought and feeling and action, the symmetrical whole, the beautiful perfection comes up in the vision of memory, and stands, like a bright angel, between us and all other impressions of outward or immaterial beauty.

“I saw her, and could not forget her; I sought her society, and was gratified with it. It is true, I sometimes (in the first stages of my attachment) had my misgivings in relation to her character. I sometimes feared that her ideas were too much limited to the perishing beauty of her person. But to look upon her graceful figure yielding to the dance, or reclining in its indolent symmetry; to watch the beautiful play of coloring upon her cheek, and the moonlight transit of her smile; to study her faultless features in their delicate and even thoughtful repose, or when lighted up into conversational vivacity, was to forget everything, save the exceeding and bewildering fascination before me. Like the silver veil of Khorassan it shut out from my view the mental deformity beneath it. I could not reason with myself about her; I had no power of ratiocination which could overcome the blinding dazzle of her beauty. The master-passion, which had wrestled down all others, gave to every sentiment of the mind something of its own peculiar character.

“I will not trouble you with a connected history of my first love, my boyish love, you may perhaps call it. Suffice it to say, that on the revelation of that love, it was answered by its object warmly and sympathizingly. I had hardly dared to hope for her favor; for I had magnified her into something far beyond mortal desert; and to hear from her own lips an avowal of affection seemed more like the condescension of a pitying angel than the sympathy of a creature of passion and frailty like myself. I was miserably self-deceived; and self-deception is of a nature most repugnant to the healthy operation of truth. We suspect others, but seldom ourselves. The deception becomes a part of our self-love; we hold back the error even when Reason would pluck it away from us.

“Our whole life may be considered as made up of earnest yearnings after objects whose value increases with the difficulties of obtaining them, and which seem greater and more desirable, from our imperfect knowledge of their nature, just as the objects of the outward vision are magnified and exalted when seen through a natural telescope of mist. Imagination fills up and supplies the picture, of which we can only catch the outlines, with colors brighter, and forms more perfect, than those of reality. Yet, you may perhaps wonder why, after my earnest desire had been gratified, after my love had found sympathy in its object, I did not analyze more closely the inherent and actual qualities of her heart and intellect. But living, as I did, at a considerable distance from her, and seeing her only under circumstances calculated to confirm previous impressions, I had few advantages, even had I desired to do so, of studying her true character. The world had not yet taught me its ungenerous lesson. I had not yet learned to apply the rack of philosophical analysis to the objects around me, and test, by a cold process of reasoning, deduced from jealous observation, the reality of all which wore the outward semblance of innocence and beauty. And it may be, too, that the belief, nay, the assurance, from her own lips, and from the thousand voiceless but eloquent signs which marked our interviews, that I was beloved, made me anxious to deceive even myself, by investing her with those gifts of the intellect and the heart, without which her very love would have degraded its object. It is not in human nature, at least it was not in mine, to embitter the delicious aliment which is offered to our vanity, by admitting any uncomfortable doubts of the source from which it is derived.

See also  On Doors by Christopher Morley

“And thus it was that I came on, careless and secure, dreaming over and over the same bright dream; without any doubt, without fear, and in the perfect confidence of an unlimited trust, until the mask fell off, all at once; without giving me time for preparation, without warning or interlude; and the features of cold, heartless, systematic treachery glared full upon me.

“I saw her wedded to another. It was a beautiful morning; and never had the sun shone down on a gayer assemblage than that which gathered together at the village church. I witnessed the imposing ceremony which united the only one being I had ever truly loved to a happy and favored, because more wealthy, rival. As the grayhaired man pronounced the inquiring challenge, ‘If any man can show just cause why they may not lawfully be joined together, let him now speak or else forever after hold his peace,’ I struggled forward, and would have cried out, but the words died away in my throat. And the ceremony went on, and the death- like trance into which I had fallen was broken by the voice of the priest: ‘I require and charge ye both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment, when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know of any impediment why ye may not lawfully be joined together in matrimony, ye do now confess it; for be ye well assured, that if any persons are joined together otherwise than as God’s word doth allow, their marriage is not lawful.’ As the solemn tones of the old man died away in the church aisles, I almost expected to hear a supernatural voice calling upon him to forbear. But there was no sound. For an instant my eyes met those of the bride; the blood boiled rapidly to her forehead, and then sank back, and she was as pale as if death had been in the glance I had given her. And I could see the folds of her rich dress tremble, and her beautiful lips quiver; and she turned away her eyes, and the solemn rites were concluded.

“I returned to my lodgings. I heeded not the gay smiles and free merriment of those around me. I hurried along like one who wanders abroad in a dark dream; for I could hardly think of the events of the morning as things of reality. But, when I spurred my horse aside, as the carriage which contained the newly married swept by me, the terrible truth came upon me like a tangible substance, and one black and evil thought passed over my mind, like the whispered suggestion of Satan. It was a feeling of blood, a sensation like that of grasping the strangling throat of an enemy. I started from it with horror. For the first time a thought of murder had risen up in my bosom; and I quenched it with the natural abhorrence of a nature prone to mildness and peace.

“I reached my chamber, and, exhausted alike in mind and body, I threw myself upon my bed, but not to sleep. A sense of my utter desolation and loneliness came over me, blended with a feeling of bitter and unmerited wrong. I recollected the many manifestations of affection which I had received from her who had that day given herself, in the presence of Heaven, to another; and I called to mind the thousand sacrifices I had made to her lightest caprices, to every shade and variation of her temper; and then came the maddening consciousness of the black ingratitude which had requited such tenderness. Then, too, came the thought, bitter to a pride like mine, that the cold world had a knowledge of my misfortunes; that I should be pointed out as a disappointed man, a subject for the pity of some, and the scorn and jestings of others. Rage and shame mingled with the keen agony of outraged feeling. ‘I will not endure it,’ I said, mentally, springing from my bed and crossing the chamber with a flushed brow and a strong step; ‘never!’ And I ground my teeth upon each other, while a fierce light seemed to break in upon my brain; it was the light of the Tempter’s smile, and I almost laughed aloud as the horrible thought of suicide started before me. I felt that I might escape the ordeal of public scorn and pity; that I might bid the world and its falsehood defiance, and end, by one manly effort, the agony of an existence whose every breath was torment.

“My resolution was fixed. ‘I will never see another morrow!’ I said, sternly, but with a calmness which almost astonished me. Indeed, I seemed gifted with a supernatural firmness, as I made my arrangements for the last day of suffering which I was to endure. A few friends had been invited to dine with me, and I prepared to meet them. They came at the hour appointed with smiling faces and warm and friendly greetings; and I received them as if nothing had happened, with even a more enthusiastic welcome than was my wont.

“Oh! it is terrible to smile when the heart is breaking! to talk lightly and freely and mirthfully, when every feeling of the mind is wrung with unutterable agony; to mingle in the laugh and in the gay volleys of convivial fellowship,

‘With the difficult utterance of one
Whose heart is with an iron nerve put down.’

“Yet all this I endured, hour after hour, until my friends departed and I had pressed their hands as at a common parting, while my heart whispered an everlasting farewell!

“It was late when they left me. I walked out to look for the last time upon Nature in her exceeding beauty. I hardly acknowledged to myself that such was my purpose; but yet I did feel that it was so; and that I was taking an everlasting farewell of the beautiful things around me. The sun was just setting; and the hills, that rose like pillars of the blue horizon, were glowing with a light which was fast deserting the valleys. It was an evening of summer; everything was still; not a leaf stirred in the dark, overshadowing foliage; but, silent and beautiful as a picture, the wide scenery of rock and hill and woodland, stretched away before me; and, beautiful as it was, it seemed to possess a newness and depth of beauty beyond its ordinary appearance, as if to aggravate the pangs of the last, long farewell.

“They do not err who believe that man has a sympathy with even inanimate Nature, deduced from a common origin; a chain of co-existence and affinity connecting the outward forms of natural objects with his own fearful and wonderful machinery; something, in short, manifested in his love of flowing waters, and soft green shadows, and pleasant blowing flowers, and in his admiration of the mountain, stretching away into heaven, sublimed and awful in its cloudy distance; the heave and swell of the infinite ocean; the thunder of the leaping cataract; and the onward rush of mighty rivers, which tells of its original source, and bears evidence of its kindred affinities. Nor was the dream of the ancient Chaldean ‘all a dream.’ The stars of heaven, the beauty and the glory above us, have their influences and their power, not evil and malignant and partial and irrevocable, but holy and tranquillizing and benignant, a moral influence, by which all may profit if they will do so. And I have often marvelled at the hard depravity of that human heart which could sanction a deed of violence and crime in the calm solitudes of Nature, and surrounded by the enduring evidences of an overruling Intelligence. I could conceive of crime, growing up rank and monstrous in the unwholesome atmosphere of the thronged city, amidst the taint of moral as well as physical pestilence, and surrounded only by man and the works of man. But there is something in the harmony and quiet of the natural world which presents a reproving antagonism to the fiercer passions of the human heart; an eye of solemn reprehension looks out from the still places of Nature, as if the Great Soul of the Universe had chosen the mute creations of his power to be the witnesses of the deeds done in the body, the researchers of the bosoms of men.

See also  All The World’s Mad by Gilbert Parker

“And then, even at that awful moment, I could feel the bland and gentle ministrations of Nature; I could feel the fever of my heart cooling, and a softer haze of melancholy stealing over the blackness of my despair; and the fierce passions which had distracted me giving place to the calm of a settled anguish, a profound sorrow, the quiet gloom of an overshadowing woe, in which love and hatred and wrong were swallowed up and lost. I no longer hated the world; but I felt that it had nothing for me; that I was no longer a part and portion of its harmonious elements; affliction had shut me out forever from the pale of human happiness and sympathy, and hope pointed only to the resting-place of the grave!

“I stood steadily gazing at the setting sun. It touched and sat upon the hill-top like a great circle of fire. I had never before fully comprehended the feeling of the amiable but misguided Rousseau, who at his death-hour desired to be brought into the open air, that the last glance of his failing eye might drink in the glory of the sunset heavens, and the light of his great intellect and that of Nature go out together. For surely never did the Mexican idolater mark with deeper emotion the God of his worship, for the last time veiling his awful countenance, than did I, untainted by superstition, yet full of perfect love for the works of Infinite Wisdom, watch over the departure of the most glorious of them all. I felt, even to agony, the truth of these exquisite lines of the Milesian poet:

‘Blest power of sunshine, genial day!
What joy, what life is in thy ray!
To feel thee is such real bliss,
That, had the world no joy but this,
To sit in sunshine, calm and sweet,
It were a world too exquisite
For man to leave it for the gloom,
The dull, cold shadow of the tomb!’

“Never shall I forget my sensations when the sun went down utterly from my sight. It was like receiving the last look of a dying friend. To others he might bring life and health and joy, on the morrow; but tome he would never rise. As this thought came over me, I felt a stifling sensation in my throat, tears started in my eyes, and my heart almost wavered from its purpose. But the bent bow had only relaxed for a single instant; it returned again to its strong and abiding tension.

“I was alone in my chamber once more. A single lamp burned gloomily before me; and on the table at my side stood a glass of laudanum. I had prepared everything. I had written my last letter, and had now only to drink the fatal draught, and lie down to my last sleep. I heard the old village clock strike eleven. ‘I may as well do it now as ever,’ I said mentally, and my hand moved towards the glass. But my courage failed me; my hand shook, and some moments elapsed before I could sufficiently quiet my nerves to lift the glass containing the fatal liquid. The blood ran cold upon my heart, and my brain reeled, as again and again I lifted the poison to my closed lips. ‘It must be done,’ thought I, ‘I must drink it.’ With a desperate effort I unlocked my clenched teeth and the deed was done!

“‘O God, have mercy upon me!’ I murmured, as the empty glass fell from my hand. I threw myself upon the bed, and awaited the awful termination. An age of unutterable misery seemed crowded into a brief moment. All the events of my past life, a life, as it then seemed to me, made up of folly and crime, rose distinct before me, like accusing witnesses, as if the recording angel had unrolled to my view the full and black catalogue of my unnumbered sins:–

‘O’er the soul Winters of memory seemed to roll,
And gather, in that drop of time,
A life of pain, an age of crime.’

“I felt that what I had done was beyond recall; and the Phantom of Death, as it drew nearer, wore an aspect darker and more terrible. I thought of the coffin, the shroud, and the still and narrow grave, into whose dumb and frozen solitude none but the gnawing worm intrudes. And then my thoughts wandered away into the vagueness and mystery of eternity, I was rushing uncalled for into the presence of a just and pure God, with a spirit unrepenting, unannealed! And I tried to pray and could not; for a heaviness, a dull strange torpor crept over me. Consciousness went out slowly. ‘This is death,’ thought I; yet I felt no pain, nothing save a weary drowsiness, against which I struggled in vain.

“My next sensations were those of calmness, deep, ineffable, an unearthly quiet; a suspension or rather oblivion of every mental affliction; a condition of the mind betwixt the thoughts of wakefulness and the dreams of sleep. It seemed to me that the gulf between mind and matter had been passed over, and that I had entered upon a new existence. I had no memory, no hope, no sorrow; nothing but a dim consciousness of a pleasurable and tranquil being. Gradually, however, the delusion vanished. I was sensible of still wearing the fetters of the flesh, yet they galled no longer; the burden was lifted from my heart, it beat happily and calmly, as in childhood. As the stronger influences of my opiate (for I had really swallowed nothing more, as the druggist, suspecting from the incoherence of my language, that I was meditating some fearful purpose, furnished me with a harmless, though not ineffective draught) passed off, the events of the past came back to me. It was like the slow lifting of a curtain from a picture of which I was a mere spectator, about which I could reason calmly, and trace dispassionately its light and shadow. Having satisfied myself that I had been deceived in the quantity of opium I had taken, I became also convinced that I had at last discovered the great antidote for which philosophy had exhausted its resources, the fabled Lethe, the oblivion of human sorrow. The strong necessity of suicide had passed away; life, even for me, might be rendered tolerable by the sovereign panacea of opium, the only true minister to a mind diseased, the sought ‘kalon’ found.

See also  The Evening Prayer by T. S. Arthur

“From that day I have been habitually an opium eater. I am perfectly sensible that the constant use of the pernicious drug has impaired my health; but I cannot relinquish it. Some time since I formed a resolution to abandon it, totally and at once; but had not strength enough to carry it into practice. The very attempt to do so nearly drove me to madness. The great load of mental agony which had been lifted up and held aloof by the daily applied power of opium sank back upon my heart like a crushing weight. Then, too, my physical sufferings were extreme; an indescribable irritation, a general uneasiness tormented me incessantly. I can only think of it as a total disarrangement of the whole nervous system, the jarring of all the thousand chords of sensitiveness, each nerve having its own particular pain.–[ Essay on the Effects of Opium, London, 1763.]

“De Quincey, in his wild, metaphysical, and eloquent, yet, in many respects, fancy sketch, considers the great evil resulting from the use of opium to be the effect produced upon the mind during the hours of sleep, the fearful inquietude of unnatural dreams. My own dreams have been certainly of a different order from those which haunted me previous to my experience in opium eating. But I cannot easily believe that opium necessarily introduces a greater change in the mind’s sleeping operations, than in those of its wakefulness.

“At one period, indeed, while suffering under a general, nervous debility, from which I am even now but partially relieved, my troubled and broken sleep was overshadowed by what I can only express as ‘a horror of thick darkness.’ There was nothing distinct or certain in my visions, all was clouded, vague, hideous; sounds faint and awful, yet unknown; the sweep of heavy wings, the hollow sound of innumerable footsteps, the glimpse of countless apparitions, and darkness falling like a great cloud from heaven.

“I can scarcely give you an adequate idea of my situation in these dreams, without comparing it with that of the ancient Egyptians while suffering under the plague of darkness. I never read the awful description of this curse, without associating many of its horrors with those of my own experience.

“‘But they, sleeping the same sleep that night, which was indeed intolerable, and which came upon them out of the bottoms of inevitable hell,

“‘Were partly vexed with monstrous apparitions, and partly fainted; for a sudden fear and not looked for, came upon them.’

“‘For neither might the corner which held them keep them from fear; but noises, as of waters falling down, sounded about them, and sad visions appeared unto them, with heavy countenances.

“‘Whether it were a whistling wind, or a melodious voice of birds among the spreading branches, or a pleasing fall of water running violently;

“‘Or, a terrible sound of stones cast down, or, a running that could not be seen, of skipping beasts, or a roaring voice of most savage wild beasts, or a rebounding echo from the hollow mountains: these things made them to swoon for fear.’–[Wisdom of Solomon, chapter xvii.]

“That creative faculty of the eye, upon which Mr. De Quincey dwells so strongly, I have myself experienced. Indeed, it has been the principal cause of suffering which has connected itself with my habit of opium eating. It developed itself at first in a recurrence of the childish faculty of painting upon the darkness whatever suggested itself to the mind; anon, those figures which had before been called up only at will became the cause, instead of the effect, of the mind’s employment; in other words, they came before me in the night-time, like real images, and independent of any previous volition of thought. I have often, after retiring to my bed, seen, looking through the thick wall of darkness round about me, the faces of those whom I had not known for years, nay, since childhood; faces, too, of the dead, called up, as it were, from the church-yard and the wilderness and the deep waters, and betraying nothing of the grave’s terrible secrets. And in the same way, some of the more important personages I had read of, in history and romance, glided often before me, like an assembly of apparitions, each preserving, amidst the multitudinous combinations of my visions, his own individuality and peculiar characteristics.–[Vide Emanuel Count Swedenborg, Nicolai of Berlin’s Account of Spectral Illusion, Edinburgh Phrenological Journal.]

“These images were, as you may suppose, sufficiently annoying, yet they came and went without exciting any emotions of terror. But a change at length came over them, an awful distinctness and a semblance of reality, which, operating upon nerves weakened and diseased, shook the very depths of my spirit with a superstitious awe, and against which reason and philosophy, for a time, struggled in vain.

“My mind had for some days been dwelling with considerable solicitude upon an intimate friend, residing in a distant city. I had heard that he was extremely ill, indeed, that his life was despaired of; and I may mention that at this period all my mind’s operations were dilatory; there were no sudden emotions; passion seemed exhausted; and when once any new train of thought had been suggested, it gradually incorporated itself with those which had preceded it, until it finally became sole and predominant, just as certain plants of the tropical islands wind about and blend with and finally take the place of those of another species. And perhaps to this peculiarity of the mental economy, the gradual concentring of the mind in a channel, narrowing to that point of condensation where thought becomes sensible to sight as well as feeling, may be mainly attributed the vision I am about to describe.

“I was lying in my bed, listless and inert; it was broad day, for the easterly light fell in strongly through the parted curtains. I felt, all at once, a strong curiosity, blended with an unaccountable dread, to look upon a small table which stood near the bedside. I felt certain of seeing something fearful, and yet I knew not what; there was an awe and a fascination upon me, more dreadful from their very vagueness. I lay for some time hesitating and actually trembling, until the agony of suspense became too strong for endurance. I opened my eyes and fixed them upon the dreaded object. Upon the table lay what seemed to me a corpse, wrapped about in the wintry habiliments of the grave, the corpse of my friend.

[William Hone, celebrated for his antiquarian researches, has given a distinct and highly interesting account of spectral illusion, in his own experience, in his Every Day Book. The artist Cellini has made a similar statement.]

“For a moment, the circumstances of time and place were forgotten; and the spectre seemed to me a natural reality, at which I might sorrow, but not wonder. The utter fallacy of this idea was speedily detected; and then I endeavored to consider the present vision, like those which had preceded it, a mere delusion, a part of the phenomena of opium eating. I accordingly closed my eyes for an instant, and then looked again in full expectation that the frightful object would no longer be visible. It was still there; the body lay upon its side; the countenance turned full towards me,–calm, quiet, even beautiful, but certainly that of death:

See also  Ole Man Pumpkin by Robert Gordon Anderson

‘Ere yet Decay’s effacing fingers
Had swept the lines where Beauty lingers’

and the white brow, and its light shadowy hair, and the cold, still familiar features lay evident and manifest to the influx of the strengthening twilight. A cold agony crept over me; I buried my head in the bed-clothes, in a child-like fear, and when I again ventured to look up, the spectre had vanished. The event made a strong impression on my mind; and I can scarcely express the feeling of relief which was afforded, a few days after, by a letter from the identical friend in question, informing me of his recovery of health.

“It would be a weary task, and one which you would no doubt thank me for declining, to detail the circumstances of a hundred similar visitations, most of which were, in fact, but different combinations of the same illusion. One striking exception I will mention, as it relates to some passages of my early history which you have already heard.

“I have never seen Mrs. H since her marriage. Time, and the continued action of opium, deadening the old sensibilities of the heart and awakening new ones, have effected a wonderful change in my feelings towards her. Little as the confession may argue in favor of my early passion, I seldom think of her, save with a feeling very closely allied to indifference. Yet I have often seen her in my spectral illusions, young and beautiful as ever, but always under circumstances which formed a wide contrast between her spectral appearance and all my recollections of the real person. The spectral face, which I often saw looking in upon me, in my study, when the door was ajar, and visible only in the uncertain lamplight, or peering over me in the moonlight solitude of my bed-chamber, when I was just waking from sleep, was uniformly subject to, and expressive of, some terrible hate, or yet more terrible anguish. Its first appearance was startling in the extreme. It was the face of one of the fabled furies: the demon glared in the eye, the nostril was dilated, the pale lip compressed, and the brow bent and darkened; yet above all, and mingled with all, the supremacy of human beauty was manifest, as if the dream of Eastern superstition had been realized, and a fierce and foul spirit had sought out and animated into a fiendish existence some beautiful sleeper of the grave. The other expression of the countenance of the apparition, that of agony, I accounted for on rational principles. Some years ago I saw, and was deeply affected by, a series of paintings representing the tortures of a Jew in the Holy Inquisition; and the expression of pain in the countenance of the victim I at once recognized in that of the apparition, rendered yet more distressing by the feminine and beautiful features upon which it rested.

“I am not naturally superstitious; but, shaken and clouded as my mind had been by the use of opium, I could not wholly divest it of fear when these phantoms beset me. Yet, on all other occasions, save that of their immediate presence, I found no difficulty in assigning their existence to a diseased state of the bodily organs, and a corresponding sympathy of the mind, rendering it capable of receiving and reflecting the false, fantastic, and unnatural images presented to it.

[One of our most celebrated medical writers considers spectral illusion a disease, in which false perceptions take place in some of the senses; thus, when the excitement of motion is produced in a particular organ, that organ does not vibrate with the impression made upon it, but communicates it to another part on which a similar impression was formerly made. Nicolai states that he made his illusion a source of philosophical amusement. The spectres which haunted him came in the day time as well as the night, and frequently when he was surrounded by his friends; the ideal images mingling with the real ones, and visible only to himself. Bernard Barton, the celebrated Quaker poet, describes an illusion of this nature in a manner peculiarly striking:–

“I only knew thee as thou wert,
A being not of earth!
“I marvelled much they could not see
Thou comest from above
And often to myself I said,
‘How can they thus approach the dead?’

“But though all these, with fondness warm,
Said welcome o’er and o’er,
Still that expressive shade or form
Was silent, as before!
And yet its stillness never brought
To them one hesitating thought.”]

“I recollected that the mode of exorcism which was successfully adopted by Nicolai of Berlin, when haunted by similar fantasies, was a resort to the simple process of blood-letting. I accordingly made trial of it, but without the desired effect. Fearful, from the representations of my physicians, and from some of my own sensations, that the almost daily recurrence of my visions might ultimately lead to insanity, I came to the resolution of reducing my daily allowance of opium; and, confining myself, with the most rigid pertinacity, to a quantity not exceeding one third of what I had formerly taken, I became speedily sensible of a most essential change in my condition. A state of comparative health, mental and physical with calmer sleep and a more natural exercise of the organs of vision, succeeded. I have made many attempts at a further reduction, but have been uniformly unsuccessful, owing to the extreme and almost unendurable agony occasioned thereby.

“The peculiar creative faculty of the eye, the fearful gift of a diseased vision, still remains, but materially weakened and divested of its former terrors. My mind has recovered in some degree its shaken and suspended faculties. But happiness, the buoyant and elastic happiness of earlier days, has departed forever. Although, apparently, a practical disciple of Behmen, I am no believer in his visionary creed. Quiet is not happiness; nor can the absence of all strong and painful emotion compensate for the weary heaviness of inert existence, passionless, dreamless, changeless. The mind requires the excitement of active and changeful thought; the intellectual fountain, like the pool of Bethesda, has a more healthful influence when its deep waters are troubled. There may, indeed, be happiness in those occasional ‘sabbaths of the soul,’ when calmness, like a canopy, overshadows it, and the mind, for a brief season, eddies quietly round and round, instead of sweeping onward; but none can exist in the long and weary stagnation of feeling, the silent, the monotonous, neverending calm, broken by neither hope nor fear.”

Leave a Reply 0

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *