I can understand one’s confusion upon reading the title of this. “Poppycock? What’s that?” one may ask and is not a bad question. Poppycock is, from what I can find, British slang for nonsense and once everything is explained the reasoning for using that word will become clear. Something that is not explicitly mentioned is the involvement of Opium in each of the stories. Confessions of an English Opium-Eater has direct involvement with it detailing Thomas DeQuincy’s usage of it. Samuel Taylor Coleridge was a prolific user of opium and that usage in “Kubla Khan” is clear with its opium-induced dream images. So why did opium gain the notoriety it did in England and around the world?
Opium, as we all know, is a drug derived from the opium poppy (Purple and red flowers). Not to be confused by the remembrance poppy that is also a well-known symbol in the UK. Used since ancient times, “Opium had a history in China and the rest of the world that far predated the Opium Wars. The drug has long been imported by the Arabs during the Tang Dynasty from 618-907 AD and was used for medicinal purposes (Marchant 43). Further importation of opium occurred in the 12th century with the creation of Islamic sultanates in Southeast Asia” (Reynholds 3). The deflection towards China all of a sudden is where opium gains its infamous record, in the mind of a historian, and that stems from the Opium Wars fought with China by the expanding British Empire into the far east. Opium gained the same popularity that wine still enjoys to this day where it was seen as a social intoxicant used by dining rituals and other fancy events (Marchant 43). There also existed a view that Opium could be used as a pain reliever of sorts and that is the central issue in Confessions of an English Opium-Eater.
De Quincy writes in his memoir of sorts, “I have often been asked how I first came to be a regular opium-eater, and have suffered, very unjustly, in the opinion of my acquaintance from being reputed to have brought upon myself all the sufferings which I shall have to record, by a long course of indulgence in this practice purely for the sake of creating an artificial state of pleasurable excitement. This, however, is a misrepresentation of my case”. Opium is like any other drug when used too much can create dependency then addiction if not stopped. De Quincy then writes his true usage for it, “It was not for the purpose of creating pleasure, but of mitigating pain in the severest degree, that I first began to use opium as an article of daily diet. In the twenty-eighth year of my age a most painful affection of the stomach, which I had first experienced about ten years before, attacked me in great strength. This affection had originally been caused by extremities of hunger, suffered in my boyish days”. While it may have cured some ailments, Opium being used nowadays for pain relief is as the title implies poppycock.
Marchant, Leslie R. 2002. “The Wars of the Poppies.” History Today 52 (5): 42.
Reynholds, Brennan. 2019. “A Most Addictive Substance: How the First Opium War came to be”. https://docs.google.com/document/d/1N_pf72OnwIoV29pzYkhDGyNnRRdAtl09nDbikhOhZQ8/edit?usp=sharing