“May I call you my morphine?” Robert Browning asked Elizabeth Barrett the month before they married in 1846. Barrett, who had been taking opiates every day since she was fourteen, replied “Can you leave me off without risking your life?”. Jean Cocteau later reversed the trope, describing not the woman as an addiction but the addiction as a woman – “Opium is the woman of destiny, pagodas, lanterns” – while for Baudelaire the solipsism of the opium addict resulted in “an appalling marriage of man to himself”. You can always rely on an opium-eater for a fancy prose style. Opium also brings out the stylist in doctors: “What”, asked Dr John Jones in The Mysteries of Opium Reveal’d (1700), “can cure pain and all its effects better than pleasure?”, and he compared the effect of the drug to “the sight of a dearly-loved Person etc thought to have been lost at Sea”. The Victorian physician Sir William Osler described morphine as “God’s own medicine”, but the sap of the Papaver somniferum was enjoyed long before the worship of Osler’s own God. Fossilized poppy seeds found at the remains of a lakeside village in Zurich suggest that opium was first consumed in the late Stone Age; Egyptian scrolls reveal that Ra recommended opium for headaches; Homer relates how Helen, pitying the dejection of Telemachus at the absence of his father Odysseus, pours an ointment into his wine called “no sorrow” (nepenthe); Sibyl sedates Cerberus, the three-headed guard dog at the gates of Hades, with a soporific, and Galen prescribed opium as an antidote for “confusion” in the elderly.

more from Frances Wilson at the TLS here.