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The New York Times July 21, 1918

That subject of perennial literary interest, the relationship between drugs and genius, comes up again for discussion in an article by Jeannette Marks, appearing in the current number of the Yale Review. It is too often the case that writers on the subject assume that there must be some abnormality, either of the mind or temperament, in the world's great poets and novelists. The creator of a Hamlet or a Falstaff, a Faerie Queene or a David Copperfield, seems scarcely to conform to the ordinary rules of psychiatry. Hence, there has grown up about the lives of many of our men of genius an accumulating tradition exhibiting them as victims of drugs, alcohol, mental disease--- and this to such an extent that we are half inclined to regard as inevitable the pathological explanation of any great creative force in literature.
Shakespeare's playful satire---

The lunatic lover, and the poet
Are of imagination all compact---

is partly to blame for this. And then there is Dreyden's still more familiar view of the matter---

Great wits are sure to madness near allied---

in which, borrowing authority from an old Latin proverb, the morbid element in genius is emphasized. Later writers have given quite a different explanation for the phenomenon that we call genius, ranging in their views all the way from Thackery's satirical reflection that the only difference between a genius and a fool is the difference between the length of two worms, to the theory that geniuses are, above all men, common sense, normal human beings.


In her study of the pathological view of genius in literature, Miss Marks, although attributing a great deal to morbid, abnormal influence, at least admits the tremendous part played by thoroughly Normal tastes and characteristics. "Let us not assert," she says. " as if there were some demonical logic in it, that Coleridge and De Quincey were geniuses and ate opium." And then she hastens to point out the fact that must, or ought to be in the mind of every student of the subject--- "Chaucer, Milton and Wordsworth, Blake, George Eliot and Browning were geniuses and they did not take opium." The citation of Blake in this connection is, perhaps, a trifle unfortunate, since, although not addicted to drugs or alcohol, he was sufficiently "peculiar" in his habits to be considered, with some justice, at least "mad north-northeast" and hence scarcely a good example of the "sanity, balance of thought and form of expression that must ever be part of the Anglo-Saxon ideal for poetry and prose." But we find it particularly difficult to follow Miss Marks in her detection of the drug or alcohol influence in certain specific pieces of poetry and imaginative prose. The following is a curious and suggestive collection of such instances, undoubtedly, but it is hardly convincing:

"Why," said a young woman, "does Swinburne use these words in this way?" She pointed to a group of words whose toes were doing all the steps known to accomplished bacchantes.

"Alcohol," was the reply.

"Why," she might have asked, " did De Quincey write so unequally often, so strangely sometimes?"

Laudanum, the alcoholic tincture of opium."

"How did Coleridge manage to create 'Kubla Khan' ?"

That question is not yet decided. Probably a long history of unintentional drug-taking lay behind this poem. The "paper books," however, in which Coleridge recorded his confessions are lost.

"Why did Poe write 'Ulalume'?"

"Opium and alcohol."

"Why the peculiar, relentless pessimism of the 'City of Dreadful Night'?"

"Alcohol and some opium."

"Why some of the words unnatural, tortured, of the 'Hound of Heaven' and 'Sister Songs'?"


"Why the jerk of light and color and flex of motion, the sudden terrible sounds in Christabel'?"

"Laudanum--- somewhat."

There can be no question that in certain instances--- happily few ---the influence of drugs or alcohol has stimulated the creative faculty in literature. Such an instance is graphically described in Mrs. Atherton's "The Gorgeous Isle," a story based on the strange fatality that haunted the genius of Ernest Dowson. It has been said, also, that Swinburne's work deteriorated in fire and originality on account of the comparatively ascetic life the poet was forced to live with Watts-Dunton. But in this case it might well be argued that Swinburne, whether helped or hindered by the wildness of his early years, had exhausted his rich vein of gold before he settle down to the sober life at Putney, and hence, in the natural order of things, no more Atalantas, or Poems and Ballads, or Songs Before Sunrise were to be expected of him. But, after all, his "Tristram of Lyonesse" was written at Putney--- and what could be more brilliant. More touched with the true Swinburnian fire, than this re-creation of the old Arthurian legend? All of which warns us that the traditional influence of drugs and alcohol on genius is by no means so easy to trace as it appears. In the much cited case of Poe also, what proof is there, after all, that, as Miss Marks indicates, "opium and alcohol" were joint authors of "Ulalume" and "The Pit and the Pendulum"? From the testimony of those who knew him, alcohol had a peculiarly disorganizing effect on Poe's mental activities, rendering him illogical and incoherent while under its influence. His work, characterized by its keen logic quite as much as by its glowing imagination, seems, on that basis, rather the result of nonalcoholic moods than the reverse. In his case, at least, it might be interesting to inquire how much splendid verse and prose was lost to the world through the use of drugs or alcohol.