Obsessed with states of the unconscious and sleep, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's dreams were often influenced by his terrible addiction to opium. It is these dreams and obsessions, which become the muse for many of his writings often cataloging the uncanny and supernatural. In one of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's poems The Pains of Sleep, Coleridge reveals his drug induced dreams and visions through mythological undertones, paralleling his poem to many stories in mythology. Coleridge categorizes rejuvenation, mourning, and eternal slumber through his vivid descriptions. Throughout mythology, there are many tales encountering the forms of sleep and drug induced dreams. This paper will explore some of the mythology captured in Coleridge's descriptive poem.
People came from all over Greece and beyond to have their questions about the future answered by the Pythia, the priestess of Apollo, at the Oracle of Delphi. Her answers, usually cryptic, could determine the course of everything from when a farmer planted his seedlings, to when an empire declared war. Opiates and other hallucinogenic drugs were often used in ceremony to induce vision or dreams. Recipients of these prophecies would awaken from their vision and arguments over the correct interpretation of an oracle were common, but the oracle was always happy to give another prophecy if more gold was provided. The most famous incident of this is before the Trojan War, when the Pythia first predicted to Agamemnon the doom of the Greeks in the war. She later predicted that a wooden wall, referring to the wall of Greek ships would lead to their victory. (Alexander, 312.) Encouraged by this premonition, Agamemnon led the Greeks into battle against the Trojans. A direct correlation between these visions and Coleridge's real life dreams can be observed in his poem.
In a hard fought battle, where Patroclus, posing as Achilles led the myrmidons against the Trojans, Patroclus falls to Hectors blade. Enraged that his late great lover has been slaughtered, Achilles rides to Troy alone to seek his revenge.(Alexander, 376.)
Thirst of revenge, the powerless will
Still baffled, and yet burning still !
Desire with loathing strangely mixed
On wild or hateful objects fixed. (21-24)
In these four lines, Coleridge describes a situation in which a man is not able to sleep because either he or his family has been severely wronged. His sleep will not continue until this wrong has been corrected. In the case of Achilles, though his lover Patroclus was at fault for posing as him, Achilles will not rest until Hector is killed and Patroclus is avenged. Many mythologists have suggested that the Greeks may have been under the influence of some kind of drug during this battle, as Patroclus was quite a bit smaller than Achilles and could never pass for him in a sober state.
During the Trojan War, the Greek hero Achilles killed Priam's son Hector. In one of the most moving scenes of the Iliad, Priam courageously entered the Greek camp by night and pleaded with Achilles to return Hectors body for burial. Moved by Priam's humbleness and courage to come and ask in person rather than sending a messenger, Achilles willingly released Hectors body. (Alexander, 382.)
My spirit I to Love compose,
In humble trust mine eye-lids close,
With reverential resignation,
No wish conceived, no thought exprest,
Only a sense of supplication;
A sense o'er all my soul imprest
That I am weak, yet not unblest,
Since in me, round me, every where
Eternal Strength and Wisdom are. (5-13.)
In these lines, Coleridge is describing a man who is not able to sleep or rest because he has not been humbled to his superiors or to God. So when the man humbles himself and is on his knees in supplication, he is able to fall asleep. This mirrors the tale of the proud and mighty king Priam who goes into Achilles camp and asks for his son's body back. Coleridge was also humbled and acutely aware of the affects opium was having on his dreams.
After the city of Troy had been plundered and burned to the ground, and innocent women and children were raped and murdered, a curse was called down on all Greeks who took place in the massacre. Agamemnon returned home only to be murdered by his wife Clytemnestra's lover, Achilles is shot in the heal with an arrow from Paris's bow and Odysseus is gone from home for a total of twenty years as he fights in the war and then is cursed to fight all sorts of strange creatures on his journey home. (Alexander, 419.)
My anguish to a milder mood,
Such punishments, I said, were due
To natures deepliest stained with sin,-
For aye entempesting anew
The unfathomable hell within. (42-46.)
In these lines, he is overcome with guilt of an act that he has committed and is unable to forgive himself; furthermore, he feels that his sin is so great that not even God can forgive him. Just as in the case of Agamemnon, Achilles and Odysseus. Their crimes were so great, that they could not find peace or rest until the proper amount of time in purgatory had been spent. Though aware of the profound affects on his dreams, it can be said in examining these lines, that Coleridge was struggling with the morality of his drug use.
Littered with many mythological undertones, Samuel Taylor Coleridge's use of opium is the paramount influence on many of his writings. The Pains of Sleep is not only a biographical poem cataloging Coleridge's drug use and obsessions, but also an oracle into the world of mythology.
1.Coleridge, Samuel. "The Pains of Sleep." Samuel Taylor Coleridge: The Complete Works. Ed. John Gram. New York: Pearson, 2002.
2.Alexander, Omar. Mythography: Art and Myth in Ancient Greece.
New York: Houghton, 2005.