Writing Under The Influence

Out of my mind: Sarah Perry on writing under the influence of drugs | Books | The Guardian

T he poet Mary Robinson was, said Coleridge, a woman of undoubted Genius. She published her first book while a child bride in a debtors’ prison; she was a political radical who took the future George IV as a lover; in portraits her eyes are serious and her mouth is not. But sickness being no respecter of even the most fascinating people, she acquired an infection at the age of 26, and afterwards lived with paralysis and pain. One night in Bath, finding her suffering intolerable, she dosed herself with 80 drops of a tincture of alcohol and opium, and drowsily composed a poem called “The Maniac”, “like a person talking in her sleep”. Inspired by the memory of a vagrant, it is not a work on which to pin a reputation, but has a place in the history of letters as the first of the English Romantic opium poems. In my Puritan youth I held the cult of the drug-addled artist in contempt. Thomas De Quincey in his voluminous sleeves? A sap, I thought, of doubtful moral fibre. William S Burroughs? What did I want with a man who shot his wife? Besides, Naked Lunch was nothing like as nasty as it thought it was. If marijuana had caused Jack Kerouac ’s sentences to be as affectless as the rap of a fork on a Formica table, it was a pity he hadn’t confined himself to tobacco. Susan Sontag wrote on speed: this I admired, since it indicated a solid work ethic. I adored Coleridge, but flinched from the thought of him in the arms of Morpheus as I’d flinch from seeing my father naked. Secretly I admired Middlemarch ’s Casaubon, whose ascetic and studious life was directed towards “thoroughness, justice of comparison, and effectiveness of arrangement”.

Facebook Twitter Pinterest Sarah Perry. Photograph: Graeme Robertson

Much later – my youth behind me; my Puritan strain softened but still present – I began to write my third novel. It was inspired by Charles Robert Maturin’s Melmoth the Wanderer , and in it a guilt-stricken woman encounters the myth of a cursed being wandering the world bearing witness


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