The Poet

The Transcendentalists were sufficiently close, both geographically and philosophically, to the anesthetic revolution that their recordings of their encounters and experiments are hardly surprising. Yet Fuller and Thoreau very clearly rejected anesthetics as having any direct relationship to their own concerns. However alluring the cosmos revealed by ether, it contained nothing that the mind could not achieve directly, or through a direct connection to nature. Thoreau never spoke of ether again; nor did Fuller. Ralph Waldo Emerson, in “The Poet,” summed up the Transcendentalist position on intoxicants:

The poet knows that he speaks adequately then only when he speaks somewhat wildly, or “with the flower of the mind”; not with the intellect used as an organ, but with the intellect released from all service and suffered to take its direction from its celestial life; or as the ancients were wont to express themselves, not with intellect alone but with the intellect inebriated by nectar . . . This is the reason why bards love wine, mead, narcotics, coffee, tea, opium, the fumes of sandalwood and tobacco, or whatever other procurers of animal exhilaration . . . which are several coarser or finer quasimechanical substitutes for the true nectar, which is the ravishment of the intellect by coming nearer to the fact. These are auxiliaries to the centrifugal tendency of a man, to his passage out into free space, and they help him to escape the custody of that body in which he is pent up, and of that jailyard of individual relations in which he is enclosed. Hence a great number of such as were professionally expressers of Beauty, as painters, poets, musicians and actors, have been more than others wont to lead a life of pleasure and indulgence; all but the few who received the true nectar; and, as it was a spurious mode of attaining freedom, as it was an emancipation not into the heavens but into the freedom of baser places, they were punished for that advantage they won, by a dissipation and deterioration. But never can any advantage be taken of nature by a trick. The spirit of the world, the great calm presence of the Creator, comes not forth to the sorceries of opium or of wine. The sublime vision comes to the pure and simple soul in a clean and chaste body. This is not an inspiration, which we owe to narcotics, but some counterfeit excitement and fury. Milton says that the lyric poet may drink wine and live generously, but the epic poet, he who shall sing of the gods and their descent unto men, must drink water out of a wooden bowl.

For Emerson, as well as many others, narcotics offered a false, materialist experience of transcendence—“the freedom of baser places” he says, in a veiled reference to the popular use of drugs as intoxicants. Drugs are “quasimechanical substitutes” for true transcendental experience, which could only occur through the mind’s union with nature or the divine. The question remains though: Why should the experience of narcotics be more false than “water out of a wooden bowl” as a means of attaining “sublime vision”?