Romantic Poets Samuel Taylor Coleridge & Robert Southey Write About Their Experiments with Laughing Gas (1799)


A hun­dred years before Sig­mund Freud used him­self as a test sub­ject for his exper­i­ments with cocaine, anoth­er sci­en­tist, Humphry Davy, Eng­lish chemist and future pres­i­dent of the Roy­al Soci­ety, began “a very rad­i­cal bout of self exper­i­men­ta­tion to deter­mine the effects of” anoth­er drug—nitrous oxide, bet­ter known as “laugh­ing gas.” Davy’s find­ings — Research­es, Chem­i­cal and Philo­soph­i­cal Chiefly Con­cern­ing Nitrous Oxide, or Diphlo­gis­ti­cat­ed Nitrous Air, And Its Res­pi­ra­tion By Humphry Davy—pub­lished in 1800, come to us via The Pub­lic Domain Review, who describe the 1799 exper­i­ments thus:

With his assis­tant Dr. Kinglake, he would heat crys­tals of ammo­ni­um nitrate, col­lect the gas released in a green oiled-silk bag, pass it through water vapour to remove impu­ri­ties and then inhale it through a mouth­piece. The effects were superb. Of these first exper­i­ments he described gid­di­ness, flushed cheeks, intense plea­sure, and “sub­lime emo­tion con­nect­ed with high­ly vivid ideas.”

Though we don’t typ­i­cal­ly think of nitrous oxide as an addic­tive sub­stance, like Freud’s exper­i­ments, Davy’s pro­gressed rapid­ly from curios­i­ty to recre­ation: “He began to take the gas out­side of lab­o­ra­to­ry con­di­tions, return­ing alone for soli­tary ses­sions in the dark, inhal­ing huge amounts, ‘occu­pied only by an ide­al exis­tence,’ and also after drink­ing in the evening.” For­tu­nate­ly for us, how­ev­er, also like Freud, Davy “con­tin­ued to be metic­u­lous in his sci­en­tif­ic records through­out.” Even­tu­al­ly, the twen­ty-year-old Davy con­struct­ed an “air-tight breath­ing box.” Seal­ing him­self inside, writes Mike Jay, Davy had Dr. Kinglake “release twen­ty quarts of nitrous oxide every five min­utes for as long as he could retain con­scious­ness.”

Also, like Freud’s use of cocaine, Davy’s research briefly led to a fad­dish recre­ation­al use of the drug, well into the ear­ly part of the nine­teenth cen­tu­ry, as you can see in the car­i­ca­tures at the top and below, from 1830 and 1829, respec­tive­ly. But despite what these humor­ous images sug­gest, “laugh­ing gas” became known not only as a par­ty drug, but also as a means of achiev­ing height­ened states of con­scious­ness con­ducive to philo­soph­i­cal reflec­tion and poet­ic cre­ation (hence the “Philo­soph­i­cal” ref­er­ence in the title of Davy’s research). Dur­ing his own expe­ri­ences “under the influ­ence of the largest does of nitrous oxide any­one had ever tak­en,” Davy “’lost all con­nec­tion with exter­nal things,’ and entered a self-envelop­ing realm of the sens­es,” writes Jay, find­ing him­self “‘in a world of new­ly con­nect­ed and mod­i­fied ideas,’ where he could the­o­rise with­out lim­its and make new dis­cov­er­ies at will.”

The appeal of this state to a sci­en­tist may be obvi­ous, and to a poet even more so. Davy’s friend Robert Southey, the future Poet Lau­re­ate, became “as effu­sive” as Davy after tak­ing the gas, exclaim­ing, “the atmos­phere of the high­est of all pos­si­ble heav­ens must be com­posed of this gas.” In addi­tion to Southey, Davy’s “free­wheel­ing pro­gram of con­scious­ness expan­sion… co-opt­ed some of the most remark­able fig­ures of his day”—including Samuel Tay­lor Coleridge, who is already well-known for find­ing some of his poet­ic inspi­ra­tion under the influ­ence of opi­um. Coleridge at the time had just pub­lished to great acclaim The Lyri­cal Bal­lads with William Wordsworth and had returned from a brief sojourn in Ger­many, where he had become heav­i­ly influ­enced by the Ger­man Ide­al­ist phi­los­o­phy of Immanuel Kant and Friedrich Schelling.

Laughing Gas--Poetry

Coleridge, who was “cap­ti­vat­ed by the young chemist” Davy, described his expe­ri­ence of tak­ing nitrous oxide for the first time in very pre­cise terms, avoid­ing the “extrav­a­gant metaphors” oth­ers tend­ed to rely on. He recalled the sen­sa­tions as resem­bling “that which I remem­ber once to have expe­ri­enced after return­ing from the snow into a warm room,” and, in a lat­er tri­al, said he was “more vio­lent­ly act­ed upon” and that “towards the last I could not avoid, nor felt any wish to avoid, beat­ing the ground with my feet; and after the mouth­piece was removed, I remained for a few sec­onds motion­less, in great ecsta­cy.” Under the influ­ence of both nitrous oxide and philo­soph­i­cal meta­physics, Coleridge had come to believe “the mate­r­i­al world only an illu­sion pro­ject­ed by” the mind.

Davy, who ful­ly endorsed this view, claim­ing “noth­ing exists but thoughts,” brought his “chaot­ic mélange of hedo­nism, hero­ism, poet­ry and phi­los­o­phy” to heel in the “coher­ent and pow­er­ful” 580-page mono­graph above, which makes the case for laugh­ing gas’s sci­en­tif­ic and poet­ic worth. The report, writes Jay, com­bines “two mutu­al­ly unin­tel­li­gi­ble languages—organic chem­istry and sub­jec­tive experience—to cre­ate a ground­break­ing hybrid, a poet­ic sci­ence.” Like Freud’s use of cocaine or Tim­o­thy Leary’s exper­i­ments with LSD decades lat­er, Davy’s exper­i­ments fur­ther demon­strate, per­haps, that the few times the sci­ences, phi­los­o­phy, and poet­ry com­mu­ni­cate with each oth­er, it’s gen­er­al­ly under the influ­ence of mind-alter­ing sub­stances.

For more on Davy and nine­teenth cen­tu­ry England’s fas­ci­na­tion with laugh­ing gas, see Mike Jay’s Pub­lic Domain Review essay here and read this New York Review of Books arti­cle on his book-length treat­ment of the sub­ject, The Atmos­phere of Heav­en: The Unnat­ur­al Exper­i­ments of Dr. Bed­does and His Sons of Genius.

via The Pub­lic Domain Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

How a Young Sig­mund Freud Researched & Got Addict­ed to Cocaine, the New “Mir­a­cle Drug,” in 1894

Woman Takes LSD in 1956: “I’ve Nev­er Seen Such Infi­nite Beau­ty in All My Life,” “I Wish I Could Talk in Tech­ni­col­or”

Beyond Tim­o­thy Leary: 2002 Film Revis­its His­to­ry of LSD

Carl Sagan Extols the Virtues of Cannabis (1969)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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