Book Review: John Keats and the Medical Imagination, edited by Nicholas Roe

by Suzie Grogan

 

For the Keats scholar, reader, aficionado, critic – new to the great man’s works, an enthusiast of long-standing or of enquiring mind – there are innumerable books of poetry, biography, letters and critique. Sifting through all those on offer, uncovering the good, the less good and the, frankly, incomprehensible work that has been done is a challenge, even for the most dedicated. Forming an independent and well-informed personal opinion is even more difficult.

Entering the world of the conference or research paper can offer an additional test of stamina. For the student, it is a vital step along the road to a successful academic career, but for the lay reader, that step can seem one too far. An examination of the references, citations, notes or however the lengthy lists of works referred to in an article of just ten pages is described can be daunting. The reader might be justified in wondering whether they have the intellect to read the piece, or whether it was even meant for them in the first place. Feeling excluded from the discussion is not an uncommon experience and one that academic authors perhaps do not always appreciate. On occasion, those authors appear to be writing only for themselves, not for an audience at all, so obscure is their point.

But, you remind me after 200 words; this is a book review, not a general assessment of the Keats literary sourcebook. It is to be hoped that Nicholas Roe, editor and contributor to John Keats and the Medical Imagination (part of the Palgrave Studies in Literature, Science and Medicine series) will not be offended by a review that starts by pointing out the potential difficulties experienced by the reader of comparable books. This book is a collection of new essays by eminent scholars first presented at the Keats Foundation Bicentenary Conference at Guy’s Hospital in London in May 2015. The conference had as its theme ‘John Keats: Poet-Physician, Physician-Poet’ and it sought to challenge any notion still held that John Keats’s poetry was not, to any significant degree, influenced by his experience as a student of medicine. As Roe points out in his Introduction (illustrated by two wonderful old photos of Thomas Hammond’s Edmonton surgery, taken more than a century after Keats served his apothecary’s apprenticeship there) it was not until the second half of the 20th century that the idea of Keats as other-worldly, of limited experience and interested in nothing but beauty, was replaced by a more accurate, robust assessment of a robust young man. Keats’s life was enriched by the inspiration of science and art and interwoven with love and loss of a most down-to-earth, human kind.

The essays in this book take us into the world of Keats the botanist, the dissector, the melancholic and the terminally ill. It expands our knowledge of the details of Keats’s life as a medical student and practising doctor and offers a focus on the ways in which his studies of the human body and the mind of man infuse his poetry and letters. We take an intellectual journey with R.S. White through poetry that exhibits Keats’s fascination with mourning and melancholia, focusing on ‘Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil’, and look at how he wove tuberculosis, the ‘family disease’ into his work.

For those interested in a Keats chronology, Hrileena Ghosh considers the difficulties of dating many of the poems Keats wrote whilst a medical student. The analysis of the letters and poetry written by him during this period – between October 1815 and March 1817 – is fascinating and adds much to the context within which he was writing, noting that he became more prolific whilst living with his brothers, in Cheapside. They were likely to have been considerably more supportive than his student contemporary (and later inventor of ink) Henry Stephens, with whom he shared lodgings earlier in his training, and who was notoriously cutting about Keats the medical student/poet. It is analysis like this undertaken by Ghosh that reinforces a picture of familial harmony that Keats so treasured, and the loss of which – following the death of youngest brother Tom and the emigration of George to America – that affects and infuses later work.

 

Nicholas Roe’s recent biography, and his marvellous essay in this volume, ‘Mr Keats’, offer rich detail of the life of Keats the medical student and surgeon. Roe himself discovered a newspaper article describing the treatment of a female patient shot in the head by her husband, whose surgeon is referred to as the eponymous ‘Mr Keats’ (undoubtedly John). Mr Keats gave evidence of the wound, and of the treatment required to extract it. Such incidental detail can offer much to a rounded view of Keats the man behind the poetry. He was a real man, in the real world, part of events totally unconnected with his poetic life.

‘The Beauty of Bodysnatching’, an essay by Druin Burch, author of the wonderful Digging up the Dead, a biography of surgeon Astley Cooper, takes us into darker places and the world of the body snatcher. Gruesome but irresistible, the work of the anatomist, and the men who supplied the bodies they cut up to further medical knowledge are used to highlight the thirst poets such as Keats, Coleridge and Wordsworth had for a greater knowledge of nature. The respect for scientists and those embarking on a career with their hands literally in the bowels of the human condition is clear in their writing, Burch maintains, once again challenging the notion of Keats as a fragile sensitivity snuffed out by the critics. He engaged in required practices of the medicine of the time and his discoveries and observations stayed with him on into his most famous work.

Richard Marggraaf Turley, in Chapter 10, moves us away from the dissecting room and into the mind of Romantic psychiatry by examining the role of surveillance in Keats’s work. Initially, this essay seems slightly out of place in this volume, but by examining Ode to Autumn specifically, Margraaf Turley takes us into the politics of the mind, a subject that fascinated an era riven with suspicion and fear of the mob, the spy or the rebel. He brings Keats into the 21st-century world (where he can most certainly hold his own) of social media and our own concerns about how quickly private thoughts and actions can become public property. The mind is, after all, central to this delve into the medical imagination.

 

‘John Keats, Medicine, and Young Men on the Make’ by Jeffrey N. Cox suggests a way to view Keats’s choice to leave medicine for poetry not so much as an event in his life story, but as a decision made during a creative period when other men of similar age, Keats’s friends and acquaintances, faced the same dilemma. Should I work at immortality through my writing, or enjoy a comfortable but perhaps more mundane existence pursuing a trade or profession that enables me to support a wife and family? Keats’s decision became one that caused particular torment when his love for Fanny Brawne could hardly be declared openly because of his lack of prospects. Cox also looks at the ways in which ‘money-getting’ and the necessary compromises that would have to be made to ‘Mammon’’ as Shelley referred to the eternal problems of financial security, are represented in Romantic poetry and writing of this period.

Other chapters are to me as a non-academic, less accessible and require extended periods of concentration that might, as mentioned earlier in this review, exclude the lay reader or Keats obsessive. They are no less interesting, however, and if you are particularly interested in plants and the study of botany, Chapter 6 by Nikki Hessell, awakens the reader to the in-depth knowledge of botany that was necessary to the work of an apothecary and how Keats took his studies into his poetic vocabulary.

This is not a book many will buy new, outright. At over £70 it has a niche market. However, if you want an elaboration of the connections between Keats and medicine, as student and poet, this book has much to offer the patient, selective reader. It is certainly well worth requesting from a university or specialist library.

 

Suzie Grogan is a professional writer, editor and researcher, working in the fields of social and family history and mental health. Her first book was published in 2012 and since then she has written two further books, published by Pen & Sword History, including Death, Disease & Dissection examining the life of an apprentice surgeon-apothecary in the early 19th century, to give her an excuse to write about John Keats. She has now been commissioned to write an ‘In the footsteps of…’ John Keats for publication in 2021, the bicentenary year.  Suzie has a popular blog at No wriggling out of writing and had her own radio show ‘Talking Books’, for many years. She is married with two children and has just made the move to Huelgoat in France, although she still intends to spend time in London and her beloved Lake District. Find out more at www.suziegrogan.co.uk.

 

 

Keats – Strength in beauty: an interview with Nicholas Roe

An interview with Wordsworth Trust trustee, Nicholas Roe,  adapted from material by Helen Tope


Few writers have a more enduring legacy than the English Romantic poet John Keats. Born in October 1795, Keats set out as a medical student studying at Guy’s Hospital and was eventually recognized as a central figure of English Romanticism.

We think that we know Keats – the young poet who died tragically of tuberculosis, aged just 25; but identifying Keats in this way not only limits our understanding of his genius, we risk misreading him entirely. In his recent biography John Keats. A New Life Nicholas Roe presents a Keats who is more robustly attuned to life and actuality. He vividly evokes the poet’s day-to-day life in London, at theatres and booksellers, dining with friends, and hiking in the Lake District and Scotland.

This new biography portrays Keats as a poet whose work was influenced by the places he visited; his poem Endymion, for instance, was written at the Isle of Wight, Hampstead, Oxford and Box Hill and each section of the poem responds to the location in which it was composed. Far from languishing on a chaise, Keats as a man and poet was vitally engaged with and responsive to his world.

This interview occurred just before a lecture given as part of the Plymouth Literature Festival. The lecture, ‘Charles Brown, John Keats and Plymouth’ reassessed the life of John Keats and the role Keats’s friend Charles Brown had in preserving the poet’s work and ensuring his reputation. During our interview, we also talked about how biography can shape our perceptions.
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Can you remember what initially drew you to Keats?
Yes, I think the sound of his poetry—its sonic energy—long before I had any more reflective sense of what the poetry might ‘mean’. ‘Season of mists and mellow fruitfulness’: you only have to sound the line once and you’re drawn in.

What qualities (personal or poetic) do you think separate Keats from other key figures of the Romantic period?
Keats is unique in the remarkably rapid development of his genius. The poems that survive from 1814 to 1820 move from imitative verses, to complex, highly original lyrics that altered the course of English poetry. He discovered his own poetic domain very early. Keats’ extraordinary strength and self-belief when life, circumstances, health and critics all seemed allied against him are what impress most of all.
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Andrew Motion’s biography of Keats gives us a panoramic view of the poet’s life, whereas your biography goes into much finer detail. Why did you adopt this approach?
My biography is interested in the locations of his writing and how these found their ways into his poetry, for instance in my account of the ‘The Eve of St Agnes’, written at the Old Mill House in Bedhampton in January 1819. This is very much a grounded Keats, a poet responsive to reality – not ‘poor Keats’, as the Victorians called him. Keats had walked the wards of Guy’s Hospital, and his poetry is braced by memories of that awful experience; probing a woman’s neck to extract a pistol-ball; dissecting muddy resurrected corpses. Keats’s experiences at Guy’s are central to understanding the kind of poet-physician he became.

What was Charles Brown’s significance to Keats?
Charles Armitage Brown met Keats in the summer of 1817; he may not be well-known today, but he swiftly became Keats’s collaborator and advisor and a guardian of his reputation as a poet. Brown gives us numerous insights into Keats’s life as a writer that we would not have had otherwise — indeed, without Charles Brown, Keats’s life would have taken a very different course, such that we would probably not have many of the poems. The ‘Nightingale Ode’ was written in Brown’s garden, and the ‘Eve of St Agnes’ was written in the house of Brown’s friends: had Keats not been in those places, the poems would in all likelihood not have been written. Keats would not have accompanied Brown on his summer Scottish tour in 1818, so we would not have his marvellous journal letters to his brothers and poems about Burns, Ailsa Rock, and Ben Nevis. There would be no Hyperion, at least as we know it, for Keats based the scenery of his poem on the Scottish Highlands; had Keats not gone to Winchester with Brown in August 1819, ‘To Autumn’ would not exist. It goes without saying, then, that we would not have Brown’s wonderful portrait of Keats, or his recollections of his poet-friend in his pioneering biography — a biography that is truly irreplaceable, in that it provides information about John Keats unavailable to anyone else.

Do you think we can ever reach a definitive account of a writer’s life, or will revision and reinterpretation always be the way forward?
Literary biography is never definitive, although publishers like to see the word in their blurbs. Half a century ago ‘To Autumn’ was regarded by an eminent Keats biographer as ‘one of the most perfect poems in English’, largely because the poet is ‘completely absent’. Surely Keats’s personality is heard in every word of that poem, in the sound and rhythm of every line, even though Keats doesn’t use the word ‘I’ in the lines?  So, yes, revision and reinterpretation always lead forward — reinventing the life anew. No biography is ever the last word.


Finally – what’s your favourite Keats poem?
This is a difficult question. I am intrigued by ‘Ode on Indolence’ because it has often been seen as a failure in comparison with the ‘Nightingale Ode’ and ‘Ode on a Grecian Urn’. When Keats composed ‘Ode on Indolence’ is uncertain. We don’t even know the correct order of the stanzas, yet the poem has its own unique, mysterious magic:

One morn before me were three figures seen,
With bowed necks, and joined hands, side-faced;
And one behind the other stepp’d serene,
In placid sandals, and in white robes graced:
They pass’d, like figures on a marble urn …



 Sections of this interview appeared originally at http://madeinplymouth.co.uk/project/keats-strength-in-beauty/