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Book Reviews Donald C. Goellnicht, The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science. Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984. 291 pp. $26.95. Two methodological traps await anyone who studies medicine in the work of a writing doctor. Donald Goellnicht falls into both, but clambers out before this book is through. The first might be called conclusion by cumulation, wherein a biographer or critic says, in effect, "Here is a previously missed instance of medical knowledge in my subject's work, here is another, and another: are they not all remarkably interesting?" Goellnicht's excavations of such instances nearly come to a halt under the weight of his own thoroughness. Nor can he entirely avoid the second trap, which is conclusion by association. This method leads to vague and largely unverifiable claims that solely because of a writer's medical ties his or her work is notable for some quality—perhaps compassion or objectivity—which the critic associates with medicine. Thus, in this book Keats becomes a more "muscular " poet than people have generally allowed. Almost inevitably, he also becomes the poet he idealizes in Apollo of "The Fall of Hyperion "—"a sage; / a humanist, physician to all men." One wants to believe that. Many readers will believe it because in the end Goellnicht goes beyond the limits of this type of study through the simple device of adopting as a theme the influence of Keats's medical training on his developing thought over time. In one move Goellnicht links his cumulations and associations to consequences. He must first establish the biographical bases, which is no easy task amidst the dearth of reliable records relating directly to Keats. Goellnicht's narrative is clouded with "may," "perhaps," and "almost certainly." Everyone knows that Keats apprenticed himself from ages fifteen to twenty to a respected apothecary-surgeon and subsequently spent several months as a pupil and dresser (a sort of chief resident) at Guy's Hospital, London. But no one is certain about why he entered 162 BOOK REVIEWS medical training or why he left it shortly after his twenty-first birthday to live as a poet. Goellnicht wants to show that, contrary to certain long-accepted accounts, Keats had a valid attraction to a medical career, was a good student at Guy's, and left not because he abhorred medicine —let alone science or rational processes generally—but because he loved poetry. When he left, Keats carried a good deal of medicine with him, apparently even more than he realized at first. Along with his textbooks , he took certain perspectives and skills, which soon appeared in images and metaphors and later combined with his suffering as poet and patient to produce genuinely mature ideas. In order to establish just what medicine may have meant to Keats, Goellnicht has rooted out rare syllabi and textbooks from the era. He is thereby able to assess what each of four courses of study contributed to the poetry and letters. Classes in chemistry, botany, anatomy and physiology, and pathology and medicine gave the young writer dozens of specific references, most of which will be incompletely understood by the reader who is not armed with the insights of Stuart Sperry on chemistry and the creative process, Charles Hagelman—whose unpublished dissertation is the only other reliable full-length study of Keats and medicine—and, of course, Goellnicht himself. The author is convinced that Keats's astonishingly acute skills of observation were trained through his medical studies, that he was essentially of an empirical bent (philosophy, Keats said, must be proved upon the pulses), and that he is most triumphantly the doctor-poet when he exercises his empathie memory of human misery. In the finest section of the book, "Pathology and Medicine," Goellnicht demonstrates how Keats practiced what amounts to aesthetic healing. The terminally ill young man had first to heal his mind before he could reach out to suffering humanity through the altruistic poetry that constitutes the merger of his medical and literary selves. Stylistically, this book has the faults of its original dissertation format, and its virtues too. There is never any question, for instance, about the source for a fact or interpretation, never any doubt...

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Additional Information

ISSN
1080-6571
Print ISSN
0278-9671
Pages
pp. 161-163
Launched on MUSE
2010-10-13
Open Access
No
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