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BRITTANY PLADEK “In sickness not ignoble”: Soul-making and the Pains of Identity in the Hyperion Poems W HEN TELLING THE STORY OF JOHN KEATS’S FINAL YEAR, WRITERS OFTEN include the same two episodes, juxtaposed in nearly the same way. Keats’s friend Charles Brown recalls that in February 1820, the young poet had a coughing fit and spat quantities of bright arterial blood. After exam­ ining the color, Keats pronounced it a “death warrant,” a sure sign of the consumption that had already claimed his mother and brother Tom. Keats’s six years of medical training—five as an apprentice under surgeon Thomas Hammond and one as a student at Guy’s Hospital—lend authority to his self-diagnosis. The poet’s medical intuition contrasts sharply with the un­ certainty of his physicians. “Although he is a pulmonary specialist,” writes Stanley Plumly, Keats’s “[Dr.] Bree dismisses the possibility of anything pulmonary let alone consumptive. This, of course, is stunning news, con­ sidering Keats’s own diagnosis to Brown the night he coughs up the arterial blood.” Keats’s biographers disagree about why his doctors initially mis­ diagnosed his condition. “Keats’s doctors in fact had no reasonable grounds for doubting what was the matter with him,” admits Andrew Motion. “They kept him in the dark either because they were colluding with his [self] deception, or because they were incompetent.” Somewhat less chari­ tably, Donald Goellnicht writes that Keats endured “obtuse insistence by his physicians and friends that his disease was entirely mental.”1 Whatever the case, these accounts seem to imply that Keats had a surer sense of his condition than his doctors did. Motion’s suggestion that Keats attempted “deception” to hide his illness from himself and his friends reveals another possibility, however.2 Many Romantic doctors in fact recommended concealing patients’ fatal illnesses 1. Motion, Keats (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1998), 499; Goelinicht, The PoetPhysician (Pittsburgh: University of Pittsburgh Press, 1984), 207; and Plumly, Posthumous Keats (New York: Norton, 2008), 207-8. 2. Motion, Keats, 497. SiR, 54 (Fall 2015) 401 402 BRITTANY PLADEK from them, worrying that fear might worsen their condition. In Keats’s case, what sounds like bad medicine may simply have been good bed­ side manner. British medical ethics was beginning to be codified during the Romantic period. Professional ethics tracts, most notably Dr. John Gregory’s Lectures on the Duties and Qualifications of a Physician (1770) and Dr. Thomas Percival’s Medical Ethics (1803), offered guidelines for proper medical behavior. Among these writers, support for hiding the truth from patients out oftherapeutic necessity was widespread. As Percival explained, “falsehood may lose the essence of lying, and even become praiseworthy, when the adherence to truth is incompatible” with the doctor’s primary obligation to act as “minister of hope and comfort to the sick.”3 While many doctors agreed with Percival’s position, others dissented on the grounds that conveying accurate medical information outweighed the po­ tential for greater suffering. They condemned the “vice” of those “decep­ tions which are practiced by physicians with respect to the cause, nature, and probable issue of diseases.”4 Though this debate among doctors might seem remote from the poetry of a writer who never put his medical training to use, Keats raises a similar dilemma throughout his corpus: how should the worth of knowledge available only through suffering be weighed against the desire to alleviate pain? Keats’s sense of the moral value of suffering, “of convincing ones nerves that the World is full of Misery and Heartbreak,” is well known? But when considered in light of his medical experience, Keats’s apprecia­ tion of pain is often read as ultimately supporting his hope that the poet could act as a “physician to all men” on the logic that the poet’s experience ofpain helps him relieve it in others—what Timothy Ziegenhagen calls an “apprenticeship in suffering.”6 This essay interrogates the idea that Keats ultimately reconciled his medical calling and his respect for suffering in the figure of the poet-physician.7 For Keats, the doctor’s ethical impasse is 3. Percival, Medical Ethics (Huntington, NY: Robert E. Krieger, 1975...

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Additional Information

ISSN
2330-118X
Print ISSN
0039-3762
Pages
pp. 401-427
Launched on MUSE
2020-03-13
Open Access
No
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