- Keats, Medicine and British Romantic Culture
John Keats's earliest surviving poem "Imitation of Spenser" dates from 1814 and was written while he was an apothecary's apprentice. Subsequently he worked at Guy's Hospital in London from October 1815 to March 1817 as a surgeon.1 His medical and poetic careers overlapped right from the start.
The medical culture within which Keats worked was both heroic and helpless. There were very few effective medicines, and few conditions that could be treated with surgery. There was no anesthesia or imaging equipment: the success of operations depended on the skill and speed of the operator and his knowledge of anatomy. Even successful operations often resulted in death, for medicine had no defense against infections and no conception of antisepsis. Moreover, the surgeons themselves were at risk. The cadavers used for dissection and for practicing procedures were freshly exhumed corpses, and an accidental prick was life-threatening. Surgery was a perilous profession: the only Keats poem written during a medical lecture, "Give me women, wine, and snuff," is a light-hearted but clear-sighted account of a medical culture that inspired hard-living in the face of certain knowledge that life was precarious.2
Keats's contemporaries clearly recognized that his immersion in medical culture contributed to the form and content of his poetry, and much of the criticism directed at his poems was couched in medical terms. John Gibson Lockhart's "Cockney School of Poetry No. IV" is a pre-eminent example of such medico-literary criticism, and it is one that did a great deal of posthumous damage: as a result of its claims, Keats's friends and admirers chose to censor any acknowledgement that his medical knowledge may have influenced his poetry. In combination with the twentieth-century prevalence of C. P. Snow's formulation of the two cultures of science and the humanities, this nineteenth-century suppression resulted in an anachronistic view of the separation of the literary and the medical in Keats's works. The effects [End Page 109] of this perspective continue to haunt Keats studies, despite how some stellar scholarship over the last century has revealed such fallacies.
During Keats's lifetime, literary journals routinely reported on medical texts and debates. Literature and medicine, in common with other fields of epistemological enquiry, were considered mutually influential paths to knowledge and creativity. For the people who followed the "Vitalism Debates"—which originated as a series of medical lectures on the properties of blood before capturing the popular imagination of Britain—it was natural for a poet who was also a surgeon to derive poetic inspiration from his medical career.3 It is time that we consistently adopted a similar position in our work as scholars of Keats and of British Romantic culture.
Hrileena Ghosh is the author and editor of John Keats' Medical Notebook: Text, Context, and Poems, recently published by Liverpool University Press.
1. Nicholas Roe, John Keats: A New Life (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 2012), 57, 74, 153.
2. Hrileena Ghosh, "'Give Me Women Wine and Snuff ': A New Account of John Keats's Poem," The Keats-Shelley Review 30.2 (September 2016), 113–21.
3. Hermione de Almeida, Romantic Medicine and John Keats (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1991), 99–101, 104–105.