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  • Medical Formalism
  • Arden A. Hegele (bio)

The great biologist J. B. S. Haldane commented that "Shelley and Keats were the last English poets who were up-to-date" in scientific knowledge, particularly medicine.1 Keats qualified as an apothecary and trained in surgery at Guy's Hospital before embracing his poetic vocation;2 at Oxford, the young Shelley developed "a taste for chemistry" and read voluminously in anatomy and physiology.3 [End Page 118] The effects of such learning on their poetry are well documented: Keats's invocations of opiates and poisons in the "Ode on Melancholy," chemical transmutation in Lamia, and the "wreath'd trellis of a working brain" in the "Ode to Psyche" are counterposed by the interest in vitalism that shapes Shelley's Prometheus Unbound and "The Triumph of Life" (not to mention Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley's Frankenstein).4 And yet, despite their writing's tropological exchanges with medicine, Keats, Shelley, and their circle are not usually recognized for their formalist engagements with the increasingly rival field.

The circle's relationship to medicine can be imaginatively revivified by exploring congruences between protocols of medical diagnosis and literary interpretation—an approach I call medical formalism. The poetry of the Keats-Shelley circle indexes a larger Romantic project: first, to evaluate literary work through historical diagnostic models; second, to experiment with poetic form in devising a therapeutic intervention. In the decades following the medical reforms triggered by the French Revolution, Romanticism generated key analogies between the shapes of the body and the text: most important was "organic form," which theorized poetic creativity through vitalism, but also as a series of new affinities linking the formal features of disease with the forms of texts. Literary texts were read anew through explicatory techniques designed for the analysis of disease. Keats's "symptoms" were especially "terrible," according to reviewers: "The phrenzy of the Poems was bad enough," the "drivelling idiocy of Endymion" still worse, and the poet himself "infect[ed]" with "poetical mania."5 Yet anticipating such readings, poets perceived formal affinities between their representational practices and the protocols that physicians used to interpret the human body in such historically emergent fields as anatomy, [End Page 119] pathology, psychiatry, and semiology. Often, they elaborated these affinities to attempt a therapeutic intervention through poetry itself. In Adonais, for instance, Shelley uses the protocol of postmortem dissection not just to identify Keats's cause of death (murder by review), but also to offer grieving readers a hermeneutic of consolation that reverses postmortem analysis, penetrating into their still-living "panting heart[s]"—just as Keats's poetry had.6

The Romantics' medical-formalist interventions not only counter the assumption of growing specialization in the period—they also cast light on current debates: in New Formalism on whether an encounter with literary form might produce material effects (recalling, in other words, Kant's Romantic-era queries about the "instrumentality of aesthetics"); in critical reading about the etiology and ethics of symptomatic reading; and in the medical humanities about whether reading might engender bodily healing. Compelling answers to pressing contemporary questions, I suggest, might be drawn from Romanticism's formalist engagement with approaches that might seem at first to belong to the physician's black bag.

Arden A. Hegele

Arden A. Hegele is a Fellow at the Society of Fellows in the Humanities and a Lecturer in English and Comparative Literature at Columbia University.


1. J. B. S. Haldane, Daedalus or Science and the Future (1924), rpt. in Haldane's Daedalus Revisited (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1995), 31.

2. Nicholas Roe, John Keats: A New Life (New Haven: Yale University Press, 2010), 132, 134, 153.

3. Thomas Jefferson Hogg, The Life of Percy Bysshe Shelley (London: Routledge, 1906), 54, 92; see also Christopher Goulding, "The real Doctor Frankenstein," Journal of the Royal Society of Medicine 95.5 (May 2002), 257–59,

4. John Keats, The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge: Belknap Press of Harvard University Press, 1978), line 60. Among other studies, see Hermione de Almeida, Romantic Medicine and John Keats (Oxford University Press, 1991); Sharon Ruston, Shelley and Vitality (Houndmills: Palgrave Macmillan...


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