- John Keats and the Medical Imagination ed. by Nicholas Roe, and: John Keats: 21st Century Oxford Authors ed. by John Barnard, and: The Keats Letters Project ed. by Anne C. McCarthy, et al.
Although it is hardly news to say that reading and thinking about an author are deeply shaped by how that relationship is mediated, this thought was very much in my mind as I reflected on the three works I am reviewing here: a collection of essays on John Keats and medicine that emerged from the third Keats Bicentenary Conference at Guy's Hospital in London in May 2015; a new edition of his poetry and letters, edited by John Barnard; and a highly innovative and exciting web-based project that has been asking us, collectively, to celebrate the bicentenary on an almost daily basis since late 2015 by reading, thinking about, and writing about each of his letters as they successively appear two hundred years to the day since they were first written.
John Keats and the Medical Imagination is a valuable contribution to our understanding of the rich ways in which Keats's poetry is inseparably bound up with his medical training, first as an apprentice to the surgeon-apothecary Thomas Hammond in Edmonton and then as a student and dresser at Guy's Hospital, and how that poetry is also steeped in his ongoing experience—in Hammond's surgery, the hospital, and his personal life—with illness, suffering, and disease. Together, the essays amply demonstrate that in taking up the uncertain career of a poet, Keats did not turn away from medicine but brought a "medical imagination" to his writings and his understanding of the world.
The volume is deeply indebted to the ground-breaking work of Hermione de Almeida and Donald Goellnicht and reflects the editor Nicholas Roe's own belief that Keats never fully chose between the rival claims of poetry and medicine. Roe nicely poses the fundamental question of the volume in his introduction, asking "[w]hat did it mean for Keats to think of himself as a poet and as a physician, as someone who had, from the outset, pursued both a living in medicine and a calling to poetry?" (p. 4). Four of the chapters focus directly on the relationship between Keats and Guy's Hospital. Roe, in his own contribution, recounts the remarkable story surrounding "Mr. Keats" being mentioned in the Morning Chronicle for Monday, April 23, 1816, as the surgeon who removed a pistol ball from the neck of a woman shot by her husband. Hrileena Ghosh provides a detailed discussion of the thirty-nine poems that Keats wrote while at Guy's. In his chapter on Astley Cooper, who was Lecturer on Anatomy and Surgery at St Thomas's and Surgeon at Guy's Hospital, Druin Burch discusses Cooper's fascination with anatomical dissection, highlighting the strange mixture [End Page 222] of truth and aesthetics in Cooper's blood-spattered note on his post-mortem dissection of George IV and in his illustration of the complex and entangled anatomy of the female breast. John Barnard points to an important context for better understanding the intellectual life of medical students and staff and the kinds of treatments, patients, and diseases the Keats would have encountered as a dresser by discussing the records of the Physical Society at Guy's Hospital. Although Keats does not appear to have attended its weekly meetings, the cases discussed at these meetings provide important information about medicine and the treatment of patients at Guy's and St. Thomas's.
Many of the chapters in this collection are particularly good at bringing out the ways in which Keats's medical training provided him with a rich and extensive poetic vocabulary...