Nicholas Roe (ed.), John Keats and the Medical Imagination

Nicholas Roe (ed.), John Keats and the Medical Imagination (London: Palgrave Macmillan 2017) xviii + 262 pp. EPUB, PDF £56.99, £72 Hb. ISBN: 978-3-319-63810-2

John Keats and the Medical Imagination is a compilation of ten specially commissioned essays based on contributions to the third Keats Bicentenary Conference at Guy’s Hospital, May 2015. The focus of the conference was ‘John Keats: Poet-Physician, Physician-Poet’, celebrating 200 years since Keats enrolled as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital in 1815 (1). Nicholas Roe’s ‘Introduction’ assuredly sets the scene for the wide breadth of historical context, informing poetic analysis, explored in the book in order to recover Keats’s poetic and medical careers.

Hrileen Ghosh’s chapter, 'John Keats’ "Guy’s Hospital ‘Poetry"', is a pioneering examination of the career context in which Keats wrote his early poetry. Nikki Hessell also describes in her chapter, ‘John Keats, the Botanist’s Companion’ (91-107) how the possible influence of the botanist, William Salisbury, on the young Keats can ‘lend[] more nuance’ to our analysis of Keats’ early poems (102). Druin Burch in his chapter, ‘The Beauty of Bodysnatching’, explores the influence of the eminent surgeon Sir Astley Paston Cooper on Keats as a student, discussing the surgeon’s practices and their mutual love of ‘anatomical knowledge’ which is proposed as the impetus for the focus on ‘beauty and truth’ so evident in Keats poetry. The influence of Cooper is extensively examined by John Barnard in his ‘John Keats in the Context of the Physical Society, Guy’s Hospital, 1815-1816’ (73-90). Nicholas Roe stresses, moreover, in his chapter, ‘Mr Keats’ (57-72) that, in 1816, Keats was an ‘accomplished surgeon’ at the start of what could have been ‘a promising career’ (68). Interestingly, Stuart Curran discusses in ‘”The Feel of Not to Feel it”: The Life of Non-sensation in Keats’ (153-172) that Keats's poetry not only has imagery informed by his medical training but also the morose ‘death-in-life and life-in-death […] actualities of [...] hospital practice he confronted’ (168).

I was particularly impressed by two of the chapters which devote much of their time to analysing poems with especially diverse reference to Keats’s medical knowledge. In ‘Keats, Mourning and Melancholia’ (129-152), R S White interprets Isabella; or, The Pot of Basil with refreshing clarity in the context of contemporary understanding of melancholia as an affliction and a fashionable pose. Also in ‘Objects of Suspicion: Keats, ‘To Autumn’ and the Psychology of Romantic Surveillance’(173-205), Richard Marggraf Turley, not only explores Keats's poem in the context of the Peterloo protestors but also as a reflection of the ‘age’s sophisticated understanding of the effects of endemic suspicion on individual wellbeing’ (181).

But it is unfortunate that the final chapter ‘Keats' Killing Breath: Paradigms of a Pathography’ (207-234) should close such a vibrant and effusive book on a forlorn note. Damian Walford Davies reminds us that ‘[t]he notion of the poetic “tubercle” has served to attune literary-critical analysis […] and the terrifying, if always imaginatively emancipating, ambiguities of air and breath’ informed Keats craft. I would have also liked to have read more on Keats’s reaction to his contemporary critics who were prompted by their distain of his medical training; for example, Lockhart’s acerbic swipe: 'It is a better and a wiser thing to be a starved apothecary that a starved poet’1 and the early ‘mocking reception’ of Keats’s poetry by fellow students at Guy’s (30). It was also slightly disappointing that there was not a fuller exploration of probable anxieties mixed with what must have been an impressive self-confidence which led Keats to ‘quit medicine for poetry’ in 1816 after joining Hunt’s circle (30). Keats had a sense that ‘poetry can play a “healing” role […] where medicine can offer no help’ (10) but medicine would have given him essential financial security (117). The subject of a poet needing to  make money is explored by Jeffrey N Cox in ‘John Keats, Medicine, and Young Men on the Make’ (109-128).

Despite these minor quibbles, I did feel that the book splendidly achieves what Roe explains it set out to do, that is, ‘enabling readers to comprehend the full span of [Keats’s] creative genius with fresh knowledge, enhanced understanding and deeper insight' (15). Each chapter provides a most useful collection of references for further study. This book helps students of Keats’s poetry to work towards a learning of ‘a great whole’ which, according to Caroline Bertonèche2 aligns with Keats’s resolve, described in his letter to his friend, John Hamilton Reynolds:

‘Were I to study physic or rather Medicine again, — I feel it would not make the least difference in my Poetry; when the Mind is in its infancy a Bias is in reality a Bias, but when we have acquired more strength [...] Every department of knowledge we see excellent and calculated towards a great whole. I am so convinced […] that I am glad at not having given away my medical Books, which I shall again look over to keep alive the little I know.’3

Elizabeth Askey, Simon Langton Grammar School for Boys


1 John Lockhart, “Cockney School of Poetry”, Blackwood’s Edinburgh Magazine, 3 (1818), 520.

2 Caroline Bertonèche, «Bloody Poetry: On the Role of Medicine in John Keats's Life and Art», in Muriel Louâpre, Hugues Marchal et Michel Pierssens (éd.), La Poésie scientifique, de la gloire au déclin, ouvrage électronique mis en ligne en janvier 2014 sur le site Épistémocritique,, p.153-169.

3 Hyder Edward Rollins, ed., Letters of John Keats: 1814 –1821, 2 vols. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1958) I, 277.