Observing Keats

I’m still thinking about John Keats and medicine. I’ve recently written a couple of articles – one on Jane Austen’s ‘Sanditon’ and one on Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’ – which consider how professional medicine might have provided nineteenth-century writers with a model for effective literary practice (in the description of characters, for instance, or in the communication of humane knowledge). But I think (or I hope) that, in the case of Keats, there’s still more to say, specifically about how his time as a medical student and dresser in London in 1815-17 trained him in a diagnostic method, and in a particular approach to working with patients, that also informed his poetry.

British medicine in the early nineteenth century was engaged in an ambitious (if uneven) process of professionalisation, exemplified in the 1815 Apothecaries’ Act, which for the first time mandated a (roughly) standardised curriculum of instruction and examination for trainee apothecaries. Keats was one of the first students to enrol at Guy’s and St Thomas’s hospitals after the passing of the act, and, as John Barnard has shown, in 1815-16 he attended the eminent surgeon Astley Cooper’s lectures on anatomy and on surgery. Cooper was an important contributor to the professionalisation of medicine, and especially to the development of a scientific approach to diagnosis and surgical treatment, which rejected systematic theorising and relied instead on empirical data and on detailed anatomical knowledge.

Descriptions of this approach are everywhere in notes taken by students who attended Cooper’s lectures at the same time as Keats (notes that are now held in the archives of King’s College London and of the Royal College of Surgeons). One student, Joshua Waddington, recorded Cooper as saying that the ‘principles’ of surgery ‘are founded upon observation of diseased living, and the examination of diseased dead Animals, and on experiments made on the living’. Another, George Ray, noted down the same maxim: surgical principles ‘are derived from three sources. 1st from the observation of the symptoms of Disease during life. 2ndly from the examination of the appearance of the body after Death. 3rd by experiments on living animals.’ For Cooper, it seems, observation, examination, and experimentation formed a kind of scientific trivium that underpinned surgical practice, and that viewed the living and the dead as the data of medical science.


St Thomas’s hospital, where Keats attended Astley Cooper’s lectures.

How might this approach have informed Keats’s poetry? To give one example: in ‘The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream’ (1819), Keats uses the Greek myth of the war between the Titans and the Olympians as the narrative framework around which he constructs his definitions of poetry and of the poet. Moneta, the goddess of memory, gifts the poem’s speaker with ‘A power […] of enormous ken / To see as a God sees’ (1:303-4), which enables him to witness the sufferings of the defeated Titans Saturn and Thea:

                     A long awful time
I looked upon them: still they were the same;
The frozen God still bending to the earth,
And the sad Goddess weeping at his feet;
Moneta silent. Without stay or prop,
But my own weak mortality, I bore
The load of this eternal quietude,
The unchanging gloom, and the three fixèd shapes
Ponderous upon my senses a whole moon. (1:384-92)

The critical consensus about these lines (most recently set out by Brittany Pladek) is that they describe an instance of imaginative identification with suffering, of sympathy or (to use an anachronistic word, not coined until the early twentieth century) empathy. The most important words here, in this interpretation, are ‘I bore / the load’. But what load is the speaker bearing? I’m not convinced that he is sympathetically experiencing the Titans’ grief and humiliation. Instead, the feeling he describes appears to be a kind of boredom, or a detached (and therefore, perhaps, professional) indifference. The difficulty that faces him in these lines is not that of surviving the superhuman pain of the Titans, but that of maintaining his disciplined, monotonous observation throughout the ‘long awful time’ of their stillness (it’s a difficulty that’s articulated in the sound of Keats’s blank verse, and specifically in the acoustic repetition of ‘ponderous upon my senses’). In his efforts to understand the Titans, the speaker first and foremost looks at them rather than feeling for them, an approach that agrees with Astley Cooper’s insistence on the centrality of observation and examination to diagnosis.

This is not scientific objectivity, which Lorraine Daston and Peter Galison define as ‘knowledge that bears no trace of the knower’; the speaker’s observation of Saturn and Thea is filtered through his ‘own weak mortality’. But it is knowledge in which the subjectivity of the observer is distanced from those he observes: he characterises the Titans not as living and suffering persons but as visual ‘shapes’. Rather than describing a process of imaginative identification, these lines suggest that, in poetry as in scientific medicine, fellow feeling perhaps needs to be subordinated to observational accuracy. And, to put forward the kind of speculative hypothesis of which Cooper disapproved, I also think that the speaker’s observation of the Titans indicates that there is a place in poetry for ‘experiments made on the living’. ‘The Fall of Hyperion’ may be interpreted as an experiment that tests what happens when a poet tries to observe, diagnose, and describe suffering magnified to eternal, immortal proportions.

‘Condensed Sensibility’: Keats, Medicine, and Sympathy

I’ve just published an essay on John Keats in a special issue of the journal Romanticism. The essay builds on the work of several critics, particularly Nicholas Roe, James Allard, and R.S. White, in arguing that Keats’s poetry was informed by his time as a medical student and dresser at Guy’s Hospital (1815-17). It tries to bring something new to the study of the connections between Romantic poetry and medicine by focusing on the concept of sympathy. Throughout his writing, Keats champions sympathetic feeling for others as one of poetry’s central concerns, but he also imposes limits on the exercise of sympathy, seeking to preserve an objectifying distance between the poet and the emotions that his poetry examines. This model of restrained sympathy was influenced, I think, by Keats’s medical training, and particularly by The Hospital Pupil’s Guide, a volume first published in London in 1816 and ‘addressed to students of the medical profession’, and which Keats is likely to have read. Even if he didn’t, he would have been introduced to a similar understanding of sympathy through his attendance at the lectures of the renowned surgeon Astley cooper, whom White identifies as the lead author of the guide.

The Hospital Pupil’s Guide insistently presents medicine as an objective and scientific practice, a stance designed to reinforce the growing professionalisation and intellectual authority of medical work and medical practitioners in the early nineteenth century. But while the guide celebrates the ‘rational exercise of the mental faculties’, it also highlights the important but ambiguous role of sympathetic feeling in professional medicine. It advises its student readers that ‘in the practice of the Profession, benevolence of disposition’ is ‘imperiously demanded.’ This argument betrays a fear that, as medicine becomes professionalised, its practitioners may act as, or be viewed as, unfeeling specialists rather than gentlemanly benefactors.

However, the guide also warns that correct professional action depends on the capacity to mediate between sympathy and professional expertise: ‘genuine sensibility, while it enters into the sufferings of others, is yet a principled feeling, and its first emotion is to relieve that suffering. In his prosecution of the line of conduct dictated by his judgment, the surgeon is deaf to the pains of his patient’. The Hospital Pupil’s Guide characterises this as a ‘condensed sensibility’, and concludes that ‘a man who has not obtained this self-control, is unfit for the practice of his profession’.

How does this model of ‘condensed sensibility’ influence Keats’s thinking about poetry? There is evidence for its importance to him throughout his letters, even when he is arguing that poets have a particular capacity for unmediated and unrestrained sympathy. In November 1817 his claim that ‘if a Sparrow come before my Window I take part in its existince [sic] and pick about the Gravel’ is followed by his admission that ‘I sometimes feel not the influence of a Passion or Affection during a whole week—and so long this sometimes continues I begin to suspect myself and the genuiness [sic] of my feelings at other times—thinking them a few barren Tragedy-tears’. This insusceptibility, he claims, is not ‘heartlessness but abstraction’. Like the self-control advocated in his medical training, Keats’s abstraction distances him from other people, but it also enables him to develop self-knowledge through an objectifying examination of his feelings.

John Keats

John Keats, 1819

Throughout 1819, worried about his financial prospects, Keats frequently considered the possibility of resuming his medical career. Writing in a letter about the possibility of taking a position as a surgeon on a merchant ship, he applauds the clinical stance of such work, its emphasis on the impartial analysis of, rather than the sympathetic identification with, other people: ‘To be thrown among people who care not for you, with whom you have no sympathies forces the Mind upon its own resourses [sic], and leaves it free to make its speculations of the differences of human character and to class them with the calmness of a Botanist’. The removal of sympathy has two related effects: it turns the mind away from others and towards self-knowledge, and it enables the scientific observation and classification of other people’s personalities. Although Keats decided not to re-enlist in the medical profession, his poetry makes consistent use of these objectifying strategies of internalisation and systematic observation. It also asks how these strategies might work in co-operation with the exercise of the sympathetic imagination.

Keats’s ‘Ode to Psyche’, for example, reveals several similarities between the methods of medicine and poetry. If the ode as a form aims for synthesis, then this particular ode aspires to a synthesis between sympathy and self-possessed impartiality. Keats presents a number of different approaches to poetic creativity over the course of the poem, and the movement between them constitutes, among other things, an effort to withdraw from or delimit sympathy. First, there is the intimate apostrophe of the opening lines:

O Goddess! hear these tuneless numbers, wrung

By sweet enforcement and remembrance dear,

And pardon that thy secrets should be sung

Even into thine own soft-conched ear: (ll. 1-4)

This apostrophe implies communication and relationship, but it also distances the poet from other people by figuring the human soul as a generalised abstraction, which is personified in and addressed through the figure of Psyche: Keats’s deployment of apostrophe, like the model of medicine set out in his hospital training, simultaneously involves connection with others and detached observation.

There is a comparable ambiguity in the poet’s relation to Psyche in the ode’s final stanza:

Yes, I will be thy priest, and build a fane

In some untrodden region of my mind,

Where branched thoughts, new grown with pleasant pain,

Instead of pines shall murmur in the wind: (ll. 50-53)

In these lines Keats internalises his observations of Psyche, worshipping her within his subjectivity. This process encapsulates the ambivalence towards sympathy shared by Keats’s poetics and the medical profession. The affective ramifications of the poet’s thoughts, ‘new grown with pleasant pain’, might suggest that his worship is an expansive process of imaginative sympathy with the feelings of humanity, encapsulated in the figure of Psyche. As in medicine, however, this sympathy is simultaneously an objectification, a conversion of other people’s circumstances and sensations into a cognitive assessment of symptoms, and that objectification is realised through Keats’s internalisation of the Psyche myth in his mind. The ode stages a poetic method which is founded on strategies of internalisation, self-examination, and observation. As in nineteenth-century medicine, sympathy in this poem is informed by, and to some extent dependent on, a disciplined resistance to feeling.

English Literature and French Revolutions

As I wrote in my previous post, I’ve been thinking a lot recently about the ways in which nineteenth-century writers defined British national identity, and about how Englishness fitted into (and often dominated) those definitions. Elisabeth Jay’s recent book British Writers and Paris 1830-1875 has helped me to realise how often Englishness and Britishness were imagined in opposition to representations of Europe, and especially of the city that was viewed, throughout the nineteenth century, as the epitome of European culture.

For British writers, the changing appearance of nineteenth-century Paris embodied the troubling fluctuations of French and European politics. Even after they had been swept away, though, the city’s streets and buildings, and the events that had taken place in and on them, continued to exert an obstinate pull on the memory and the imagination. British writers frequently tried to construct a historical narrative that might make sense of the city’s successive revolutions, but they also acknowledged the ways in which Paris resisted any comfortingly straightforward interpretation. In his autobiographical poem The Prelude, Wordsworth recalled his brief stay in Paris in October 1792, just after the September massacres:

I crossed (a black and empty area then)

The Square of the Carrousel, few weeks back

Heaped up with dead and dying – upon these

And other sights looking as doth a man

Upon a volume whose contents he knows

Are memorable but from him locked up,

Being written in a tongue he cannot read.

These lines, written in 1805 but not published until after Wordsworth’s death in 1850, encapsulate the difficulties that British writers struggled with when they tried to explain recent Parisian history. Wordsworth presents himself both as a sightseer and as an interpreter or translator, but he is at a loss to make sense of Paris’s uncanny transformation, in the space of a few weeks, from a slaughterhouse to a mundane urban scene. Despite Wordsworth’s best efforts, the city remains intractably foreign and alien, and his sense of alienation intensified as the years and decades passed. Visiting again in 1837, he wrote to a friend:

‘What shall I say of Paris? Many splendid edifices and some fine streets have been added since I first saw it at the close of the year ­-91. But I have had little feeling to spare for novelties, my heart and mind having been awakened everywhere to sad and strange recollections of what was then passing and of subsequent events, which have either occurred in this vast City, or which have flowed from it as their source.’

Although struck by the changes imposed on Paris by successive regimes – the imperial government of Napoleon I, the restored Bourbon monarchy, the July monarchy of Louis Philippe – Wordsworth professes himself to be unmoved by these ‘novelties’. Juxtaposing the city’s physical transformation with his dormant but ineradicable memories of its history, his letter summarises the prevailing British view of Paris as a place that simultaneously enforced the obliteration and the recollection of the past.

Elisabeth Jay points out that the city was a perfect setting for the nostalgic Romanticism of much Victorian writing. British authors took its transformations personally, responding with ‘bouts of reflection on earlier selves from which they now seemed irretrievably estranged by the wholesale destruction of the buildings, streets, and enclaves where they had formerly wandered.’ But there was also an important political dimension to these reflections. When Wordsworth wrote in The Prelude that, after the violence of September 1792, ‘The fear gone by / Pressed on me almost like a fear to come’, he was using his recollection of personal dread to allude to the political Terror that commenced soon after he left Paris. The ‘fear to come’ haunted British writers throughout the nineteenth century, because the city’s political disturbances were at the same time dangerously chaotic and worryingly predictable. There was never too long to wait until the next revolution.

Some Victorians saw the funny side of what Jay describes as the ‘cyclical inevitability’ of Parisian revolution. After the insurrection of June 1848 (the second of that year), the satirical magazine Punch accused a popular newspaper, the Illustrated London News, of fabricating its pictures of the barricades. They had been published so promptly, Punch suggested, that they must have been prepared in advance of the uprising:

‘Any one might have foreseen for weeks previous that there would shortly be another Revolution in Paris. It required no great prophet to guess such a very common event as that. We should not at all wonder if our spirited contemporary has not already on hand half-a-dozen more Revolutions, so as to meet the pressure of the times.’

Horace Vernet Barricade Rue Soufflot

Horace Vernet, On the Barricades on the Rue Soufflot, Paris, 25 June 1848

Other writers were deadly serious about the threat posed by Paris’s habitual volatility. In his 1850 elegy for his friend Arthur Hallam, In Memoriam, Tennyson connected the personal to the political by imagining his coming to terms with grief as one part of a global, teleological progress towards peace and security:

And all is well, though faith and form

Be sundered in the night of fear;

Well roars the storm to those that hear

A deeper voice across the storm,

Proclaiming social truth shall spread,

And justice, ev’n though thrice again

The red fool-fury of the Seine

Should pile her barricades with dead.

In Memoriam is a famously cyclical poem, its abba rhyme scheme embodying the difficulty Tennyson finds in moving on from his grief. The recurring ‘fool-fury of the Seine’ is presented here as emblematic of the kind of pathological stagnation from which Tennyson (and, the poem implies, the whole world) must struggle to break free. When they were drafted prior to the 1848 revolution, these lines warned of the danger of the Parisian people ‘once again’ taking to the barricades; the revision to ‘thrice again’ indicates just how anxious some British writers were about the repetitive pattern of revolutionary activity in 1789, 1830, and 1848. And these stanzas also highlight a problem with the word ‘British’ in relation to Victorian opinions about Paris. In this poem Tennyson contrasts a specifically English ‘love of freedom’ (liberal, measured, reformist) not just with the fury of the Parisian mob but also with ‘The blind hysterics of the Celt’. For some Victorians, the alien political culture represented by Paris was defined in opposition not to an inclusive British national identity, but to an exclusive model of Englishness that linked Scotland, Wales, and especially Ireland to the chaotic irrationality of European politics.

I wanted to resist making any kind of facile comparison between these nineteenth-century examples and the current debate about Brexit. But I don’t think I can. British writers’ interpretations of Paris in the nineteenth century show that, however much they tried to define British national identity in opposition to European culture, the two were inescapably connected through the physical travels of people and through a reciprocal exchange of cultural traditions and political beliefs. And the example of Tennyson’s poem also suggests that a rejection of Europe tends to highlight the internal tensions within (an inherently composite) British national identity, and threatens to undermine the cultural multiplicity that arguably defines Britishness.