Poetry and Medicine: Keats Was an Apothecary

A new biography by English professor Bob White examines the role that the study of medicine played in John Keats' life and poetry--a subject most Keats biographers "gloss over."
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A new biography by Western Australia English professor Bob White examines the role that the study of medicine played in John Keats' life and poetry--a subject most Keats biographers, White believes, tend to "gloss over." It seems a sensible approach, when you consider that Keats spent seven years of his short life (he died at 25) apprenticing as an apothecary.

White told the Australian that knowledge Keats gleaned from his botany and anatomy texts surfaces in his work, citing as an example the famous opening lines from Keats' "Ode to a Nightingale":

My heart aches, and a drowsy numbness pains
My sense, as though of hemlock I had drunk,
Or emptied some dull opiate to the drains
One minute past, and Lethe-wards had sunk

White also makes the argument that Keats' medical background shows itself in how the poet viewed poetry as a sort of healing medium.

We know, at least, that Keats didn't think his study of medicine had a negative impact on his poetry. In a letter, he wrote, "Were I to study physic or rather Medicine again, I feel it would not make the least difference in my Poetry. I am so convinced of this, that I am glad at not having given away my medical Books..."

Some poets have, in fact, maintained successful careers in both medicine and poetry, the best-known example being the great American poet William Carlos Williams. But while Keats reveled in rich and gorgeous lines, Williams approached the writing of a poem with a surgeon's precision. He stripped away beauty and escapism in pursuit of clarity and concision with a goal of recreating the energy of experiencing a visual image, as is apparent in these excerpts from his poem "The Rose":

The rose is obsolete
but each petal ends in
an edge, the double facet
cementing the grooved
columns of air--The edge
cuts without cutting

It is at the edge of the
petal that love waits
Crisp, worked to defeat
plucked, moist, half-raised
cold, precise, touching

Williams, who believed literature to be on a higher plane than science or philosophy, addressed the role of medicine in his life in his book Imaginations:

Living in a backward country, as all which are products of the scientific and philosophical centuries must be, I am satisfied, since I prefer not to starve, to live by the practice of medicine, which combines the best features of both science and philosophy ... But, like Pasteur, when he was young, or anyone else who has something to do, I wish I had more money for my literary expenses.

C. Dale Young is a living example of the doctor/poet. A practicing radiation oncologist--a job that takes up 90 percent of his time--Young somehow makes time to teach, edit and write poetry (his third book will be published next year). Young sometimes uses poetry to meditate on his medical career (to great effect), as with this excerpt from his poem "Invective":

red the dirt road in Florida, red the bauxite-laden

dirt of Mandeville, Jamaica, fifty years earlier,
my father walking up a hill utterly unimpressed
with the red earth there beneath his feet.
Had I, too, been conditioned? Hardened?

Every patient in my study died in two years,
and what had I done, presented the facts

at a conference, answered questions
about protocols and confidence intervals?
I used to tell the dead about dying.
Now I search for crude metaphors, like this dirt.

Before Young knew that Williams was a physician, he was drawn to the painterly way that Williams wrote. Perhaps the mindset that led both to pursue medicine also led them to appreciate the power of poetry. And certainly, as White suggests, poetry is for some, also a fulfilling way to heal.

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