Contributor: Caroline Bertonèche
Location: Keats House, Hampstead
Description: In 1815, John Keats (1795-1821) was a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, in London, studying to become a surgeon. To prepare for his lectures, Keats bought a series of dissection manuals, The London Dissector, and Outlines of a Course of Dissections for the Use of Students at St. Thomas’s Hospital, which was published in 1815, the year Keats arrived at the United Hospitals; in 1820 it was enlarged under the title The Dissector’s Manual. Since Keats entered Guy’s Hospital during the transition period between The London Dissector and the Outlines, it is probable that he owned both; he would certainly have owned the latter, which was recommended by his professor, Sir Astley Cooper. Cooper also recommended two other texts to his students: Fyfe’s Anatomy, and Blumenbach’s Physiology. Aside from these manuals and a case of dissecting instruments, Keats owned a couple of notebooks. One of these notebooks was this Anatomy notebook, containing his notes of Cooper’s teachings on anatomy and physiology (12 lectures in total, including chapters entitled “On the Blood”, the “Arteries”, the “Nervous system” or the “Muscles”). Keats paid, at the time, two shillings and two pence for this leather-bound, unpaginated notebook, wrote his name in the inside cover and left a few blank pages in the middle. The notebook is now part of the Keats House collection in Hampstead. It is being displayed open in a glass case at one of the most fascinating, and most famous, pages: the twenty-seventh page, where Keats drew some flowers in the left margin near a description of how to repair a dislocated jaw. This page therefore brings together Romantic poetry and science into intriguing relationship.
The last six lines of the twenty-seventh page in the text printed from the holograph in the Keats Museum and edited by Maurice Buxton Forman (first published in 1934 by Haskell House Publishers, then again in 1970) read as follows: “The Lower Jaw is frequently dislocated from receiving a slight Blow while the Mouth is open—it is thus indicated—the Condyles of the Jaw are thrown under the Zygomatic Arches sometimes the coronoid process projects beyond the Arch. Cover the Thumbs with an Handkerchief and depress the lower part of the Jaw elevating the Chin with the fingers—if this should not succeed. <There are little drawings of flowers in the inner margin of this page>”.
Ruth Richardson who presented the notebook to the medical community in a section called “From the medical museum”, published in The Lancet on 27 January 2001, noticed that “the anatomy notes are generally neatly structured, level and clear. Other pages, mainly on physiology, look to have been penned in haste, probably during lectures, urgent and brief, and inclining upwards to the right. In several places the two types of writing appear on the same page, where Keats added something important to existing notes—such as under ‘The Bones of the Hand’, details of the best sites at which to amputate”.
The notebook displays a great sense of details: the minutely sketched flowers seem to prefigure some of Keats’s most prominent poetic features. It is the material proof of how essential these budding medical details would become in Keats’s narrative poems. It also reminds us of how influential Cooper’s lectures were on his poetry. His charisma as a doctor and the power of his oratory contrasted with the more mechanical approach of someone like Henry Cline, Keats’s other professor of surgery at the time. In his article on “John Keats, Physician and Poet”, Robert Gittings writes: “Cline was reckoned the soundest and most mechanically ingenious of operating surgeons, Cooper the boldest, most dashing and experimental. The same characteristics were apparent in their lectures. Cline was immensely thorough; his lectures and demonstrations lasted one and a half to one and three quarters hours, whereas Cooper, also by far the quicker operator, never spent more than an hour and a quarter. […] He was full of striking illustrations and vivid phrases, and it can be no accident Keats’s notes on Cooper are more full than those he took from Cline”.
The notebook also illustrates another side of the young medical student, a poet challenging the world of science from an early age, prone to reveries and daydreaming as an alternative to “fact or reason”. Charles Cowden Clarke, in his Recollections on Keats by an old School-Fellow (January 1861) once inquired how far Keats liked his studies at the hospital: “The other day, for instance, during the lecture [of anatomy], there came a sunbeam into the room, and with it a whole troop of creatures floating in the ray, I [Keats] was off with them to Oberon and fairyland”. According to William Michael Rossetti, in his biography of Keats, A Life of John Keats, published in 1887, “Keats indeed always denied that he abandoned surgery for the express purpose of taking poetry: he alleged that his motive had been the dread of doing some mischief in his surgical operations. His last operation consisted in opening a temporal artery; he was entirely successful in it, but the success appeared to himself like a miracle, the recurrence of which was not to be reckoned on”.
During his training, Keats crossed paths with the infamous William Lucas, also known as “the Hospital’s Butcher”, which left him with a somewhat negative impression of what medicine was able to do, or rather, undo. Not a very reassuring prospect for a young surgeon. But this page also unveils a more positive message, it seems, one that will resurface a few years later, in 1818, in Keats’s poem, Isabella; or the Pot of Basil, a rewriting of Boccaccio’s Elisabetta story in the Decameron. Keats’s flowers or what could very well be seen as a selection of medicinal plants used as ornaments to illustrate his notes on the anatomy of a human head seem to have inspired the poetic misadventures of Isabella and Lorenzo – Lorenzo, the dead lover, whose head Isabella chose to surgically remove from his corpse for reimplantation in a pot of basil. Keats, the modern scientist, invents a new recipe and leaves us readers with an interesting mixture. The whole body of the beloved is being embalmed and reconstructed, before our very eyes, by the science of poetry. From the hospital halls to the “earthy bed”, Keats chooses to combine his experience of Romantic medicine with references to other poets and cultures from across Europe, stories of the past being told by different voices as the future of science unfolds. From Italy to England and back, such stories are all meant to give greater depth to the notebook’s initial fantasy; what started out as a simple sketch soon developed into the definition of the poem itself and the vital force of its scientific message. In the end, it only took Keats two years for his dream to materialise into another reality. For the same reasons which inspired Keats to step into the surgical ward in 1815, this poetic transformation is far from anecdotal. After years spent studying the human brain, the anatomy of corpses and the various forms of death, comes the rebirth, and from the many pages of notes inscribed in his memory, the poet’s vision of an essentially creative afterlife: “The evening came,/And they had found Lorenzo’s earthy bed ;/The flint was there, the berries at his head (44, 350-52)”.
Creator: John Keats
Subject: Astley Cooper’s lectures in anatomy and physiology
Media rights: Keats House Museum, Hampstead and London Metropolitan Archives, Clerkenwell
Object type: leather-bound notebook
Format: 115 mm x 186 mm