One of the great intellectual attractions of Romanticism is that it arose in a period when science and art were still talking intelligently to each other. There was no social gap between the Two Cultures. The greatest British experimental chemist of the day, Sir Humphry Davy, published a collection of his own poetry and corrected the proofs of the Lyrical Ballads. Erasmus Darwin formulated his theories of botany, and the sexual life of plants, in bouncing verse. Coleridge attended the lectures of Davy to “renew his stock of metaphors,” and engaged in the vitalist controversy about the nature of biological life with the surgeons William Lawrence and John Abernethy between 1816 and 1819. Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Shelley all owned microscopes at some point in their careers. (Shelley had to pawn his, when he eloped.) Mary Shelley studied galvanic theory. Keats attended, and made notes on, the lectures of both the chief surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, Sir Astley Cooper, and the leading critic William Hazlitt. Even Lord Byron peered cautiously through a telescope in the Swiss mountains (though it may be questioned exactly what form of heavenly bodies he was observing).
This period of intense exchange between scientists and imaginative writers, which lasted for perhaps two generations, was made possible by a temporary shift away from the “hard” mechanistic and mathematical culture of the Enlightenment, in favor of the “soft,” fluid, or speculative culture of the Romantic life sciences. This shift itself reflected the more general, revolutionary upheavals throughout Europe. In a brilliant essay cited by Almeida, “Lamarck and Darwin in the History of Science” (1959), C. C. Gillispie has defined this division of labor:
From Newton to Darwin the preference of romantic thinkers for the sciences of life is as striking as the predilection of rationalistic thinkers for the physical sciences. So it was that Voltaire popularized physics and Rousseau botany. So it was that Paley referred a moral philosophy to astronomy and Bernardin de Saint-Pierre to natural history. It is no accident that the Jardin des Plantes was the one scientific institution to flourish in the radical democratic phase of the French Revolution, which struck down all the others.
For modern criticism, itself largely trapped in a “hard” Two Cultures dichotomy, the problem has been to reconstruct the porous arts-science world of Romanticism, in a way that genuinely illuminates individual texts. There have been some notable recent successes in the work of Owsei Temkin, Desmond King-Hele, and Roy Porter, which throw particular light on the writings of Coleridge and Shelley. In 1984, Donald Goellnicht published a striking monograph, The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science, which examined in detail the six years of medical apprenticeships undertaken by Keats in 1810–1816, culminating in his qualification as an apothecary under the newly created Society for Apothecaries Act of 1815.
Hermione de Almeida, of the University of Miami, has taken up the investigation at this point, in a larger, more ambitious book that seeks to recreate the entire Romantic medical culture within which Keats studied and wrote. It describes medical libraries, operating theaters, physic gardens, lecture halls, anatomy museums, clinical wards, and field expeditions. It explores medical training, clinical procedures, operative practice, techniques of dissection and pharmacology, theories of health and infection, concepts of diagnosis and treatment, and above all medical debates and controversies. And it relates all these, continuously, to specific moments in Keats’s writings: so that, in one characteristic example, the sculpted symbolic pelican from the pediment of Guy’s Hospital is taken down, dusted off, analyzed, and then lovingly located in a single line of Endymion.
It is immediately clear that this is a highly original, colorful, obsessively industrious, and somewhat chaotic piece of research. It has been neatly defined by Jack Stillinger as “a fantastic assemblage.” Though it lacks any well-defined thesis, beyond the broad notion of scientific “influence,” it profoundly alters our perception of Keats’s imaginative inspiration. It is no longer possible to regard him as a pure arts sensualist of language, the man who with Charles Lamb, at Haydon’s “immortal dinner,” drank destruction to Newtonian science, and proclaimed “O for a Life of Sensations, rather than of Thoughts!”
On the contrary, at innumerable points Keats gathers intellectual weight and empirical conviction. His celebrated “aesthetic” dictum that any philosophic axiom must be “felt upon the pulses” gains an entirely new authority once we have seen him as a Guy’s Hospital intern who opens temporal arteries and measures feverous heartbeats with a clinical finger tip. The baroque sufferings of his Titans in Hyperion gather grim authenticity from the agonizing pre-anaesthetic operations at which Keats assisted as “butcher” Lucas’s dresser. A single decorative image from the “Ode to Psyche,”
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain
suddenly stands revealed, not as some Gothic arabesque, but as an accurate reference to lobal illustrations from The London Dissector. Or the haunting imagery of dead lovers in Book III of Endymion, “an orderly arrangement of once-living forms suspended in the saline embalming solution of their magical underwater cell,” takes vivid new force from the ranks of glass-jarred specimens in John Hunter’s Hospital Museum, as it is also “a place reminiscent of Buffon’s underwater caverns of preserved fossils described in the opening pages of Histoire Naturelle.” In short, from literally hundreds of accumulated examples such as these (“sixty-two images of blood in the poetry alone”), we have to begin to read Keats afresh.
But Almeida’s book is not solely, or even essentially, concerned with the rereading of particular lines or images. Instead it proposes four general topics of medical science, which she believes shaped Keats’s entire intellectual outlook. This is a much more radical argument. First, there is the concept of the physician’s healing task and role, which, like the poet’s, owes allegiance to Apollo, with great emphasis on the penetrating, diagnostic “gaze of the anatomist.” Second, the current theories of life, either as a function of bodily organization, or as some vital immaterial principle, located (according to Hunter) in the blood. Third, the conflicting ideas of health and disease, and the ambivalent notions of pharmacological treatment. And fourth, the whole debate on evolution, the development of physical and mental structures, and the “intensities” of biological life. (In one of her most interesting asides, Almeida remarks that the modern “discrediting” of much of this Romantic medical theory merely indicates “the imaginative potency of misconceptions”: a fruitful idea which is linked with Arthur Koestler’s notion of scientific “sleepwalking,” and which might be used to explore the connections between Romantic Naturphilosophie and modern alternative medicine.)
This broader approach is historically informative, but not altogether convincing, and relies a good deal on rhetorical connections—“conduits” of influence, “intuitive contributions,” “manifest tendencies,” and “verities”—rather than intellectual proof. It also reveals how the strength of the whole book lies in taxonomy, and its weakness in literary interpretation.
A simple example of this occurs when the Romantic theory of pharmacology is brought to bear on Lamia. This discussion (absolutely fascinating) moves rapidly from snakes to snakebites to poison to antidotes. Almeida then produces one of her many medical litanies, which are both the delight and the limitation of her work.
Eau de luce, the Tanjore pill, Humboldt’s Guaco plant juice, Dr. James’ Powder, the Kendal Black Drop, brandy, porter, madeira, and other fine old wines, laudanum, arsenite of potash, sulphuric ether, ammonia, and volatile alkali were among the many dubious antidotes to snake bite, and their conflicting ineffectiveness led researchers like Home to conclude that the recovery from “poisonous bite” is not dependent on medicines.
This is a wonderful compendium but one is never subsequently quite convinced that it really illuminates Lycius’s (or, for that matter, Christabel’s) dramatic fate.
The restrictions of this taxonomic approach become clearer when applied, not to specific poetic imagery, but to the more general structure of Keats’s literary ideas. Take “Negative Capability,” which is traditionally interpreted in relation to the work of Coleridge and Hazlitt. Almeida characteristically suggests that it is “derived conceptually from Voltaic medicine’s use of positive agents and negative receptors.” This intriguing insight is not, however, used to explore further the possibilities of a real scientific dynamic—an “electric” concept of genius—within Keats’s thinking. Instead we are led away into a retreating series of contextual parallels: Priestley’s chemical theories, “Brunonian medicine,” Hutton and Cuvier’s “negative agency of geological formation,” Coleridge’s “law of polarity,” and even (for good measure) the painter Fuseli’s “negative colour.” So we are left, rather breathlessly, with nothing but a broad impression that Keats “derives meaning” from “contemporary electrochemistry,” and that many fellow writers thought the same sort of thing. Yet surely the whole point of interest is that Keats thought it, and formulated it, in a unique way.
Where such broad scientific interpretations are pressed home into the intellectual construction of specific Keats poems, the results are stimulating but sometimes curious. The “Ode on a Grecian Urn” is interpreted as Keats’s contribution to the debate on vitalism and disease; it is a “hollow” emblem of consumed powers, “like the old shells of mollusks,” not a commentary on the eternal energy of art.
As an unravished bride of quietness, the urn shares harmful symptoms of hysteria familiar to early-nineteenth-century medicine, for it can neither speak nor tell why it is desolate.
Similarly, the “Ode to Autumn” receives a spectacular revision as an evocation of “minimal life,” in which the figure of Autumn herself is “neutral, winnowed out, sexless, and barely alive.” It is an illustration of Alexander von Humbolt’s parable of collapsed biological energies in “The Genius of Rhodes,” a thin final pause “before the cessation of the life cycle.” For the traditionalist who takes the Ode as a hymn to ripeness, to rich inexhaustible powers of generation, and to supreme philosophic balance in the face of death (see Robert Gittings), this is a challenging account.
For all my obvious reservations, it is on the “challenging” note that I would conclude. Hermione de Almeida makes one think again about Romanticism, and that is no mean feat. She has said something new about Keats, she has taken risks of interpretation, she has minutely reconstructed not merely a scientific culture but a scientific emotion, a frame of mind we have almost lost. She has made Keats’s poetry feel denser, more lived in, more thought out. Like a literary Pitt-Rivers, she has lovingly accumulated a vast treasure display of scientific curios and exhibits—herbs, fossils, poisons, theories, analogies—and placed them along the margins of well-worn texts, constantly renewing them. Most of all, perhaps, she has given an unforgettable impression of how exciting it was to be alive and writing in the age that championed “biology, zoology, immunology, clinical diagnoses, and evolution theory,” and when Coleridge compared Dorothy to “a perfect electrometer,” and Keats wrote sonnets during anatomy class.
June 27, 1991