The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science

Goellnicht, Donald

Primary Category: Literature / Nonfiction

Genre: Treatise

Annotated by:
Shafer, Audrey
  • Date of entry: Oct-02-1997


This thoroughly researched book helps us understand John Keats's life and work in terms of his medical training. Goellnicht argues that, contrary to some critics' view that Keats was "anti-scientific" or "anti-intellectual," Keats incorporated much of the knowledge gained from his six years of medical training into his poetry.

The book begins with a chapter of biographical information about Keats, emphasizing the nature of medical training in the early nineteenth century, but includes Keats's self-diagnosis of tuberculosis. The heart of the book consists of four chapters, organized by scientific topic, which relate the specifics of Keats' s medical training to his writing: Chemistry, Botany, Anatomy and Physiology, and Pathology and Medicine.

Excerpts of Keats' poetic and epistolary writing are examined in each of these chapters in light of Keats' scientific and medical knowledge. For instance, in the chapter on Botany, the uses of specific botanical species in his writing are examined in terms of what was known of materia medica (see annotation for Ode on Melancholy. Furthermore, the author explores Keats's interest in plants and trees as metaphors for life, such as his interest in "the flower as a vital, but passive, being that exists in a state akin to negative capability."

The author concludes the book with a summary statement about each of the chapters (e.g., " . . . from pathology he adopted the approach of viewing aspects of life, in particular love and poetic creativity, in terms of morbid and healthy states . . . ") and also the caveat that the book is not meant to in any way diminish other profound influences on Keats, such as his interactions with other Romantic poets. Goellnicht notes, however, that Keats himself united the worlds of medicine and poetry in his poem, "The Fall of Hyperion," in which he describes the poet as a physician.


This book is a valuable asset to understanding how Keats's knowledge and experience in medicine influenced his writing. Goellnicht asserts that these influences can be found in specific phrases, but also in a more global view of Keats's opus.

For instance, Goellnicht hypothesizes that Keats's first-hand witnessing of human suffering at Guy's Hospital was instrumental in the development of his keen sympathy for such suffering and the reflection of that sympathy in his poetry. Whether or not one can truly parse out all of the influences on Keats in his writing, this book can help one better appreciate the impact of medical training on Keats's work.


Univ. of Pittsburgh Press

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