At fifteen, John Keats was apprenticed to an Edmonton surgeon, thus setting in motion a series of events which would fundamentally alter his poetic vision. After six years of medical training, first in Edmonton and later at Guy’s Hospital in London, Keats recognized that he was too much of a dreamer to be a surgeon. Though he evidently acquitted himself well during his training, his mind was elsewhere. Troubled, he told his friend Charles Armitage Brown, “My last operation was the opening of a man’s temporal artery. I did it with the utmost nicety, but reflecting on what passed through my mind at the time, my dexterity seemed a miracle, and I never took up the lancet again.” He made an early choice to forsake one calling, the practice of medicine, in favor of another, the practice of poetry. But medicine, its material facts, its vocabulary, and its sense of mortal consequence, left its mark. When Keats came of age as a poet, he carried that language with him; it enlarged and enhanced the imaginative sympathy which he came to call “negative capability.”
How did working knowledge of the body help him forge his own visionary imagination? First, vision suggests perspective, a critical and linguistic lens. Keats spent the ages of fifteen to twenty-one as a student of the body, and this knowledge infuses his work and informs his poetic images. Second, Keats experienced the visual world with faulty equipment: his eyes were bad. He was myopic, severely nearsighted. He saw through the mediating lenses of his spectacles. Without them, his eyes functioned only to see objects in close proximity. Third, seeing and perceptive (or intellectual) comprehension go hand-in-hand for Keats. If, in conversation, I explain something to you, then ask “Do you see?” and you answer “Yes, I see,” what you mean is “Yes, I understand.” Keats’s own vision of his place among the poets was shaped by his consciousness of the physical frailties he suffered during his few productive years as a writer. That vision was revised most profoundly on the evening when he first coughed blood and understood that he would die of the same tuberculosis that took his mother, his uncle, and his brother Tom. Each of these altered states of vision affects the pattern of Keats’s artistry. No one, after a certain age, sees with entirely innocent eyes.
To be a visionary in the romantic sense is to seek the beautiful and the divine as it resides in the human spirit itself. To be a visionary is to acknowledge the infinite possibilities inside an individual mind and spirit. Following after and reacting against the superrationalist eighteenth century, the Romantic poets relegitimized and foregrounded their emotional interior lives, valued the irrational and the imaginative, embraced the natural world, and put their faith in the evidence of the senses and what Keats called “the holiness of the Heart’s affections.” Keats’s visionary sensibilities, however, differ from the flights and heights of a Shelley or Wordsworth. His formal imaginings draw on more material and direct experience, and on a sensibility shaped by the knowledge of his own mortality.
For an analysis of artists affected by their own bodily limitations, it’s worth reading Patrick Trevor-Roper’s eccentric and rather delightful book, The World through Blunted Sight. Trevor-Roper, an ophthalmologist by training, argues that deficiencies in sight (like near and farsightedness, color blindness, and other diseases of the eye) inevitably influence how an artist or writer experiences and therefore depicts the world. Trevor-Roper speculates that myopes like Keats tend to gravitate toward activities that reward close attention, introspection, even isolation. He believes that an artist’s nearsightedness produces an introspective sensibility, and that this sensibility affects the work itself. In practical terms, for instance, if a nearsighted person cannot take in long vistas, he or she will instead seek objects of attention, or subject matter, close at hand.
So he argues that it was natural for Percy Bysshe Shelley, who was farsighted, to create poems that themselves capture a wide scope, with their far-off vistas, mountain ranges, and expansive landscapes. Nearsighted Keats, on the other hand, favored images that are self-limiting, close-up, and auditory rather than visual. The sense of hearing, Trevor-Roper suggests, is intensified in Keats’s work for neurological reasons: when the sense of sight is damaged or limited, the other senses develop greater sensitivity in order to compensate for the loss.
“Ode to a Nightingale” is dominated by strategies of sound, by blindness, mist, and darkness. The nightingale is invisible, unseen, “light-winged dryad of the trees / In some melodious plot / Of beechen green, and shadows numberless. . . . ” But its song fills the poem so completely, and Keats’s capacity for imaginative hearing is so acute that he is able to cast himself as if into the body of the birdsong. The world around him grows dark, fades, far away. The poem foregrounds, wishes for, revels in, and then loses the song of the nightingale. In this poem, interior or imaginative experience is intensified because sight is absent or blunted. It’s only on “the viewless wings of Poesy” that the writer may be transported. Indeed, the nightingale’s song is the gift that prompts the activation of the visionary imagination.
I am charmed by the thought that the one physical trait that Keats and I apparently share—our myopia—could have helped to compel his particular poetic sensibilities. It is finally impossible to know whether Keats’s myopia had a substantive effect on his poetry; to assume any further would risk reducing poetry to a clinical diagnosis. But I would argue that Keats repeatedly returns to what we call “the mind’s eye”—that is, the imagination. If nearsightedness circumscribed Keats’s relationship to the physical world, it makes sense that he might have developed an interest in issues of perception. He might have been inclined to turn inward rather than outward. It’s right there in the final stanza of “Ode to Psyche,” where his speaker seeks to
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:
Far, far around shall those dark-cluster’d trees
Fledge the wild-ridged mountains steep by steep;
. . . . . . .
And in the midst of this wide quietness
A rosy sanctuary will I dress
With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain,
With buds, and bells, and stars without a name. . . .
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