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. . . .
In 1815, after leaving his initial apprenticeship with the surgeon Thomas Hammond, Keats enrolled in the medical school at Guy’s Hospital in London. There he completed the studies that allowed him to take and pass his licensing exams, thus qualifying to practice as an apothecary (equivalent to our contemporary general practitioner). In the process Keats studied chemistry, anatomy, and botany, explored the intricacies of human physiology, practiced dissections, set broken bones, diagnosed diseases, and learned how to create the necessary remedies.
But after completing his education, he decided to the dismay of his guardian, Richard Abbey, to abandon the practice of medicine in favor of the more tenuous life of poetry. He wrote, in his letter to Abbey, that he hoped to “rely upon my ability as a poet.” When Abbey objected, Keats said, “my mind is made up. . . . I know that I possess abilities greater than most men, and therefore I am determined to gain my living by exercising them.” Though his guardian called him a “silly boy,” these years of medical training were not wasted on Keats. When, shortly thereafter, Keats’s brother Tom grew ill with the tuberculosis that eventually killed him, Keats nursed him during his final illness. And medicine also gave Keats a more intangible set of skills.
When he defines negative capability, what Keats describes is a process that sounds very much like that of the clinically objective gaze a surgeon must cultivate in order to see, to diagnose, and to heal. One must, he says, remain “open to uncertainty, mystery, and doubt . . . without any irritable reaching after fact and reason.” So must the doctor begin by observing illness, dissection, and the workings of the body. In the same letter, Keats goes on to compare “human life to a large mansion of many apartments.” He charts out only two of these apartments, the doors “to the rest being as yet shut upon me.” The first is “the infant or thoughtless chamber, in which we remain as long as we do not think—we remain there a long while, and notwithstanding the doors of the second chamber remain wide open, show a bright appearance, we care not to hasten to it; but are at length imperceptibly impelled by the awakening of the thinking principle—within us. . . . ” Then: “We no sooner get into the second chamber, which I shall call the chamber of maiden-thought, than we become intoxicated with the light and the atmosphere.” Just as the operating chamber, the surgical theater, is filled with lights and ether, so is the mind’s chamber endowed with both mystery and a sense of mortality. In the final stanza of “Ode to Psyche,” when Keats turns inward to make a home for Psyche in his mind’s safe harbor, he creates a landscape that replicates what was then known about the structures of the brain, down to its divided spaces, and its ridges, branches, and trellises. Imagination and artistic creation reside, in this poem, inside the sheltering, nurturing landscape of the mind.
Keats’s years of medical training gave him the materials to construct that “fane / In some untrodden region of my mind,” a healing space for sleep, and quiet breathing. But, of course, he was not able to heal himself. On February 3, 1820, Keats recognized that he was about to enter the country of “embalmed darkness” when he diagnosed his own tuberculosis. That evening he had coughed blood into his pillow. He knew it was arterial blood, a sign that his lungs were fatally compromised. “Bring me the candle,” he called to his friend Charles Armitage Brown, “let me see this blood.” “He looked up in my face,” Brown wrote, “with a calmness of countenance that I can never forget, and said, ‘I know the colour of that blood; it is arterial blood. I cannot be deceived in that colour. That drop of blood is my death-warrant; I must die.'” Brown recalls Keats’s calmness in the face of this appalling self-diagnosis.
The poet’s work is to serve, in Stanley Plumly’s phrase, as a “mortal witness.” This is a role Keats willingly takes on. In “Ode to a Nightingale,” Keats negotiates the essential divisions that define our human nature. The poem travels through alternating states of pain and joy, numbness and sensation, intimations of life and death. Keats uses the same word to describe both the nightingale and death; the bird sings with “full-throated ease” at the end of stanza one and, in the sixth stanza, death is “easeful.” Life and death are held in abeyance, and Keats embraces neither one nor the other. The capacity for divided sight is the essence of negative capability. Keats’s poems consistently put forward a poetical character that is not fixed, not formed, but always in the process of becoming. After all, as Keats writes of Apollo, god of poetry and of healing, in “Hyperion: A Romance”: the poet is “a sage, / A humanist, physician to all men.” The ability to remain open to uncertainty, mystery, doubt, “without any irritable reaching after fact and reason,” is an asset for those who would practice either medicine or poetry.
The biographical facts that link vision to the visionary in Keats’s poems cannot explain the enduring achievement, the imponderable connection between experience and art, history and achievement. Still, I think of his example when I consider my own relationship to the loved, material world. When Dr. Flood, my capable physician, peers into my eyes with her bright light and gives me the latest news of my own vision’s diminishment, I am grateful that I still have time left to witness and record. Time to be a mortal witness, that is.