Reading the textbooks studied by Romantic poet John Keats during his years as a medical student at Guy's Hospital, London, gave an academic from The University of Western Australia a fresh perspective on the poet's work.
Australian Professorial Fellow and Winthrop Professor R.S. (Bob) White of English and Cultural Studies researched archival textbooks in libraries including at the hospital, the Wellcome Institute and the Chelsea Botanic Garden to draw new links between Keats' training and his poetry in John Keats: A Literary Life published this month by Palgrave MacMillan.
For example, Professor White quotes a passage from An Introduction to Physiological and Systematical Botany by James Edward Smith in which it is possible to see Keats' inspiration for phrases in ‘Ode to a Nightingale' and ‘To Autumn'.
Professor White also points out that Keats' knowledge of female sexuality through the study of midwifery meant that he ‘would have been more knowledgeable about social and sexual realities at a young age than most poets of the time...Several of his early poems addressed to women are clearly and perhaps precociously sexually knowing.'
Keats' medical training also exposed him to radical politics: one of his teachers, Astley Cooper, knew the Polish rebel Tadeusz Kosciusko, after whom Mt Kosciusko in NSW is named and to whom Keats addressed a sonnet.
Professor White followed Keats' reading eyes as he trawled through A Traveller's Guide through Scotland and its Islands published by George Ramsay and Company in Edinburgh in 1811 to glean information about the poet's 1818 Scottish walking tour and scanned the records in the Meteorological Journal of the Royal Society for information about the weather which influenced not only Keats' health but also poems he wrote during his 26-year life. He also made use of Keats' letters. And he sheds new light on Keats' anger at the inclusion by the publishers of the poetic fragment Hyperion in his Poems (1820).
Professor White is the author of several other books including Pacifism in English Literature: Minstrels of Peace ('Book of the Week' in Times Higher Education Supplement in 2008) and critical works on Shakespeare and Hazlitt. The most recent film about Keats, Bright Star, was made by Jane Campion last year and its title comes from the opening words of a Keats sonnet.