Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

  • 1794: Keats’s parents marry, October; arrest of radical in England; Robespierre executed; France invades Holland; Godwin publishes Caleb Williams; Coleridge meets Southey; Erasmus Darwin,Zoonomia
  • 1795: Keats born, Finsbury, 31 October, Swan and Hoop Livery Stables, 24 Moorfields Pavement Row, London; France abolishes slavery; famine issues in England; laws against assemblies in England; Wordsworth regularly meets with Godwin; Hannah More publishes her Cheap Repository tracks; Coleridge marries Sara Fricker; death of James Boswell; Southey publishes Joan of Arc
  • 1797: brother George born, 28 February; death of Edmund Burke; birth of Mary Godwin and death of her mother, Mary Wollstonecraft; Coleridge’s second edition of Poems; Ann Radcliff’s The Italian; discovery: diamonds are made of carbon
  • 1799: brother Tom born, 18 Nov; family moves to Craven Street, London; Wordsworth and sister, Dorothy, move to Dove Cottage, Grasmere; British government bans unions and political societies; Napoleon invades Syria, becomes First Consul; Rosetta Stone found
  • 1801: brother Edward born, 28 April (likely dies Dec 1802); first census of England/Wales; General Enclosure Act; Battle of Copenhagen; ultra violent radiation discovered; first use of the pie chart; patent on first continuous paper-making machine; Lord Elgin begins to bring back to England parts of the Greek Parthenon
  • 1802: maternal grandparents retire and Keats’s father takes over their business; truce (Peace of Amiens) with France (ends 1803); Letitia Landon born; first electrochemical cell
  • 1803: sister Fanny born, 3 June; with George, Keats boards at school in Enfield, run by Rev. John Clarke; eventually does well at school, winning some prizes (he leaves Clarke’s academy 1811 for medical training); truce with France ends; Hazlitt paints Wordsworth and Coleridge; uprising in Ireland
  • 1804: Keats’s father (age 30) dies in midnight riding accident, 16 April; mother hastily remarries a young bank clerk, William Rawlings, 27 June; children live with maternal grandparents at Ponders End; William Blake tried/acquitted for sedition; Corn Laws enacted for protectionism; Napoleon plans to invade England; Napoleon proclaims himself emperor; war declared on Spain; deaths: Joseph Priestly, Immanuel Kant; first steam locomotive built
  • 1805: maternal grandfather John Jennings dies, leaving considerable funds; children move to Edmonton with maternal grandmother Alice Jennings; Napoleon declared King of Italy; Battle of Trafalgar, major victory for the British Royal Navy; Napoleon defeats Russian/Austrian armies; Hazlitt’s first book, An Essay on the Principles of Human Action
  • 1806: Keats’s mother leaves Rawlings; born: Elizabeth Barrett Browning, John Stuart Mill; Napoleon defeats Prussians, wants to blockade Britain; carbon paper patented
  • 1809: Keats’s mother ill and returns to her mother’s home; Keats devoted to her care; Byron, English Bards and Scotch Reviewers; Napoleon arrests the Pope; born: Charles Darwin, Edgar Allan Poe
  • 1810: Keats’s mother dies of tuberculosis, March; guardians Abbey and Sandall appointed for the Keats children, July (Sandall passes away 1816); Walter Scott publishes The Lady of the Lake; born: Frédéric François Chopin, Robert Schumann, Elizabeth Gaskell
  • 1811: Keats leaves Clarke’s Enfield school; works on prose translation of Virgil’s The Aeneid; takes up apothecary apprenticeship, Edmonton, with Thomas Hammond, initially for five years, but cut short, perhaps out of difficulties with Hammond; Shelley expelled from Oxford; controversy with Lord Elgin wanting to sell the Elgin Marbles to the British Government; established: the National Society for Promoting the Education of the Poor in the Principles of the Established Church in England and Wales; Prince of Wales declared Regent after George III declared incompetent; Luddite uprisings; Jane Austen, Sense and Sensibility; Leigh Hunt, The Feast of the Poets; Mary Tighe, Psyche; the Great Comet discovered; Mexican wars of independence
  • 1814-1816: Keats trains at Guy’s and St. Thomas’ hospitals, and though association and some training extends into 1817
  • 1814: Keats’s maternal grandmother, Alice Jennings, dies; first evidence of Keats writing poetry, perhaps spurred by reading Spenser with Charles Cowden Clarke (son of Rev. John Clarke); notable poems: Imitation of Spenser and On Peace; poem: Keats writes poem expressing his feeling, As from the darkening gloom a silver dove; poem: To Lord Byron; death of maternal grandmother, December; Napoleon exiled to Elba; Byron publishes instant hit, The Corsair; Cary’s translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy; Wordsworth publishes The Excursion; Percy Shelley elopes to Europe with Mary Wollstonecraft Godwin
  • 1815: Leigh Hunt released from jail; Keats begins to write more poetry; poem: Written on the Day That Mr. Hunt Left Prison.; February; poem: Ode to Apollo; buys Wordsworth’s 2-volume collection of poems; registers to become student at Guy’s Hospital, October; as medical student, lives St. Thomas’s Street, London, October, with other medical students; begins to write poetry about wanting to write enduring poetry; Apothecaries Act prohibits unlicensed medical practice in the United Kingdom; Napoleon escapes from Elba; Napoleon defeated at Waterloo

15 October 1815: Keats’s Continues Medical Training; But a Poet He Will Be

Guy’s Hospital, London

Click the map to see a larger version.true
Click the map to see a larger version.

In October 1815, Keats is registered at Guy’s Hospital as a medical student for a year-long course of studies, when he could have just taken an available six-month course. Guy’s at the time is affiliated with St Thomas’ Hospital (they are known as the United Hospitals); between them, they are the leading teaching hospitals in Britain, and they are particularly known for their expertise in surgery and anatomical studies, mainly because of a few of their progressive faculty, while also charitably driven by attempting to serve the poor. There was much experimentation at the hospitals.

Guy’s Hospital
Guy’s Hospital

By the end of October, Keats is meritoriously selected from a huge range of students as a dresser to surgeons (possibly for the next position available), which would have afforded him a small refund on his tuition. About five months later, by early March 1816, Keats is officially a dresser, assigned to supervised for a year with a surgeon (in Keats’s case, it was with the rather reckless—and somewhat deaf—William Billy Lucas, Junior). The end result would work toward credentialing Keats. Testimonials were part of the review process.

How did Keats get to this position, to what we might call the second phase of his medical training?

The first phase begins in 1811, when Keats is apprenticed—indentured—for five years to a reputable surgeon, Thomas Hammond, at the fee of 210 guineas (which also included room and board). With Hammond, Keats would have had experience with everything ranging from applying leeches to pulling teeth and delivering babies, along with acquiring general diagnostic knowledge. This arrangement with Hammond is cut short for uncertain reasons, but is possibly related to Keats’s unhappiness with his master; or perhaps, quite the opposite, he is presented with the opportunity to move into higher training via college certification with Hammond’s blessing and support; that is, Hammond would of course have to provide some documentation to attest to Keats’s completion of the apprenticeship. Hammond was himself a student at Guy’s.

Keats’s motives for continuing with this second phase of his training are, then, complex, beyond the fact that it would have eventually provided him with a decent living. There is the personal side: Keats does not like the idea of performing surgery; as Keats tells his friend Charles Brown, he was utterly fearful that, during surgery, he might make a lethal mistake with just one small slip of the lancet (Brown records this in his memoir about Keats). Indeed, surgery at the beginning of the nineteenth century was often brutal, bloody and chancy, and not for the faint of heart—neither antiseptic surgical practice nor anesthesiology as yet exist. Despite this, Keats for the era would have been very well trained, gaining much practical experience beyond his wide-ranging lectures by routinely visiting the wards and assisting, though places like the hectic dissecting rooms were gruesome, with the cadavers practiced upon (secured illegally by professional and well paid body snatchers—so-called resurrection-men) not always in the best of shape—maggots were common to the scene. Nevertheless, Keats’s training and the training facilities at the United Hospitals was among the best in Europe, and some of his teachers—like Astley Cooper and Henry Cline—also among the leading teachers of anatomy and surgery. Cooper is in fact later knighted for his work, and no doubt Cooper’s famous oratorial gifts that combined passion, eloquence, and profound subject knowledge struck Keats the poet.

Thomas Rowlandson’s 1815 depiction of the dissection room (Spencer Collection, New York Public Library). Click to enlarge.  
Thomas Rowlandson’s 1815 depiction of the dissection room (Spencer Collection, New York Public Library). Click to enlarge.

What remains somewhat uncertain, then, is the degree of Keats’s commitment to the medical profession, though his efforts (and evidence from some close to him) suggest he was genuinely interested in the medical profession. But if surgery puts him off, why might he accept the dressership? If he had not shown some strong signs of dedication, how would he have been selected for the much sought-after dressership? Nothing suggests that, as a medical student, Keats was anything but diligent; his medical notebook that survives shows that he attended lectures and took fairly good notes, despite occasional flower doodling in the margins. Much later, when Keats seems to have moved beyond his medical career and fully into his life as poet, he still holds with him the idea and value of studying medicine (letter, 3 May 1818, to Reynolds); and as late as March 1819, when on the verge of writing his greatest poetry, he entertains moving to Edinburgh to study for a physician (letter, 3 March, to the George Keates).

Portable Surgical Kit, c.1812, Science Museum, London
Portable Surgical Kit, c.1812, Science Museum, London

Some background: Before 1815, apothecaries were not professionalized or licensed by examination, and there was a fair amount of quackery under the nomination. But in mid 1815, just as Keats finishes his apprenticeship with Hammond and begins training to become an apothecary-surgeon, the Apothecaries’ Act is passed, thus pointing Keats toward a very decent, legitimate livelihood under the umbrella of practical medicine.

Surrounded by other students, and living in the middle of town, Keats no doubt learns much about London’s varied inner life in the varied inner city, though in a poem likely written during the period—the Petrarchan sonnet To Solitude—he imaginatively transports himself from the jumbled heap / Of murky buildings to wax upon the bliss of Nature—a Wordsworthian-inspired sentiment, no doubt, and something of a common Romantic trope. (We sometimes know the poem as O Solitude, and it becomes Keats’s first published poem—in Leigh Hunt’s The Examiner, 5 May 1816.) Noteworthy is that this autumn Keats purchases the two-volume Poems by William Wordsworth, published earlier in the year; it will, however, take a few years for Keats to absorb and, crucially, critically assess the nature and qualities of Wordsworth’s poetry. We have to imagine Keats writing poetry while, at the same time, and with conflicted purposes, studying for his medical exams.

Keats’s medical notebook (Keats House, City of London). Click to
Keats’s medical notebook (Keats House, City of London). Click to enlarge.

By July 1816, aged twenty, Keats completes and passes a fairly involved four-part medical exam that qualifies him to practice; permission to even write the exam was reserved for only a few. In December 1816, he is officially listed as a certified apothecary. Then, to the horror of the family trustee, Richard Abbey, Keats almost immediately decides to give up medicine for poetry, though Keats, it seems, may have continued some work as a surgical dresser into until early March 1817—exactly when his first volume of poetry is published—but his decision is fixed. A poet he will be. Keats was, at the time of telling Abbey, fully confident in his calling and potential: I know that I possess Abilities greater than most Men, and therefore I am determined to gain my Living by exercising them (as reported by Keats’s friend, supporter, and publisher, John Taylor, 23 April 1827). This is something of a remarkable statement for a young, unknown, wanna-be poet; the confidence predicts an even more remarkable statement, when, 14 October 1818, he writes, I think I shall be among the English Poets after my death (written to his brother and sister-in-law, George and Georgian Keats).

Falling into and embraced by a kind of progressive literary and artistic circle based around poet, critic, and celebrity journalist Leigh Hunt in late 1816 play a crucial role in Keats’s poetic aspirations relative to his a medical career. Thus the year-long course of studies that begins in October 1815 wanes exactly a year later when he is introduced to Hunt and into Hunt’s circle. At various difficult moments in his later life as a poet (translation: having no immediate success as a poet), Keats nevertheless has passing thoughts of returning to the medical profession; and no doubt Keats’s very close encounters with the precarious physicality of medical profession works its way into his views and philosophy, as well as into his poetry. In an age of fairly brutal surgery and haphazard diagnosis, how could Keats not know something of suffering and mortality?

To look for: at least some of Keats’s acquired medical lexicon, his considerable training, and the varied knowledge associated with medicine in the early 19th-century works itself into his poetry. Thus, for example, words like sensation hold possibly expanded meanings; likewise, the mystery of the living, creative mind beyond the pure physiology of the brain and body no doubt challenges and profitably complicates his own poetics and poetry. Thus we might, for example, consider more carefully a probing passage like this (in an equally probing letter), which ingeniously both links and separates the physical and metaphysical mind, while invoking the poetic achievement of Wordsworth: I am continually running away from the subject—sure this cannot be exactly the case with a complex Mind—one that is imaginative and at the same time careful of its fruits—who would exist partly on sensation [and] partly on thought—to whom it is necessary that years should bring the Philosophic Mind (to Benjamin Bailey, 22 Nov 1817).

The statue of Keats at Guy’s Hospital, by Stuart Williamson, unveiled October
The statue of Keats at Guy’s Hospital, by Stuart Williamson, unveiled October 2007

O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell

  • O Solitude! if I must with thee dwell,
  • Let it not be among the jumbled heap
  • Of murky buildings; climb with me the steep,—
  • Nature’s observatory—whence the dell,
  • Its flowery slopes, its river’s crystal swell,
  • May seem a span; let me thy vigils keep
  • ’Mongst boughs pavillion’d, where the deer’s swift leap
  • Startles the wild bee from the fox-glove bell.
  • But though I’ll gladly trace these scenes with thee,
  • Yet the sweet converse of an innocent mind,
  • Whose words are images of thoughts refin’d,
  • Is my soul’s pleasure; and it sure must be
  • Almost the highest bliss of human-kind,
  • When to thy haunts two kindred spirits flee.

Imitation of Spenser

  • Now Morning from her orient chamber came,
  • And her first footsteps touch’d a verdant hill;
  • Crowning its lawny crest with amber flame,
  • Silv’ring the untainted gushes of its rill;
  • Which, pure from mossy beds, did down distill,
  • And after parting beds of simple flowers,
  • By many streams a little lake did fill,
  • Which round its marge reflected woven bowers,
  • And, in its middle space, a sky that never lowers.
  • There the king-fisher saw his plumage bright
  • Vieing with fish of brilliant dye below;
  • Whose silken fins, and golden scales light
  • Cast upward, through the waves, a ruby glow:
  • There saw the swan his neck of arched snow,
  • And oar’d himself along with majesty;
  • Sparkled his jetty eyes; his feet did show
  • Beneath the waves like Afric’s ebony,
  • And on his back a fay reclined voluptuously.
  • Ah! could I tell the wonders of an isle
  • That in that fairest lake had placed been,
  • I could e’en Dido of her grief beguile;
  • Or rob from aged Lear his bitter teen:
  • For sure so fair a place was never seen,
  • Of all that ever charm’d romantic eye:
  • It seem’d an emerald in the silver sheen
  • Of the bright waters; or as when on high,
  • Through clouds of fleecy white, laughs the coerulean sky.
  • And all around it dipp’d luxuriously
  • Slopings of verdure through the glassy tide,
  • Which, as it were in gentle amity,
  • Rippled delighted up the flowery side;
  • As if to glean the ruddy tears, it tried,
  • Which fell profusely from the rose-tree stem!
  • Haply it was the workings of its pride,
  • In strife to throw upon the shore a gem
  • Outvieing all the buds in Flora’s diadem.

On Peace

  • O Peace! and dost thou with thy presence bless
  • The dwellings of this war-surrounded isle;
  • Soothing with placid brow our late distress,
  • Making the triple kingdom brightly smile?
  • Joyful I hail thy presence; and I hail
  • The sweet companions that await on thee;
  • Complete my joy — let not my first wish fail,
  • Let the sweet mountain nymph thy favourite be,
  • With England’s happiness proclaim Europa’s liberty.
  • O Europe! let not sceptred tyrants see
  • That thou must shelter in thy former state;
  • Keep thy chains burst, and boldly say thou art free;
  • Give thy kings law — leave not uncurbed the great;
  • So with the horrors past thou’lt win thy happier fate!

As from the darkening gloom a silver dove

  • As from the darkening gloom a silver dove
  • Upsoars, and darts into the eastern light,
  • On pinions that nought moves but pure delight;
  • So fled thy soul into the realms above,
  • Regions of peace and everlasting love;
  • Where happy spirits, crown’d with circlets bright
  • Of starry beam, and gloriously bedight,
  • Taste the high joy none but the blest can prove.
  • There thou or joinest the immortal quire
  • In melodies that even heaven fair
  • Fill with superior bliss, or, at desire
  • Of the omnipotent Father, cleavest the air,
  • On holy message sent. — What pleasures higher?
  • Wherefore does any grief our joy impair?

To Lord Byron

  • Byron, how sweetly sad thy melody!
  • Attuning still the soul to tenderness,
  • As if soft Pity, with unusual stress
  • Had touch’d her plaintive lute; and thou, being by,
  • Hadst caught the tones, nor suffer’d them to die.
  • O’ershading sorrow doth not make thee less
  • Delightful: thou thy griefs dost dress
  • With a bright halo, shining beamily;
  • As when a cloud the golden moon doth veil,
  • Its sides are ting’d with a resplendent glow,
  • Through the dark robe oft amber rays prevail,
  • And like fair veins in sable marble flow.
  • Still warble, dying swan, —still tell the tale,
  • The enchanting tale —the tale of pleasing woe.

Written on the Day That Mr. Leigh Hunt Left Prison

  • What though, for showing truth to flatter’d state,
  • Kind Hunt was shut in prison, yet has he,
  • In his immortal spirit, been as free
  • As the sky-searching lark, and as elate.
  • Minion of grandeur! think you he did wait?
  • Think you he nought but prison walls did see,
  • Till, so unwilling, thou unturn’dst the key?
  • Ah, no! far happier, nobler was his fate!
  • In Spenser’s halls he strayed, and bowers fair,
  • Culling enchanted flowers; and he flew
  • With daring Milton through the fields of air:
  • To regions of his own his genius true
  • Took happy flights. Who shall his fame impair
  • When thou art dead, and all thy wretched crew?

Ode to Apollo

  • 1
  • In thy western halls of gold
  • When thou sittest in thy state,
  • Bards, that erst sublimely told
  • Heroic deeds, and sang of fate,
  • With fervour seize their adamantine lyres,
  • Whose chords are solid rays, and twinkle radiant fires.
  • 2
  • There Homer with his nervous arms
  • Strikes the twanging harp of war,
  • And even the western splendour warms,
  • While the trumpets sound afar;
  • But, what creates the most intense surprise,
  • His soul looks out through renovated eyes.
  • 3
  • Then, through thy temple wide, melodious swells
  • The sweet majestic tone of Maro’s lyre;
  • The soul delighted on each accent dwells, —
  • Enraptured dwells, — not daring to respire,
  • The while he tells of grief around a funeral pyre.
  • 4
  • ’Tis awful silence then again:
  • Expectant stand the spheres;
  • Breathless the laurell’d peers,
  • Nor move, till ends the lofty strain,
  • Nor move till Milton’s tuneful thunders cease,
  • And leave once more the ravish’d heavens in peace.
  • 5
  • Thou biddest Shakspeare wave his hand,
  • And quickly forward spring
  • The Passions — a terrific band —
  • And each vibrates the string
  • That with its tyrant temper best accords,
  • While from their master’s lips pour forth the inspiring words.
  • 6
  • A silver trumpet Spenser blows,
  • And, as its martial notes to silence flee,
  • From a virgin chorus flows
  • A hymn in praise of spotless chastity.
  • ’Tis still! wild warblings from the Aeolian lyre
  • Enchantment softly breathe, and tremblingly expire.
  • 7
  • Next thy Tasso’s ardent numbers
  • Float along the pleased air,
  • Calling youth from idle slumbers,
  • Rousing them from pleasure’s lair: —
  • Then o’er the strings his fingers gently move,
  • And melt the soul to pity and to love.
  • 8
  • But when thou joinest with the Nine,
  • And all the powers of song combine,
  • We listen here on earth:
  • The dying tones that fill the air,
  • And charm the ear of evening fair,
  • From thee, great God of Bards, receive their heavenly birth.

🗙 Cite this page:

MLA Style: Works Cited

Blank, G. Kim. “15 October 1815: Keats’s Continues Medical Training; But a Poet He Will Be.” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology. Edition 3.8 , University of Victoria, 18 January 2021.

Chicago Style: Note

G. Kim Blank, “15 October 1815: Keats’s Continues Medical Training; But a Poet He Will Be,” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.8 , last modified 18th January 2021.

Chicago Style: Bibliography

Blank, G. Kim. “15 October 1815: Keats’s Continues Medical Training; But a Poet He Will Be.” Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, Edition 3.8 , last modified 18th January 2021.