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John Keats: A Literary Biography, Page 6
by Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).

Surgery should be an antidote for the poetic frenzy; especially the old-fashioned surgery. Doctors had no anæsthetics, no antiseptics, no arterial forceps. They strapped a man to a table, gave him a bullet to clench in his teeth and let him groan and flinch. Dissection is always deadening to the finer sensibilities. And dissection, in Keats' day, had gruesome preliminaries: the stealthy excursions of professor and students by night to exhume subjects from the Potter's Field. Jerry Cruncher or some other "resurrectionist" may have saved Keats this drastic experience. But he could not have saved him the contact with malformations, diseased organs and putrid flesh. The genius of a "Monk" Lewis might have thrived on such ugliness. To the future odist of the Grecian Urn it must surely have been a test for disenchantment.

A dilettante would have been put to rout. The fact that Keats, with his fine sensibilities, went through this ordeal without shrinking is proof of stern fibre. And he went through to the end. In July, 1815,—the echoes of Waterloo were in the air,—he passed his examination at Apothecaries' Hall with honors and received an appointment as dresser at Guy's Hospital. He was thus a full-fledged practitioner.

There is an illuminating anecdote from Stephens, a roommate. It shows the undercurrent in Keats rising to the surface. Already he was in jocular repute among his fellow-students for dabbling in verse. One evening the two were sitting in their room, Stephens at his medical book, Keats idling, dreaming. From the candle-maker's shop below came intermittently the noise of a customer. Suddenly Keats spoke in the twilight:—

"'A thing of beauty is a constant joy.' What do you think of that, Stephens?"

"It has the true ring, but it is wanting in some way."

An interval of silence.

"A thing of beauty is a joy forever.' What do you think of that?"

A moment of suspense and a prophetic judgment.

"That it will live forever."

Keats was approaching his majority. He had written some imitations of Spenser, an ode to Apollo and other experimental verse, all kept in hiding. The creative desire gradually passed into a persistent craving. Cowden Clarke came down to London on a visit. They spent that red-letter night together, with the borrowed folio of Chapman's Homer, reading rapturously into the small hours. The next morning Keats sent Clarke the sonnet—that passport of a poet into the realms of gold. Keats himself had been staring at an unsailed Pacific. At last an authentic muse had descended and commissioned him to put out to sea.

A scruple caused the final break with surgery. One day he opened a man's temporal artery. The operation was done with skill, but with an absent mind. For while his hand worked, his thoughts drifted involuntarily into fairyland. Oliver Wendell Holmes has given the advice to young physicians that they should never let any one suspect they have any serious interests outside of their professions. Keats had an even more scrupulous sense of responsibility to his patients. He laid down the lancet and never took it up again. Surgery was not to be his calling.


PAGE 6 OF 81.

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AUTHOR: Albert Elmer Hancock (1908).
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