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John Keats: The Apothecary Poet, Page 2
by Sir William Osler (1908).

Keats's father succeeded to 'Mine Host of the Swan and Hoop', but died when the poet was only eight years old. His grandmother was in comfortable circumstances, and Keats was sent to a school in Enfield, kept by the father of Charles Cowden Clarke. Here among other accomplishments he developed his knuckles, and received a second-hand introduction to the Greek Pantheon. He is described by one of his schoolfellows as 'the pet prize-fighter with terrier courage', but in the last two years at school he studied hard and took all the prizes. The influence of the Clarkes upon Keats was strong and formative, particularly that of the younger one, Charles Cowden, who was an usher in the school. In the poem addressed to him he frankly acknowledges this great debt, 'you first taught me all the sweets of song.'

In 1810 his mother died of consumption, and during a long illness Keats nursed her with incessant devotion.

On the completion of his fifteenth year he was removed from school and apprenticed to Mr. Hammond, a surgeon at Edmonton. The terms of the old indenture as surgeon's apprentice are quaint enough. I have one of my uncle, Edward Osler, dated 1811. The surgeon, for a consideration of £40, without board, undertook the care and education for five years of the apprentices, of whom there were often four or five. The number of specific negatives in the ordinary indenture indicates the rough and ready character of the Tom Sawyers of that date. The young apprentice promised not 'to haunt taverns or playhouses, not to play at dice or cards, nor absent himself from his said master's service day or night unlawfully, but in all things as a faithful apprentice he shall behave himself towards his said master and all his during the said term'.

We know but little of the days of Keats's apprenticeship. A brother student said, 'he was an idle, loafing fellow, always writing poetry.' In 1814, in the fourth year of his indenture, the pupil and master had a serious quarrel, and the contract was broken by mutual consent. It would appear from the following sentence in a letter to his brother, that more than words passed between them: 'I daresay you have altered also—every man does—our bodies every seven years are completely fresh material'd. Seven years ago it was not this hand that clinch'd itself against Hammond.'

At the end of the apprenticeship the student 'walked' one of the hospitals for a time before presenting himself at the College of Surgeons or the Apothecary's Hall. Keats went to the, at the time, United Hospitals of Guy's and St. Thomas, where he studied during the sessions of 1814-1815 and 1815-1816. He became a dresser at Guy's in the latter year under Mr. Lucas, and on July 25, 1816, he passed the Apothecary's Hall. The details of Keats's life as a medical student are very scanty. In after years one or two of his fellow students placed on record their impressions of him. He does not seem to have been a very brilliant student. Poetry rather than surgery was followed as a vocation; one of his fellow students says, 'all other pursuits were to his mind mean and tame.' Yet he acquired some degree of technical skill, and performed with credit the minor operations which fell to the hand of a dresser. He must have been a fairly diligent student to have obtained even the minimum qualifications of the 'Hall' before the completion of his twenty-first year. In the Biographical History of Guy's Hospital Dr. Wilks states that Sir Astley Cooper took a special interest in Keats.


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