Hektoen International

A Journal of Medical Humanities

Reading the brain in John Keats’s “Ode to Psyche”

Kathryne Dycus
Madrid, Spain

Psyché ranimée par le baiser de l’Amour (Psyche revived by the kiss of Love) by Antonia Canova. 1793. Louvre Museum. Public domain.
Photo by Eric Pouhier, 2007, on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

The Romantic poet John Keats wrote in a letter dated May 18, 1818, “I am glad at not having given away my medical books, which I shall look over again to keep alive the little I knew towards that work.”1 Though the Romantic poet abandoned a career in medicine, the knowledge he gained during his five years of medical training did not abandon him. Instead, anatomy and physiology animate his poetry, allowing him to achieve a singular poetic identity.

When Keats was fourteen years old he was apprenticed to the family’s doctor, Thomas Hammond. In the summer of 1810 Keats moved in above Hammond’s surgery practice in North London. During this apprenticeship, Keats would have performed such tasks as preparing medicines, cleaning the surgery, preparing leeches, and bookkeeping. After some time, he moved on to dressing wounds, drawing teeth, and visiting the ill. Although he left before his apprenticeship was complete, he had done enough to satisfy the requirements of the 1815 Apothecaries Act, which emerged as Keats was in the next stage of his training at Guy’s Hospital.

During and after these five years of training, Keats used his physician vision to interpret the nature and meaning of life. The brain was a particular fascination to him because it brought the imagination into existence. He consciously or subconsciously used the brain as a model around which to organize his ideas about life, and those ideas often revolve around the common human experience of pain and suffering.

As an apothecary’s apprentice, Keats witnessed physical pain up close, and likewise, the early deaths of family members impacted his work. His younger brother died of consumption in his arms, and “the devotion of John Keats to this suffering invalid during the whole of his protracted illness constitutes a fair feature in his short and fiery life.”2 Just as his brother died within the security of his arms, Keats vows to shelter the belated goddess Psyche in the sanctuary of his mind in the poem Ode to Psyche. He uses his physical body—both literally and imaginatively—as a space to make meaning.

For Keats, anatomy was prized as a metaphor for knowing. It was common practice in the medical field to speak of human anatomy in the context of metaphors; the intensity of geographical and natural comparisons made anatomy easier to grasp for the medical student. Anatomists “employed terminology from horticultural sources—or nature, to put it in a broader sense—to describe the brain.”3 In Ode to Psyche the landscape Keats presents is aesthetically impressive, as the streams which run resemble the “veins running beautifully tortuous in the Falx.”4 By utilizing medical knowledge to represent his art, Keats declares himself to be not only a poet but an anatomist.

The imagination comes fully alive with his use of metaphor to evoke anatomical structures within the brain. Through the force of imagination, the poet knows his creation and exalts in it. Psyche inspires the poet to embody all of the things which she lacks—a “choir,” “incense sweet,” an “oracle,” and a “shrine” among others—and to establish a space which will glorify her in an entirely novel way. The “untrodden region of my mind” suggests the brain to be a geographical unit or hemispherical world, holding regions that had not yet yielded all their secrets to the anatomist. Keats reserves for Psyche’s temple a virgin territory, which preserves all the excitement, mystery, and anticipation of the unknown.

He sees the brain “as a region vast, beautiful, and sacred enough for a temple and to demonstrate its awe-inspiring power.”5 Keats places emphasis on its most complex features, giving compelling credence to his authority on medicine. He gives a sense of the embodied mind’s ineffable magnitude that might be termed the “neural sublime.” Ode to Psyche reveals his opinion that the greatest marvels exist within the skull.

To Keats, the imagination was the most fruitful function of the mind and is boldly displayed throughout the poem. In the first stanza the poet asks, “Surely I dreamt to-day, or did I see/The winged Psyche with awaken’d eyes?” At this point, the poet straddles the line between dream and reality. Yet as the poem proceeds, the poet becomes more confident in the ability of his imagination to determine reality. He confirms that he “Saw two fair creatures”—referring to Psyche and Cupid—and did not merely dream them up. Vivid mental landscapes in the final stanza create the environment for mental travel, as the poet encourages Psyche to explore the regions of his mind.

The poet offers a map resplendent in geographical wonders revealing anatomical insight. Topographical locations also create the impression of motion. Keats, furthermore, appropriates anatomical facts in his descriptions of the organic life that abounds within the imaginative world of the poet. “Branched thoughts” and “dark-cluster’d trees” evoke the concept of “Arbor Vitae,” a prominent term in nineteenth century anatomy. In Charles Bell’s Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting, he describes “the Crura Cerebelli being formed by the union of the branches of internal medullary part of the cerebellum, which branching is called the Arbor Vitae.”6 This branching and the “wreath’d trellis of a working brain” create a mesh of interwoven ideas, demonstrating the complexities of the human mind within the broader context of the human body.

Statue Of John Keats-Guys Hospital-London
by Stuart Williamson. Photo by Lonpicman, 2008,
on Wikimedia. CC BY-SA 3.0.

Keats wants his creative setting to be a space that continually replenishes itself for not only Psyche but also for readers. The “streams” and “rosy” sanctuary of Ode to Psyche correspond to the network of blood vessels nourishing the brain and connecting it with the circulatory system. The “wild-ridged mountains” suggest the convolutions of the cerebral cortex, a feature formed “steep by steep,” giving the impression that Psyche and the reader must scale the poet’s thoughts. Stunning natural scenery suggests an environment fit for the goddess, while also displaying an awareness of patterns existing in nature and the lifeforms within it.

Romantic poets and physicians alike believed that comprehending life “required a two-planed vision that was simultaneously close range and panoramic.”7 This technique complemented Keats’s work because he could produce a panoramic image—the brain as Psyche’s home—and then instantly translate distant scenes like “untrodden regions” into close representations of various parts. The camera lucida, an instrument used by both landscape artists and medical researchers, also created this effect. In this aspect, Keats’s poetry mimics contemporary advancements in medical science.

While his writing paralleled aspects of contemporary medical research, Keats seemed ahead of his time in his portrayal of the female figure Psyche. Literary critics like Harold Bloom have said that throughout Ode to Psyche, the poet reacts to his vision of Psyche in words but that her reply is vague and insubstantial; she seems to hover in the text in a dreamlike way, becoming more a lofty projection of the poet’s voice rather than a means of influence. But the primary fascination Keats had with the brain and nervous system was the fact that these systems controlled the rest of the body, so by housing Psyche entirely within this complex, the poet offers her unprecedented control. Equating Psyche with the powerhouse qualities of the brain gives her a commanding position of influence, power, and strength.

This power is best demonstrated by neurobiological functions, where the brain’s exchange with the rest of the body occurs through integration with the larger nervous system. “A bright torch,” one of the poem’s resonant images, touches on the rapid electrical firing of neurons, where the nerves in the nose, skin, tongue, eye, and ear absorb various stimuli and then transmit messages to the body’s processing center—the brain. In Ode to Psyche it is important to realize the brain’s commerce with the human body, the poetic subject, and finally Keats’s world. He ends the work with, “A bright torch, and a casement ope at night, To let the warm Love in!” The opening suggested here is the vehicle through which knowledge and understanding flow but more convincingly it is the brain itself.

With the emergence of Romanticism as a literary movement, a substantial transition is made into more physically descriptive literature. Keats’s poetry helped usher Romantic thinkers into a gradual acceptance of the brain as focal point in literature and life. The faculty for seeing, visualizing, and interpreting the signs of the living body and mind, whether in disease or health, was finally no different for Romantic physicians and Romantic poets.

End notes

  1. Wells Walter A. A Doctor’s Life of John Keats. New York: Vintage Press. 1959.
  2. “The Life of John Keats.” The Times. Microfilm. September, 19, 1848, page 3, issue 19972, col. B. Evans Library. Texas A&M University. 6 Dec. 2015.
  3. Goellnicht, Donald C. The Poet-Physician: Keats and Medical Science. Pittsburgh: the University of Pittsburgh Press. 1984.
  4. Bell, Sir Charles. Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting. London. 1806. 1969 microform, print 30, courtesy of New York Public Library. Evans Library. Texas A&M University. 6 Dec. 2015.
  5. Hagelman, Charles W.T. Jr. John Keats and the Medical Profession. PhD Thesis. The University of Texas, 1956.
  6. Bell, Sir Charles. Essays on the Anatomy of Expression in Painting. London. 1806. 1969 microform, print 30, courtesy of New York Public Library. Evans Library. Texas A&M University. 6 Dec. 2015.
  7. De Almeida, Hermione. Romantic Medicine and John Keats. Oxford: Oxford University Press. 1991.

KATHRYNE DYCUS studied British Romanticism at the University of Glasgow. She writes for the anthropology journal Mammoth Trumpet and is currently affiliated with the department of bilingual assessment and development at the University of Comillas, Madrid, Spain.

Highlighted in Frontispiece Volume 11, Issue 2 – Spring 2019

Winter 2019



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