John Keats: A poet of his time

17:00, Sep 25 2012
Nicholas Roe
Professor Nicholas Roe from St Andrews University in Scotland is in Wellington this week to talk about his just-published biography of the poet John Keats.

It is rare for a biography on a dead poet to make headlines. But Professor Nicholas Roe of the University of St Andrews in Scotland has done just that. Roe is in Wellington this week to speak about poet John Keats at an international conference on Romantic period literature.

The timing couldn't be better, because Roe's new biography on one of the best-known and best-loved poets in the English language has just been published. In John Keats: A New Life, Roe asserts what other Keats biographers have ignored or downplayed - that the poet, who died of tuberculosis aged 25 in 1821, regularly used opium.

Articles in The Guardian and The Daily Mail last week focused on the opium revelation, though the biography is full of other new information and insights into Keats' life, especially his childhood and family life. But Keats' drug use is important. Roe goes as far as saying that some of Keats' poems, including the lesser-known Ode to Indolence and the famous Ode to a Nightingale - were inspired while the poet was under the influence of opium.

Keats, who trained as a physician, first took laudanum - opium in liquid form - for a sore throat.  ''It was the only painkiller that worked at the time,'' says Roe. ''Fanny Brawne [his fiance] took it for toothache. When his brother Tom was dying in the autumn of 1818 he dosed him with it.

''Keats himself started taking doses of laudanum to ease the stress probably at this time and he continued to do so thereafter, into the spring of 1819 when he was writing great odes like Ode to a Nightingale.''

Roe says the key to realising Keats used opium often was the poet's friend Charles Brown, who came to New Zealand in 1841.


''He was sharing Charles Brown's house at Hampstead and early in 1820 Charles Brown discovered Keats taking laudanum. And Brown's phrase is 'to keep up his spirits'. It means Keats wasn't taking it for medical reasons but for the mood-lifting properties of opium. Brown says that Keats does not need to be warned of the dangers of such a habit.''

Keats has also been viewed as fragile, or delicate. Roe says he wasn't. Keats was a fan of prize fighting and very involved in the politics and literature of his time.

At the Romantic Voyagers - Voyaging Romantics Conference at Victoria University Roe says he will discuss the importance of water for Keats' poetry.

But his biography also shows the importance and influence of Keats' childhood and opium in his works.

Statues on the gates of the Bedlam lunatic asylum opposite Keats' childhood home in London have clear links to the fallen Titans in his epic Hyperion, says Roe.

It's also possible, he says, that Keats' Hyperion and The Fall of Hyperion - both fragments despite their considerable length - weren't completed because of his opium use.

''He's not just a poet of beauty and sensual experience, he's a poet who connects to and responds to ... immediate circumstances.''


Romantic Voyagers - Voyaging Romantics Conference, Victoria University, September 29 and 30.

The Dominion Post