Ode to Opium

Tuesday 25 September 2012

'John Keats: A New Life' book cover

A University of St Andrews’ academic has made a striking claim about Romantic poet John Keats in a pioneering new biography published this month.

Writing in ‘John Keats. A New Life’, Professor Nicholas Roe suggests that Keats concealed a darker side behind his poetic celebrations of Romantic beauty and truth, and that he was a frequent and possibly habitual user of opium.

Professor Roe, of the University’s School of English, claims that the author of ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ became a user of opium following the illness and subsequent death of his younger brother Tom.

Among numerous fresh claims and insights, the biography suggests that the contemporary of Shelley, Coleridge and Wordsworth was actually more ‘streetwise’ than previously thought.

Professor Nicholas Roe

Professor Roe explained, “Keats has become too familiar to us. My biography is intended to open up new questions about Keats – to ask readers to revisit poems by him that they may think they already know well.”

Comparing Keats to writers such as Coleridge, De Quincey, Huxley and even Bob Dylan, Professor Roe, an expert in Romantic literature and culture, said, “The extent to which John Keats’s poetic creativity was connected with his recourse to opium has never been fully explored before.

“When Keats writes in ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ of having ’emptied some dull opiate to the drains’, he means – very precisely – that the insights of his poem resemble those released by downing a decanter of laudanum.”

Professor Roe, author of a critically acclaimed biography of Leigh Hunt, says that Keats, who died aged 25 of TB, wrote some of his greatest poems – including ‘La Belle Dame sans Merci’ – while influenced by the drug.

The St Andrews’ academic suggests that the line ‘to be ‘half in love with easeful death’, from ‘Ode to a Nightingale’, is the hallmark of a confirmed opium user, while ‘Ode on Indolence’ ‘grew out of a reverie induced by taking laudanum to ease the pain of a black eye, got while playing cricket on Hampstead Heath in March 1819’.

He continued, “Like Coleridge’s ‘Kubla Khan’ and like Thomas de Quincey’s ‘Confessions of an English Opium-Eater’, ‘Ode to a Nightingale’ is one of the greatest re-creations of a drug-inspired dream-vision in English literature – a poem that frankly admits his own opium habit.

“It’s possible, too, that his failure to complete his epic poem ‘Hyperion’ may have been related to the more debilitating effects of opium use.”

Professor Roe’s views modify those of writers such as Andrew Motion, who believes that Keats experimented briefly with opium. Professor Roe, Chair of the Keats Foundation, Keats House, Hampstead, argues that the poet first started taking laudanum regularly in the autumn of 1818 while administering the drug to his brother.

He explained, “My biography takes the view that the spring of 1819 was not only one of Keats’s most productive periods but also his most heavily opiated. He continued dosing himself to relieve his chronically sore throat; and opium-induced mental instability helps to explain his jealous and vindictive mood swings regarding Fanny Brawne.

“That Keats was using opium to enhance what it meant to ‘fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget’ gives us a different Keats: a Keats whose struggle with life was more complex, and darker than we have previously thought.

“This explodes conceptions of him as a delicate, overly sensitive, tragic figure and gives a poet who is closer to the Romantic tradition associated with Blake, Baudelaire, Coleridge, De Quincey, Yeats, Huxley and Bob Dylan.”

Professor Roe’s book has been described by distinguished Romantic biographer Richard Holmes as ‘an astonishingly fresh and observant new biography’.

The author is currently in Wellington, New Zealand, to launch the book with the descendants of John Keats’s close friend Charles Brown, who in early 1820 discovered Keats had been taking opium to ‘keep up his spirits’, and warned the young poet of the ‘dangers of such a habit’.

On 11 October, Professor Roe will appear at the Cheltenham Literature Festival.

John Keats. A New Life by Professor Nicholas Roe is published by Yale University Press in October 2012.


Issued by the Press Office
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