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Was the poet John Keats a graverobber?
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The English poet originally trained in medicine, where he would have encountered bodysnatchers. Kelly Grovier reveals disquieting clues in odes written 200 years ago.
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Did the English Romantic poet John Keats steal bodies from graves? A closer look at some of the 19th-Century writer’s most revered works, including his famous odes composed 200 years ago in the spring and summer of 1819, reveals an unsettling preoccupation with the feel of cemetery soil and the merging of self with cremated remains – a hands-on obsessiveness that goes beyond an anxious awareness of one’s own mortality. It is almost as if the poet is cryptically confessing to something dark, dangerous, and deeply disquieting.

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It is no secret that Keats was intensely fascinated with dying and that, for him, death was a soulful state towards which his spirit tended. Throughout his poetry, death is invoked as an object of infatuation. He memorably admits in his Ode to a Nightingale that “for many a time” he has been “half in love with easeful death”, to whom he sweetly whispers “soft names in many a mused rhyme”. “Now more than ever,” Keats concludes, “seems it rich to die,/To cease upon the midnight with no pain”.

Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase by Keats: it was said to have partially inspired his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn (Credit: Alamy)

Tracing of an engraving of the Sosibios vase by Keats: it was said to have partially inspired his poem Ode on a Grecian Urn (Credit: Alamy)

Recurring references in his poetry, moreover, to the materiality of human burial (tombs, plots, and funerary vases appear frequently in his writings) are typically appreciated as poignantly prescient of the poet’s own untimely demise at the age of 25. Readers understandably might find it difficult to separate the lilting lyricism of poems such as Ode on a Grecian Urn, which describes imagined scenes that encircle a sculpted space intended for the ashes of the perished, from the knowledge that its author was, himself, likely ill with tuberculosis when he wrote it at just 23 years old; and that he would succumb to painful complications of the disease two years later in February 1821.

Keats enrolled as a student at Guy’s Hospital in October 1815, and soon became an assistant house surgeon there (Credit: Alamy)

Keats enrolled as a student at Guy’s Hospital in October 1815, and soon became an assistant house surgeon there (Credit: Alamy)

But what if Keats’s fixation on the morbid physicality of death and on sites of corporeal decomposition was not (or was not only) anticipatory of his own imminent passing, but was in fact informed by his own intimate experience digging in freshly rumpled graveyard soil?  What if Keats personally got his hands dirty in the illicit nocturnal economy of procuring fresh corpses for medical schools, such as Guy’s Hospital in London, where he had enrolled as a student in October 1815? How would that alter the way we perceive him, his life, and his extraordinary literary legacy?

Surgical skill

John Keats was born in Moorgate, London, on Halloween in 1795, the eldest of three sons and a daughter. After studying for seven years at a progressive school in North London, where the future poet showed an early interest in Renaissance verse, Keats was sent to apprentice with Thomas Hammond, a surgeon and apothecary (a precursor to present-day pharmacists) in 1810, the same year that Keats’s mother died of ‘consumption’, as tuberculosis was then called. TB, the ‘family disease’, would go on to claim the lives of both of Keats’s brothers, Tom and George, in 1818 and 1841, respectively. After five years of training with Hammond, Keats matriculated as a medical student at Guy’s Hospital, where he was quickly promoted to the prestigious position of ‘dresser’ (akin to a junior doctor in the UK’s NHS) – a role that would give him a unique vantage inside operating rooms, where he trained at the shoulder of experienced surgeons.

The teachers who ran medical schools such as Guy’s Hospital found themselves dependent on the gruesome handiwork of ‘resurrection men’ who wrenched bodies from graves just hours after burial

By all accounts, a distinguished medical career was his for the taking. It was around this time that Keats would certainly have come into contact with a rather less respectable clutch of characters that lurked in the shadows – literally and figuratively – of the medical profession: graverobbers. In constant need of fresh cadavers for the purposes of training and experimentation, the teachers who ran medical schools such as Guy’s Hospital found themselves dependent on the gruesome handiwork of ‘resurrection men’ (as they were colourfully called) who wrenched bodies from graves just hours after burial, selling the remains to surgeons under cover of darkness.

In the 19th Century, medical schools relied on body snatchers – such as those shown in Resurrection Men by Thomas Rowlandson – for supplies of cadavers (Credit: Alamy)

In the 19th Century, medical schools relied on body snatchers – such as those shown in Resurrection Men by Thomas Rowlandson – for supplies of cadavers (Credit: Alamy)

The involvement of medical students themselves in assisting more seasoned body snatchers is a phenomenon that dates back to the very earliest recorded incidents of graverobbing, as the prosecution in 1319 in Bologna of four young medics, caught exhuming and dissecting an executed criminal, demonstrates. There is little doubt that there was a cosiness, if not camaraderie, between surgeon and body snatcher in Keats’s day. The noted English surgeon and medical writer John Flint South, a contemporary of the poet’s during his years of training, would later record in his memoirs that if the resurrection men “got into trouble” with the law – caught red-handed with a corpse – “the teachers would do all they could … to get the men off at the police examination” and, if necessary, “find them bail”.

There is some reason to think that, during the period of time when Keats himself was studying, more hands than usual might have been called upon to keep the teaching theatres at Guy’s Hospital and at the adjoining St Thomas’s Hospital School (where Keats assisted in operations most afternoons) supplied with corpses. In 1816, the year Keats was promoted to dresser, a menacing crew known as The Borough Gang (one of London’s most notorious body-snatching syndicates, founded by Ben Crouch, a former porter at Guy’s Hospital), resolved to embargo bodies flowing to St Thomas’s until its teachers agreed to pay an extra two guineas per corpse.

Herbal remedy?

To suggest that the surgeons and students at the adjacent institutions, including Keats, resolved to take matters into their own hands by procuring bodies themselves is speculation at best. What is incontestable, however, is the gruesome and gritty turn that Keats’s imagination takes when describing a grave the following year in his narrative poem Isabella, or the Pot of Basil – an adaptation of a tale from 14th-Century Italian poet Boccaccio’s collection of novellas, The Decameron.

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868) by William Holman Hunt was inspired by Keats’s poem Isabella (Credit: Alamy)

Isabella and the Pot of Basil (1868) by William Holman Hunt was inspired by Keats’s poem Isabella (Credit: Alamy)

Isabella tells the story of a young woman who, against the urges of her family, falls in love with Lorenzo, one of her brother’s employees. Angered by her decision, Isabella’s brothers kill and bury Lorenzo, whose corpse she tracks down and exhumes. Deranged by grief, Isabella re-plants Lorenzo’s head in a pot of basil, over which she proceeds to obsess. In describing Isabella’s search for the plot where Lorenzo’s body had been dumped, Keats rather gratuitously lingers over the spot, working the fingers of his fancy into its disturbed and disturbing soil:

“Who hath not loiter’d in a green church-yard,
And let his spirit, like a demon-mole,
Work through the clayey soil and gravel hard,
To see skull, coffin’d bones, and funeral stole… ?”

By asking the bizarre question “who hath not” let his mind scrabble through the dirt to where a dead body lay decomposing, the narrator of the poem seeks to normalise an impulse and action that is, surely, not normal. Whom is he trying to convince? It is not until the next stanza that Isabella herself actually begins digging (“with a knife … more fervently than misers can”), but by then Keats has already taken us by the hand deep into the “clayey soil and gravel hard” of Lorenzo’s grave.

A stolen funeral is precisely the crime that resurrection men are guilty of committing… Keats has placed his readers not merely inside a grave, but ring-side at the theft of a funeral rite

Haunting Keats’s description and linking his ghastly vision to the illicit activities of the body snatchers with whom he might have mingled at Guy’s and St Thomas’s Hospitals is Keats’s choice of garment to wrap eerily around the “coffin’d bones” of the murdered Lorenzo: a funeral stole. On the surface, a ‘stole’, or liturgical garment, may seem an unremarkable item to single out. But place the word itself alongside ‘funeral’ and a contraband connotation begins to unsettle the phrase ‘funeral stole’. After all, a stolen funeral is precisely the crime that resurrection men are guilty of committing. Suddenly, Keats has placed his readers not merely inside a grave, but ring-side at the theft of a funeral rite.

What if Keats’s fixation on “the morbid physicality of death” was informed by his own intimate experience? (Credit: Alamy)

What if Keats’s fixation on “the morbid physicality of death” was informed by his own intimate experience? (Credit: Alamy)

The same year that The Borough Gang unleashed its menace on St Thomas’s School, threatening students and staff at knife-point, Keats impressively aced an arduous qualifying exam that many of his contemporaries, including his flatmates, failed to pass. In July that year he received his license to practise as an apothecary. With everything going his way, professionally, it seems especially strange and unexpected that in December of this very year Keats should decide to abandon medicine altogether in favour of writing poetry.

Keats’s decision seemed to many around him an inexplicable act of folly given the debts he had racked up as a student and philanthropist to his many impecunious friends. While it is romantic to accept that the pull of poetry alone influenced Keats’s decision, one cannot help wondering if something drove Keats from the path that he had long pursued – “more like a man/Flying from something that he dreads”, as his fellow Romantic William Wordsworth once wrote, “than one/Who sought the thing he loved” – something, perhaps, he’d seen, unearthed, or touched.

The lines seem to be saying more than their surface syllables admit, like a secret waiting to be dragged into the light

Two and a half years after changing course from medicine to writing poetry, Keats began work on an epic poem entitled The Fall of Hyperion, which opens with a strange tease to readers that the work they are about to read is either the vision of a capable poet or the rantings of a madman. He goes on to promise that the truth will be revealed only after he has passed away. But it is the language that the poet uses to assert this curious claim that is so striking and memorable:

“Whether the dream now purpos’d to rehearse
Be poet’s or fanatic’s will be known
When this warm scribe my hand is in the grave.”

It is arresting enough for Keats to compress his entire being into its one scribbling extremity (“scribe my hand”), but to conjure the image of that body part still fidgeting with life (“warm”) in a place of death (“in the grave”) is especially disquieting and reminiscent of the furtive fumblings of resurrection men. Intensifying the effect is the interjection of the word ‘rehearse’, which hovers hauntingly on the surface of the page just above the word ‘grave’. A ‘hearse’ of course is a vehicle that conveys a body to the grave. To ‘rehearse’ is what bodysnatchers, with warm hands in cold graves, do. The lines seem to be saying more than their surface syllables admit, as if something is stirring anxiously below the level of literal expression: like a secret waiting to be dragged into the light.

In 1819, Keats composed some of his best-known poems, including The Eve of St Agnes, Ode on Melancholy, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Psyche, and Ode on a Grecian Urn

In 1819, Keats composed some of his best-known poems, including The Eve of St Agnes, Ode on Melancholy, Ode to a Nightingale, Ode to Psyche, and Ode on a Grecian Urn

Around the same time that Keats began to compose (and eventually abandon) The Fall of Hyperion, he undertook yet another poem whose argument relies significantly on the imagined infiltration of a space of death by someone living. That poem is Ode on Indolence, among the cache of famous odes that Keats wrote in the spring and summer of 1819.

The ode revolves around the comings and goings of three figures who pass before the poem’s speaker: ‘shades’ that he likens to “figures on a marble urn/When shifted round to see the other side”. What is particularly intriguing about Keats’s description of the manner in which he is approached by the figures, is how surprised he is to see them arrive time and again. He insists that upon their return “they were strange to me”, as if he doesn’t see them coming. But if he were actually standing in front of a revolving urn, he would of course see the figures approaching from the side, growing larger in curvature as the convex surface rotates them towards him. The only way that the figures could take him by surprise is if he were imaginatively inside the urn, staring instead at a concave surface. Only then could the figures sneak up on him from behind with each revolution.

In April 1819, when he was writing Ode on Indolence, Keats visited a revolving painting known as the Panorama by Henry Aston Barker, who also made this one of Constantinople

In April 1819, when he was writing Ode on Indolence, Keats visited a revolving painting known as the Panorama by Henry Aston Barker, who also made this one of Constantinople

In April 1819, just at the moment when Keats was at work on the ode, he visited an interesting visual spectacle in Leicester Square, London, of an all-encompassing cylindrical painting of an icy coast in the Norwegian archipelago, installed by Henry Aston Barker in his popular contraption known as the Panorama. Opened originally in 1793 by Barker’s father, Robert (who coined the word ‘panorama’), the contraption allowed visitors to stand in the middle of a revolving painting in precisely the dynamic suggested by Keats’s description of the movement of figures in Ode on Indolence. Yet in Keats’s ode, the implication is not that the speaker is surrounded by a canvas, but rather that he is inside a funerary vase and therefore mingling with the ashy remains of a cremated person. Only once the reader has fully grasped the implications of the sensational position in which the poem’s speaker has placed himself within the urn can the gravity of Keats’s description of his desire to pursue the three figures be appreciated:

“A third time pass’d they by, and, passing, turn’d
Each one the face a moment whiles to me;
Then faded, and to follow them I burn’d ...”

Once again, Keats has tracked the dead down to a place of presumed eternal rest and imagined his being commingling there with theirs, going so far, in this case, to envision a kind of self-immolation in accord with the powderising heat of cremation: “to follow them I burn’d”.

Tomb raider

On 23 February 1821, John Keats died in Rome, where he’d gone in search of warmer climes that might ease the agony of his rapidly deteriorating condition. It is not known exactly when he wrote it or for what project, but it is thought that among his last poetic sketches is a chilling fragment that suggests just how preoccupied his imagination was, to the very end, by images of the living and the dead vying for the same space:

“This living hand, now warm and capable
Of earnest grasping, would, if it were cold
And in the icy silence of the tomb,
So haunt thy days and chill thy dreaming nights
That thou would wish thine own heart dry of blood
So in my veins red life might stream again,
And thou be conscience-calm’d – see here it is – 
I hold it towards you.”

The lines seem to rehearse an eerie resurrection of the poet’s passing self, alchemised uncannily by a “living hand … in the icy silence of the tomb”. Whether or not the vision is that of a mind haunted by intimate experience wrestling with the dead for the upper hand, desperate to be “conscience-calm’d”, is impossible to know. The best we can do as grateful admirers of his astonishing work is keep digging.

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