21 September 2012

John Keats postulated to be an opium addict

The claim is made in a new biography, to be published on Monday, by Prof Nicholas Roe, chair of the Keats Foundation and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh. Roe admits his finding will be contentious. "This has never been said before: Keats as an opium addict is new."...

Roe maintains that Keats, a trained physician, gained access to laudanum in the autumn of 1818 while administering the drug to his brother.  Tom was dying of TB, the disease he gave to Keats and of which the poet died three years later. Opium was the only painkiller that could alleviate the young man's pain.

After his brother's death, Keats began taking the drug regularly "to keep up his spirits", as Brown said later. Brown warned him of the "danger of such a habit". This, said Roe, "suggests Keats was indeed an 'habitual' user of opium and had been dosing himself for a considerable time."...

"When Keats writes in Ode to a Nightingale of having 'emptied some dull opiate to the drains' he means – very precisely – downing a decanter of laudanum," he said.

"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."

Ode on Indolence, added Roe: "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".
More at The GuardianPainting from the National Portrait Gallery.

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