John Keats, the iconic romantic poet, was a drug addict and consumed opium to “keep up his spirits” while writing some of his most famous poems, a contentious new biography has claimed.
The claim is made in the new biography John Keats? A New Life, to be published tomorrow, by Professor Nicholas Roe, chair of the Keats Foundation and a fellow of the Royal Society of Edinburgh.
Roe admitted that his finding will be contentious. “This has never been said before: Keats as an opium addict is new,” he said.
John Keats, the poet of beauty, a devotee of aesthetic isolation who swooned at the thought of his so-called bright star Fanny Brawne (his financee) and succumbed to TB when he was 25, was an opium addict, the biography said.
Roe, professor of English literature at the University of St Andrews, dismissed other experts who have previously concluded that Keats only briefly experimented with the drug, the Guardian reported.
The former poet laureate Andrew Motion, winner of the Whitbread prize for biography and author of a biography of the poet, has said, Roe made “assumptions” about Keats and his use of opiates that “simply have no warrant”.
“Andrew Motion’s line was that (Keats’ close friend) Charles Brown warned Keats about the ‘danger of such a habit’ and asked Keats to promise ‘never to take another drop without (his) knowledge’,” Roe said.
“But on no evidence that I can find, Motion surmises that ‘Keats did as he was told’,” Roe added.
“My biography takes the contrary view that the spring of 1819 was not only one of Keats’s most productive periods but also his most heavily opiated,” Roe said.
“He continued dosing himself to relieve his chronically sore throat; and that opium-induced mental instability helps to explain his jealous and vindictive mood swings regarding Fanny Brawne,” Roe added.
Roe claimed that after using the drug to relieve the chronic sore throat, he continued taking opium to “keep up his spirits”.
Motion said he has “admiring feelings” about Roe’s book, which he has read, and agreed it is “possible that (Roe) is right about this even though I said differently in my book”.
However, he added, “it is quite striking that there is no hard evidence in the letters of Keats or his friends, as there is in those of Coleridge”.
But Roe said he is convinced that Keats’ most famous poems, ‘Ode on Indolence‘ and ‘Ode to a Nightingale‘, arose from opium reveries.
“That Keats was using opium to enhance what it meant to ‘fade far away, dissolve, and quite forget’ the world gives us a different Keats: a Keats whose struggle with life was more complex, and darker than we have previously thought,” Roe added.