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John Keats’s Honeybees: Sound, Passion, Medicine, and Natural Prophecy

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Bees, Science, and Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century

Part of the book series: Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature ((PSAAL))

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The poetry of John Keats is replete with allusions to the sounds and implicit presence of honeybees. Their seemingly “noiseless” existence amid the noises of other organic life is nevertheless a vital part, he said, of a breathing, active universe and “The poetry of [an] earth [that] is never dead.” For Keats, who was a licensed apothecary and trained physician, the existence of bees is fraught with meaning and prophecy for the natural world and the interconnected fragility of its life; it is also a symbol of authenticity in a poetry that is tied to nature and can provide a honied “elixir” to “medicine” the human mind. This chapter traces the evolution of Keats’s compounding evocation of honeybees in his poetry—from his earliest sonnets through to his fragmentary, prophetic epic on the sun-god Hyperion, the last-surviving Titan, who falls to extinction in a wasteland bereft of even a single wandering, or lost, honeybee.

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  1. 1.

    See Bernard de Mandeville, The Fable of the Bees (London: Bathurst et al. [1714] 1795).

  2. 2.

    See H. W. Piper, The Active Universe (London: University of London, Athlone Press, 1962).

  3. 3.

    John Keats, “I Stood Tiptoe,” and “On the Grasshopper and Cricket,” in The Poems of John Keats, ed. Jack Stillinger (Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1978), 11. All subsequent quotations from the poetry will refer to this edition and appear in the text cited by line or stanza.

  4. 4.

    See Hermione de Almeida, Romantic Medicine and John Keats (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 1990), pp. 135–97. See also my essay, “Prophetic Extinction and the Misbegotten Dream in Keats” in The Persistence of Poetry: Bicentennial Essays on John Keats, eds. Ronald Sharp and Robert Ryan (Amherst: University of Massachusetts Press, 1999), pp. 165–183; and my essay, “Romantic Evolution: Fresh Perfection and Ebbing Process in Keats” in Critical Essays on John Keats (Boston: G. K. Hall, 1990), pp. 279–92.

  5. 5.

    Charles Brown, “Lecture to the Plymouth Institution, 1836” in The Life of John Keats, eds. Dorothy Hyde Bodurtha and Willard Bissell Pope (London: Oxford University Press, 1937), 41.

  6. 6.

    M. J. B. Orfila, A General System of Toxicology: or, A Treatise on Poisons, trans. by Joseph G. Mancrede (Philadelphia: M. Carey & Son, 1817). See also J. F. Blumenbach, Institutions of Physiology (London: Bensley and Sons, 1817) and S. Hahnemann’s Organon der rationellen Heilkunde nach homöopathischen Gesetzen [The Organon of the Healing Art] (Dresden: 1810).

  7. 7.

    See J. Lempriere, entries “Hymettus” and “Aristaeus,” in Bibliotheca Classica, or, A Classical Dictionary, 1lth edn. (London: T. Cadell and W. David, 1820).

  8. 8.

    A. S. Roud, The Penguin Guide to the Superstitions of Britain and Ireland (London: Penguin Books, 2006), 128.

  9. 9.

    See discussion on the pharmakon and poisons in de Almeida, Romantic Medicine and John Keats,135–197.

  10. 10.

    Keats’s epic on the Titans survives as two fragments: the first, Hyperion, carries a narrative up to the transformation of Apollo, before Hyperion joins his fellow Titans in a geological and existential darkness. The Fall of Hyperion: A Dream is told in retrospection by way of the poet’s vision of the Titans inevitable extinction. My discussion treats the fragments as one complex, and references them in the text as Hyp. and Fall of Hyp.

  11. 11.

    Encyclopaedia Britannica, 11th edn. (1910): 625–38—an extended entry on the knowledge and cultivation of bees in the nineteenth century.

  12. 12.

    Scarlett R. Howard, Andrea G. Dyer, et al., “Numerical Ordering of Zero in Honeybees,” Science June (2018): 1124–26.

  13. 13.

    Pooja Makhiljani, “Bee Antennae Offer Links between the Evolution of Social Behavior and Communication,” Princeton University, accessed February 2023,

  14. 14.

    Tim Flannery, “Hive Mentalities,” The New York Review of Books, 12 December 2018. Hive “mentalities” and expectations with regard to seasons reiterate the deadly consequences of disrupted weather patterns, especially those following the eruption of Mount Tambora in April 1815. See Nikki Hessell, “Keats and the Politics of Climate Change, 1816 and Beyond,” in Romantic Climates: Literature and Science in an Age of Catastrophe, eds. Anne Collett and Olivia Murphy (Basingstoke and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2019), 59–74. See also Michael Malay, “John Keats and the Sound of Autumn,” in The Palgrave Handbook of Animals and Literature (Basingstoke and London: Palgrave Macmillan, 2021), 291–305.

  15. 15.

    The Letters of John Keats, 1814–1821, ed. Hyder E. Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Harvard University Press), 1958), II: 281.

  16. 16.

    See Richard Holmes, The Age of Wonder: How the Romantic Generation Discovered the Beauty and Terror of Science (New York: Pantheon Books, 2008).

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de Almeida, H. (2024). John Keats’s Honeybees: Sound, Passion, Medicine, and Natural Prophecy. In: Harley, A., Harrington, C. (eds) Bees, Science, and Sex in the Literature of the Long Nineteenth Century. Palgrave Studies in Animals and Literature. Palgrave Macmillan, Cham.

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