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A Little Dab’ll Do Ya’: Homoeopathy in Romantic Literature
by E.W. Wilder

The sixth and final edition of Samuel Hahnemann’s Organon of Medicine was published in 1833. In it, Hahnemann outlines the basic notions of homoeopathic medicine. It should be not at all surprising that this well-footnoted little volume should have appeared at the height of the Romantic era, for homoeopathy, is, itself, a Romantic sort of medicine. Based on a combination of empirical observation of a patient’s state of health and symptomology and a notion of a “spiritual” seat of disease, homoeopathy put together the two most powerful Romantic ideas: the awareness of nature and the emphasis of the spiritual over the corporeal. Hahnemann writes: “as far as the greatest number of diseases are of dynamic (spiritual) origin, and dynamic (spiritual) nature, their cause is not perceptible to the senses” (32). Disease, then, was spiritual for Hahnemann, the ghost in the body’s machine, the result of a disturbance of the “vital force,” and “local affection . . . set up and continued by the vital force when left to its own resources, for the relief the original chronic disease, are actually the disease itself . . . the only efficacious remedy . . . is homoeopathic medicine, chosen on account of its similarity of action” (65).

Homoeopathic medicines themselves are “potentized” or “spiritized” by recurrent dilutions by up to one millionth of their normal strengths or more (Hahnemann 288). The materia medica becomes spiritual in order to better fight disease, which is itself, as above, of spiritual nature. Thus does Hahnemann justify the basic precept of homoeopathy: “similia similibus curentur” or “like cures like” (80). A medication’s use is determined by its effects on the healthy body, so an herb or substance known to cause inflammation would be used to treat inflammation, and so forth for each set of symptoms.

Here Hahnemann again shows his Romantic stripes. That similars should be used to treat one another is geared toward the naturo-Romantic notion that lovers could be soul-mates regardless of family affiliation, fate, destiny, time or place. The similar affects the similar on a spiritual plane regardless of physical manifestations. Wagner’s hero and heroine must be together because they are brother and sister, though all that is human and all that is holy is out to keep them apart. Nature herself - through the law of similars - trumps all. Hahnemann lays it out for us in this:

By observation, reflection and experience, I discovered that, contrary to the old allopathic method, the true, the proper, the best mode of treatment is contained in the maxim: To cure mildly, rapidly, certainly, and permanently, choose in every case of disease a medicine which can itself produce an affection similar to that sought to be cured! (80) (emphasis his)

The emphasis on observation - on being the recipient of the spiritual message of nature - has obvious parallels to Wordsworth. Homoeopathy melds the scientific and the Romantic by making empiricism and naturalism one.

Homoeopathic theory’s implications for understanding Romantic literature are great. Not only can the ferment of the times be seen seething in them both, but homoeopathy can deepen the knowledge of specific texts. Keats’s “The Eve of St. Agnes,” for instance, can be seen as a primarily homoeopathic text: “St. Agnes’ Eve - Ah, bitter chill it was!” (777). Thus begins Keats’s famous fantasy with the chill feeling of a fever dream. Thus we are thrust into effects on the body familial of one sick with love, and sick, especially, with the love of an enemy. The revelry of Madeline’s family, revealed a few lines after the above, on this feast day, symbolizes the love-sickness. St. Agnes’ Eve, legend has it, is a night a young woman will have a vision of her true love if she fasts as others celebrate. So the feasting and fasting, the hallucination of the true love, are both symptom and cause, disease spiritized homoeopathically by excessive living, upsetting the natural balance of the vital force.

In the poem, Madeline pines for her Porphyro, and through this love sickness symbolizes the spiritual disease of the family/body. The family’s enmity for Porphyro completes the symbolic chain, expressing basic homoeopathic principles: similia similibus curentur. The lovesick cures the lovesick here: Porphyro’s lovesick state underlies his ability to cure the body that is Madeline’s family.

Porphyro enters Madeline’s family’s home as a homoeopathic medicine, seeking to free the body familial of its ailment (Keats 778-9). Because of this, he must be present spiritually and physically effaced. He enlists the help of Angela, the cronish servant, to achieve this by hiding him appropriately (Keats 779-80). Angela, then, becomes the homoeopathic physician, spiritizing Porphyro. As the servant of the body familial, she must out of loyalty cure it, but must hide her delivery of a cure that resembles the disease, that is, that would otherwise upset the body’s natural balance by causing disease-like symptoms. Angela delivers the cure:

He ventures in: let no buzz’d whisper tell
All eyes be muffled, or a hundred swords
Will storm his heart, Love’s fev’rous citadel[.] (Keats 779)

The swords are the body’s vital force, the family’s force of arms against intruders, the body’s natural desire to right its spiritual illness and cure itself of chronic pain.

A further indication of Porphyro’s spiritization is that his contact with Madeline is fleeting, ephemeral. He wants to appear like a vision before her, appropriate for St. Agnes’ Eve “[t]hat he might see her beauty unespied / And win perhaps that night a peerless bride” (Keats 781). The like cures the like: it is to her spiritual nature that he tries to appeal - the lovesickness of Porphyro is so strong, so dynamized, that he is satisfied only to look upon the object of his desire.

Angela prepares Madeline’s bedchamber for Porphyro’s visit, potentizing it by visiting it again and again, in the same way a homoeopathic cure is visited again and again by many dilutions:

Now prepare
Young Porphyro, for gazing on that bed:
She comes, she comes again, like ring-dove fray’d and fled. (Keats 781)

And Madeline shows herself as the spiritized disease:
Out went the taper as she hurried in;
Its little smoke, in pallid moonshine, died:
She closed the door, she panted, all akin
To spirits of the air, and visions wide[.] (Keats 781)

Porphyro is transformed in his spiritized state, not looking himself: “How changed thou art! How pallid, chill and drear!” (Keats 784), but in transformation he is curative: “Beyond a mortal man impassioned far” (Keats 784).

Madeline awakens to the reality of Porphyro; as such the disease is unseated from its place within the spirit of the body/family by its similar. The body is agitated:

"Hark! ‘Tis an elfin-storm from faery land,
Of haggard seeming, but a boon indeed:
Arise--arise! The morning is at hand;--
The bloated wassaillers will never heed[.]” (Keats 785)

In its disease, the body/family is incoherent, drowsy, giving the homoeopathic cure, Porphyro, a chance to rid it of the source:

“Let us away, my love, with happy speed;
There are no ears to hear, or eyes to see--
Drown’d all in Rhenish and the sleepy mead:
Awake! arise! my love and fearless be,
For o’er the southern moors I have a home for thee.”
(Keats 785)
Porphyro is similar action, attached by natural affinity to Madeline, attached through spirit to flee the body familial: “She hurried at his words, beset with fears, / For there were sleeping dragons all around” (Keats 785). The spiritized disease and the spiritized cure exit the body in a spiritzed manner: “They glide, like phantoms into the wide hall; / Like phantoms, to the iron porch, they glide” (Keats 785).

"The Eve of St. Agnes” was written in 1819, reinforcing the connection between homoeopathy and Romanticism. Since homoeopathy is, itself, a Romantic theory of medicine, its explanatory insights run to the heart of Romantic thinking, exemplifying them and amplifying the strains present in texts such as this one. The application of homoeopathic theory to Romantic literature follows its own basic maxim: similia similibus curentur: the similar theory cures the imperfect knowledge of the scholar of the similar text. Theory and text are broken down into their essences, spiritized and dynamized to treat the basic problem of meaning in literature.

Works Cited

Hahnemann, Samuel. Organon of Medicine. 6th ed. 1833. Trans. William Boericke. Calcutta, Roysingh and Co., 1968.

Keats, John. “The Eve of St. Agnes.” The Norton Anthology of English Literature. 6th ed. Vol.2, M.H. Abrams et al. eds. New York: Norton, 1993. 777-86.