Poet John Keats reveals his amazing scientific secret!
I tell history undergraduate students to look for the usable past, those long-ago events, ideas, and practices that remain relevant in the present and, perhaps, have future utility. I recently encountered an example of the usable past in the new Jane Campion film, Bright Star, and it’s just the sort of money-saving thing we need in these hard economic times.

The film follows the love affair between Romantic poet John Keats and his neighbor, Fanny Brawne. They met on December 1, 1818 and Keats died on February 21, 1821. Here’s the cool thing—in that 26-month period John Keats never shaved once! I’m sure that actor Ben Wishaw meticulously researched the role of Keats before spending the entire film sporting a five o’clock stubble that never changed. We see Keats get tuberculosis and lose body color, and we know the film is accurate because we also observe Keats emerge from a downpour with tussled hair. All of this can mean only one thing—John Keats discovered the secret of how to will his beard to stop growing!

The film doesn’t explain how Keats did this, but I’m a historian, so I can tell you. One of Keats’ contemporaries was the German physician Franz Mesmer (1734-1815). By the time of the Romantics, mesmerism was all the rage and the science of hypnosis was in its infancy. Keats, a pretty bright fellow, must surely have learned how to put himself in a trance and alter his physiological responses. In such a state he simply stood by a mirror, waited until his oh-so-cute stubble came to the perfect contrast with his naturally curly hair, and then ordered his beard to stop growing.

Subsequent scholars have paid way too much attention to couplets, iambic pentameter, and Classical poetic allusions. Bah! to all of that. Nobody does rhymed couplets anymore, but the world sure could benefit from Keats’ scientific breakthrough. I recently went to CVS and bought a package of disposable razors that set me back nearly five bucks. Project such quarterly expenditures over a lifetime and think of the savings! Consider also the green implications of never again casting used (and slow to biodegrade) razors to the landfill.

Keats was male and I’m unaware of him having taught Fanny how to control her own body hair, but I’m no essentialist. I’m sure that with proper training women also can learn the secret. Think of the millions that will be saved in expensive body wax and electrolysis treatments! Mediterranean women prone to growing small moustaches will be spared the agony of having adhesive tape ripped from their upper lips. If the Nobel Prize for Medicine can be awarded posthumously, Keats must be considered a contender.

I plan to make Keats’ scientific breakthrough the subject of my next book. I encourage everyone to buy it from the proceeds of the enormous savings you will reap from having never again to shell out shillings for shaving.

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