Guest Post: Keats Epigraphs in Strike5?

Why John Keats “May” Provide Epigraphs (and other materials) for Strike Five

By ChrisC

A recent theory on this site is that Marilyn Manson’s lyrics will form the epigraphs for the next Cormoran Strike Mystery. I have an alternate take on that subject, however. What if the poetry of John Keats is what readers have to look forward to, at least in terms of thematic chapter-header quotes in Book 5?

My reasons for bringing this up center around one of the author’s clues and the literary subject matter attached to it. The clue was Ms. Rowling’s brochure for the Chelsea Physic Garden. It was founded by the Society of Apothecaries in 1837, and Keats was an intern there as part of his early medical studies. His notebooks demonstrate a remarkable knowledge of pharmacology, and both Hermione De Almeida and Jennifer M. Wunder have shown that Keats’ medical studies intertwined with his neo-Platonic-hermetic poetical interests. In addition to this, Keats was not the only Rowling linked artist to be related to the Chelsea Garden. There is one other author who, along with Keats, may form a major part of the fifth book’s creative compost. To find out more about this, and how Agatha Christie may have a part to play, join me after the jump.

Literal and Metaphoric Poison.

The plot of Strike 5 may deal with two types of poison. One of them is surface based, the other is thematic. Christie would supply the plot, and Keats the motif idea. In addition to solving a poisoning murder with the possible help of the Chelsea Physic Garden, expect Strike to have to deal with the toxic aspects of his own life in a big way for this novel. Keats once wrote that while “we are laughing, the seed of some trouble is put into the wide arable land of events…and suddenly bears a poison fruit which we must pluck (Murry, 86)”. For Keats the apothecary, the poison is drawn so that it can be purged, however painful. It may be that Strike will have to examine the poison in his own life if he wants to both solve the case, and move on from a guilty past. It’s kind of a standby trope in Noir fiction.

Because of this, and because Christie was also an alumnus of the Chelsea Potions Class years after Keats, my conjecture is that while we follow Strike as he hunts for clues, Keats may provide color commentary at the head of each chapter. My own choice of best candidates for quotation centers around the Odes cycle the poet composed during a five-year span near what proved to be the end of his life. In particular I would look out for passages from both Melancholy and the Nightingale, as they seem to represent the before and after of phase of the hermetic purgation. I would also look for quotes from Keats’ correspondence, as he often shared his theories about poetry and philosophy with others. These same insights may inform the various stages of Strike’s quest.

The Belle Dame Returns.

One poem quote that I do expect to play a large part is La Belle Dame sans Merci. It’s the Keats poem that Agatha Christie uses as a motif in her Poirot thriller, Murder in Mesopotamia. In Strike’s case, there can be only one merciless Fair Maiden. It makes sense to me that Charlotte would play the role taken by Delores Umbridge in Order of the Phoenix, Potter5. If Rowling remains true to her new genre, then perhaps Charlotte will transition more to a straight-up murderous stalker who threatens Strike’s safety. If violence were to break out between them, it would make one hell of a way to tackle the theme of women and violence. Think less Orwell, and more Play Misty for Me.

Conclusion: Keats’ Philosophy of Change.

My final reason for thinking Keats will be the guiding thread of Strike 5 has to do with how the poet handled transformation in his work. According to Charles Williams, Keats set out to answer a question first asked by Marlowe in the Renaissance. “What is beauty, saith my sufferings, then”? For Williams, Keats’ “poetry is not, in the ordinary sense of the word, philosophical poetry. But … it does seem in certain places as if his poetry apprehended philosophical change…There are five poems particularly which in which it was concerning itself with some enlarged state of being (181-3)”. These are the Odes, and it is thanks to Williams’ insights that I’m willing to hold that Keats will act as both a commentator, and perhaps maybe thematic Virgil to the main character’s journey through the next book’s inferno.

The trick with Keats’ best work is that its theme really is about the journey out of the dark night of the soul. It’s a worthy concept for either poetry or prose. If there’s any criticism to be made it’s that I’m not sure Keats can take things past a certain point. Like Dante’s Virgil, I think he’ll fade from view once the pages of Book 5 are closed, and its Rubicon is crossed. He’s the right kind of poet to help weather the Nigredo and point out that reality is a veil, yet I’m not sure he ever really pierces to the other side of it. Still, he has his place, and in a story where Strike has to contend with two figures from his past, I think it just makes sense that both Keats and Ms. Christie would be the presiding apothecaries on hand to deliver just the right tonic for the action.



  1. Apparently the next Strike – to be published on Sep 29 – is to be called Troubled Blood. No news as to what’s going to happen yet. The title could refer to Strike’s past (not least his parents), so a link to a poet with pharmacological knowledge doesn’t seem entirely unreasonable. I’m not an expert on Keats, though, so Icouldn’t say which of his poems would be most likely to appear – which also depends on the plot. So I guess we’ll have to wait until we know more.

  2. Strike walked around Chelsea Physic Garden in Lethal White, chasing after one of his clients, Dodgy Doc.

  3. Beatrice Groves says

    I love this connection ChrisC – and hope you are right that Keats will be turning up in future Strike. The Chelsea Physic Garden brochure may simply link to its appearance in Lethal White (as the Melrose pamphlet looks back to Career of Evil) but the ‘Underground’ book at the bottom of the pile has not – I think? – made any appearance yet. So maybe we have not heard the last of this ‘Captivating scents’ brochure…

  4. C.B., Prof. Groves,

    I hope I’m not telling tales out of session, or letting anything out of the bag before its ready. However, Strike fan Nick Jeffries has speculated that the title for the new book may owe its origin to either Spencer’s “Faerie Queen”, or from a play called “Bussy D’Ambois” by George Chapman. I thought I remembered Rowling using quotes from Chapman in “The Silkworm”. I went back to that book and there he was, fresh from obscurity and everything. After typing in Chapman’s name, along with the phrase “Troubled Blood”, a little searching leaves me convinced that it’s indeed Chapman that JKR has referenced by her title.

    It turns out Chapman’s play has a lot of relevant material with Rowling’s own protagonist. For instance, here is how Bussy D’Ambois is described by Wikipedia. “(An) unemployed soldier and an accomplished swordsman, is reflecting on the corrupt, avaricious, and violent society in which he lives. In the third line of his opening soliloquy, he expresses the radical view that “Who is not poor, is monstrous.” From there, however, Chapman’s hero finds himself joining forces with the very Ruling Class he condemned, only to rebel and wind up the victim of their revenge.

    The main character reads like a crazier version of our peg-legged friend. It is interesting to speculate how D’Ambois’s predicament could be related to Strike’s in “Troubled Blood”. That’s an aspect I’m still not sure of, however. What I did find very interesting, and maybe somewhat rewarding was reading the following, also from Wiki.
    “As Chapman’s arguable masterpiece, Bussy D’Ambois has attracted a large body of critical commentary, discussion, and dispute. Scholars have debated Chapman’s philosophical and dramaturgical intentions in the play, and whether and to what degree those intentions are successfully realized.[9] Though no true consensus has been reached, many commentators regard Bussy as Chapman’s idea of a moral hero at war with his own lower tendencies, wrapped in a conflict between his idealistic urges and the sheer power of his personality — a Marlovian hero with more conscience than Marlowe ever gave his own protagonists.

    Or at least, that appears to have been Chapman’s intent. Critics have complained at how the moralizing protagonist of the opening scene becomes the ruthless passion-driven anti-hero of the rest of the play. Some have argued that in Bussy D’Ambois Chapman sacrificed logical and philosophical consistency for dramaturgical efficacy, for “force and vehemence of imagination” (to quote Algernon Charles Swinburne). His succeeding French histories are more consistent intellectually, but also far more dull (web)”. The information can all be read here:

    I found that connection to Marlowe something of a relief, because it “could” mean my theory of Rokeby as both a sellout (in the thematic vein of “Dr. Faustus) and the series Moriarty still has some wind in its sails, at least until it doesn’t. It also raises the possibility that the same Marlovian tendencies might be a problem Strike has to deal with as well. It could be a very troubling case of like father like son. However beyond that, it also fits in with my theory that Keats will have some thematic role to play in the new book. According to the Poetry Foundation website, “the nineteenth saw a marked revival of interest in Chapman’s works, perhaps best summed up in John Keats’s well-known sonnet “On First Looking Into Chapman’s Homer” (1816)”. The upshot is that I’m willing to add Keats’ “Chapman” poem to the list of possible header quotes we could expect to see in Rowling’s book. The information for that quote can be found at this link:

    One final piece of information that I believe is relevant can be found once more in the wiki link above. It has to do with the rest of Chapman’s own creative compost heap. “Along with historical sources on the life of Louis de Bussy d’Amboise, Chapman, like Ben Jonson, makes rich use of classical allusions. Bussy features translated passages from the plays Agamemnon and Hercules Oetaeus of Seneca, plus the Moralia of Plutarch, the Aeneid and Georgics of Virgil, and the Adagia of Erasmus.[7] The characters in the play quote or refer to the Iliad and to works by Empedocles, Themistocles, and Camillus.[8]” Along with the mention of Jonson, the name that really jumped out was that of Virgil and his “Aeneid”. That’s another text informing the nature of the Strike saga. What we are seeing here is a technique Beatrice Groves discussed about at length in “Literary Allusion in Harry Potter”. A series of textual references and allusions are once more brought together by the author under the roof and between the covers of a single text. It remains to see exactly what she’ll do with all this wealth of material. One thing is for sure, I’m definitely looking forward to it.

    To be fair though, I wouldn’t have learned about any of this if Nick Jeffries hadn’t sunk the well in the first place. So credit where it’s due. Thanks Nick!

  5. Nick Jeffery says

    Wonderful analysis, thank you Chris!

  6. Bonni Crawford says

    Fascinating stuff, thank you!

  7. Nick,

    I’m just embarrassed I got your name wrong.

    Sorry about that.

  8. Beatrice Groves says

    Thank you Chris and Nick – lots of food for thought here! It is very satisfying that the possible Chapman reference might bring us back to the Keats speculation… and certainly that sonnet is one of – if not the? – most famous in the post-Shakespeare canon. It speaks to something close to Rowling’s heart, as well as Keats’s, as both of them came to the classics in translation. (There is a lovely reference to this sonnet in Swallows and Amazons, incidentally!)
    Time to dust off Bussy D’Ambois….

  9. Nick Jeffery says

    Nabokov also references this in Pale Fire. According to Wikipedia, ‘John Shade mentions a newspaper headline that attributes a recent Boston Red Sox victory to “Chapman’s Homer” ‘

  10. Prof. Groves,

    “Swallows and Amazons” is one of those text I keep hearing about as important literary landmarks, though I’ve never really hunkered down to examine it. I may have to remedy that after this.


    Thanks for the VN catch. Good job.

  11. Beatrice Groves says

    It is a charming and gentle book, esp. if you have any love for the Lake District. When I was child I sailed to Wild Cat island on a boat called Swallow – so it has a real magic for me!

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