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In Keats's 'Ode on Melancholy', he writes

neither twist Wolf's-bane, tight-rooted, for its poisonous wine;

Why did Keats choose to describe Wolf's-bane as "tight-rooted"?

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2 Answers 2

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It's possible that Keats is using the adjective "tight-rooted" here to keep the tone of the first half of the poem consistent, in that tight-rooted has a connotation of being trapped and imprisoned, not free to roam the world. This is in keeping with the previous mention of the river Lethe, which was associated with lethargy in Greek mythology.

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The root-structure of Wolfbane has a networks of thin roots that make their way through the soil, but also a fat, tuberous part, which is the bit that is still sold for 'herbal medicines' today.

Tubers are:

enlarged structures used as storage organs for nutrients in some plants. They are used for the plant's perennation (survival of the winter or dry months), to provide energy and nutrients for regrowth during the next growing season,...

That is, they are the part of the root structure where all the water and nutrients are collected, the bit you want to be dealing with if you want to squeeze out 'poisonous wine'.

As to 'tight', this may be describing their condition in terms of how plump and juicy they are. The relevant definition of 'tight' may then be, per OED:

Drawn or stretched so as to be tense; not loose or slack: said of a rope, etc., or of a surface

and used in a transferred sense to apply to the whole. or in the sense of

Of such close texture or construction as to be impervious to a fluid

where the skin of the tuber does not allow for the escape of liquid from within. in the same way that a tight barrel contains liquid, a tight root would then contain sap.

Dried aconite root would need to be processed with liquid to turn it into a 'wine', but fresh, plump, 'tight' roots could just be squeezed.

So, my interpretation is that Keats is describing to the plump, hydrated character of the roots that one might squeeze 'poisonous wine' from.

Underlining that the roots are characterised by their juiciness, in The Year-book of Facts in Science and Art 1857 we can read the investigations of Mr Bentley, M.R.C.C, professor of Botany and Materia Medica to the Pharmaceutical Society about the character of the root, as he explores the likelihood of the alleged common confusion between it and horse-radish accounting for domestic poisonings. he writes:

The roots of monkshood and horse-radish may be also distinguished by the different appearances they present when scraped with a knife. Thus the former will then be observed to ne of a succulent character, and the scraped portions soon to acquire a pinkish or reddish hue, while the later scrapes firm and dry, and does not alter in colour.

The readiness with which juice is obtained from the root would tend to support my view that a 'tight root' is one that contains liquid in appreciable amount.

I note also the reference to the colour change Bentley observes in the scraped flesh. if that colour change also applied to the squeezed juice, and I'm extrapolating as he doesn't claim this, then it would also support the description of the juices as being an otherworldly wine.

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