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  • Analyzing Keats's Library by Genre
  • Beth Lau

In April 1819, Keats expressed his regret at having loaned various sums of money to friends over the years "which might have gradually formed a library to [his] taste."1 His impulse accords with the increasing prominence of book collecting—formal and informal, public and private, at every social level—in nineteenth-century Britain.2 Many Romantic essayists, including Leigh Hunt, Charles Lamb, and William Hazlitt, wrote disquisitions on their books, meditating on their physical appearances as well as their intellectual contents.3 In "My Books" (1823), Hunt discusses the libraries of several friends—Lamb, Hazlitt, Walter Coulson, and Henry Robertson—as well as his own. If Keats had lived longer, his library might also have been featured in Hunt's essay.4

Despite his frustration, Keats clearly valued the books he did possess, declaring in October 1819, after the expression of regret just noted, "Books are becoming more interesting and valuable to me--I may say I could not live without them" (Letters, II, 220). His 1820 "Testament" concludes, "My Chest of Books divide among my friends" (Letters, II, 319): a line of perfect iambic pentameter that might be considered the last line of poetry Keats ever wrote.5 At this time he had already given [End Page 126] several books, most of them richly annotated, to Fanny Brawne, Maria Dilke, John Hamilton Reynolds, and his brother George. In Italy he gave Joseph Severn his cherished copies of William Shakespeare's Poetical Works and seven-volume Dramatic Works.6 In Keats's mind, his most valuable property and the greatest gifts he could bestow on his loved ones were his books.

Keats's wishes were followed by his friend Charles Brown, who after the poet's death composed a "List of Keats's Books" for posthumous distribution. It contains seventy-nine titles, followed by the names of the presumed recipients.7 I have supplemented Brown's list with another thirty-one works for which good evidence of Keats's ownership exists, such as Keats's autograph signature, his marginalia, or attestation by a reliable source. Though doubtless incomplete, this list of 110 books offers valuable insight into Keats's habits as a reader and as a collector. The study of writers' personal libraries is a subject of growing scholarly interest, and although previous scholars have sought to document individual books that Keats owned and was influenced by, no one has yet analyzed Keats's library as a whole.8 The current essay provides the most complete list and the most extensive analysis to date of all the books Keats once owned, though my hope is that it may stimulate further research on the poet's books and reading practices.

My Appendix classifies Keats's 110 books by genre. Understandably, previous scholars have chiefly been interested in the literary [End Page 127] works, especially the poetry, Keats read, but this is only one of many genres he collected. The Harvard Keats Collection website claims that Keats's books "consist[ed] largely of contemporary poetry (e.g., Percy Bysshe Shelley, Hunt, William Wordsworth) and the classics (e.g., Dante Alighieri, Geoffrey Chaucer, Shakespeare)," but in fact Keats collected books more widely in accordance with his declaration that "although I take poetry [to be the] Chief, there is something else wanting to one who passes his life among Books and thoughts on Books" (Letters, I, 274).9

Certainly poetry is well represented by twenty-five editions of English verse. These include two copies each of Chaucer and Milton and three copies of Edmund Spenser. Other single-author volumes feature the poems of Robert Burns, Lord Byron (Don Juan, Cantos I and II), Thomas Chatterton, Barry Cornwall (three books), Hunt (three books), Michael Drayton, Robert Herrick, Shakespeare, and Wordsworth. Keats also owned several volumes containing multiple authors. Keats's volume of Samuel Taylor Coleridge's Poems includes works by Charles Lamb and Charles Lloyd. His copy of John Aikin's Essays on Song-Writing includes an anthology of short lyric poems, chiefly from the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, along with "Original Pieces" by Anna Barbauld. These are supplemented in Keats's...


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