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  • Did Keats Visit the Bodleian Library?
  • John Barnard

On March 4, 1820, John Keats, convalescing in Wentworth Place, complained half-seriously about Charles Dilke's handwriting and that of his contemporaries:

You must improve in your penmanship; your writing is like the speaking of a child of three years old, very understandable to its father but to no one else. The worst is it looks well—no that is not the worst—the worst is, it is worse than [Benjamin] Bailey's. Bailey's looks illegible and may perchance be read: your's [sic] looks very legible and may perchance not be read. … It has been said that the Character of a Man may be known by his hand writing—if the Character of the age may be known by the average goodness of said, what a slovenly age we live in. Look at Queen Elizabeth's Latin exercises and blush, Look at Milton's hand—I cant [sic] say a word for shakespeare [sic].1

The confidence with which Keats refers to the handwriting of Elizabeth I and Milton shows that he had seen examples of each either in reproduction or at first hand.

After finding no contemporary reproductions, I wondered if Keats could have seen original exemplars of both. He spent September 1817 in Bailey's rooms in Magdalen Hall, Oxford, drafting the third book of Endymion. Among the Bodleian Library's manuscripts are ones then believed to be in the handwriting of both the young Queen Elizabeth and John Milton. Could Keats and Bailey, an admirer of Milton and a full-time student at Oxford, have visited the Bodleian to see these manuscripts in the same spirit that the two men traveled to Stratford in pursuit of Shakespeare at the end of the month?

At first it seemed impossible that Keats could have seen them displayed. According to David McKitterick, the library "made no provision for the regular public display of either manuscripts or printed books until the middle of the nineteenth century," though the Oxford Almanack for 1836 depicts "table exhibition cases in the Radcliffe Camera in the Bodleian Library at Oxford."2 Not until 1868 did W. D. Macray's Annals of the Bodleian give a detailed account of the books, manuscripts, and related objects exhibited in the display cases in the "Library," an account revised in the second edition of 1890 recording their rearrangement.3 [End Page 34]

However, there is a contemporary report that at least one Bodleian manuscript was on display while Keats was staying in Oxford. In 1815 William Shepherd, together with two other Unitarian ministers, published Systemic Education, outlining a progressive course of reading. It argued that study of the classics was as appropriate for "young lad[ies]" as it was for men. "In former times, it was by no means an uncommon circumstance, for ladies of high rank to receive the benefit of a classical education." As an example it cited "Queen Elizabeth's Latin exercise book [which] is still exhibited in the Bodleian Library."4 It was still there two decades later. An American visitor to Oxford in 1837 reported seeing "Queen Elizabeth's Latin exercise-book, in her own hand-writing" among the Bodleian's "rarities."5 Although it is now thought more likely to be in the young Edward VI's hand,6 "Queen Elizabeth's Latin exercise-book" was well known at the time. It is referred to in passing by Leigh Hunt in 1811 and by the New Monthly Magazine in 1819;7 in 1818 Lucy Aikin quoted Roger Ascham's praise of the young princess's writing: "Nothing can be more elegant than her handwriting, whether in the Greek or Roman character."8

The Bodleian Library and its "Picture Gallery" were one of the sights for visitors, so Keats would have had access even without Bailey. The Oxford and University Guide for 1818 describes entering the Bodleian Library from Radcliffe Square:

on the left [is] the stair case which leads to the Bodleian Library and Picture Gallery near the entrance of which a person is in attendance, from nine to four in the summer, and from ten to three, in winter, to shew...


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