Archival Research: The Poetic Personalities Of Keats And His Circle

Participants on the Heath.  Not all of us, but quite a few!
May 3, 2014: Keats and His Circle Conference participants on Hampstead Heath. Not all of us, but quite a few!

Hello and happy summer!  Since I last blogged, I passed my Ph.D. comprehensive exams and spent two weeks in England.  I presented at the Keats and his Circle conference along with my fellow blogger, Arden Hegele, and of course the conference was everything a Keatsian (or Romanticist) could wish it to be. Our weekend at Wentworth Place came complete with three days of really smart and innovative Keats studies, phenomenal featured lectures, and a “Keats walk” through Hampstead. But what I will talk about today is what I learned in the week after the conference.

In order to make the most out of this trip (and reward myself for surviving comps), I stayed abroad a few extra days to travel around England and research at a few archives. And even though I spent a good amount of time touring fun locations like Highclere Castle (aka. Downton Abbey) and Chatsworth Manor (aka. Pemberley from the 2005 Pride and Prejudice film), my days in the libraries were my favorite parts of the trip.

I will resist the temptation to turn this post into a report of my research (I have already written that for my dissertation director, after all).  But I thought I would tell you some fun things I learned about Keats and his circle in my time at the British Library, the Bodleian Library at Oxford, and the Brotherton Collections at the University of Leeds.


I spent my first days of research at the British Library, since I was staying in London for the conference. In addition to some of Keats’s letters, I was privileged to work with an autograph book compiled by George and Georgiana Keats. This little family memento contained copies of poems in Keats’s hand that the poet had sent in letters to his brother and sister-in-law, as well as copies of poems made by George and Georgiana.  Much to my delight, I learned this collection includes the only surviving full manuscript copy of Isabella (titled here “The Pot of Basil”). As Isabella was the spark that initiated and shaped my Master’s thesis, the poem is very special to me, and the fangirl inside me nearly fainted to read the following heartrending passage in the poet’s hand:

And she forgot the stars, the moon, and sun,

And she forgot the blue above the trees,

And she forgot the dells where waters run,

And she forgot the chilly autumn breeze;

She had no knowledge when the day was done,

And the new morn she saw not: but in peace

Hung over her sweet Basil evermore,

And moisten’d it with tears unto the core.

While perusing this autograph book, I was always happy to see Georgiana’s copies of poems. Her handwriting was much more legible than the poet’s.  In fact, I often had to reference internet transcriptions of Keats’s letters and poems to make certain of the pieces written in his hand.  But even more than the clarity of Georgiana’s copies, I appreciated George and Georgiana’s evident care and engagement with Keats’s life work. For instance, the couple added many poems in honor of Keats to the back of the collection. But my favorite part about this compilation was “To Autumn,” copied by Georgiana. At the bottom of the poem, she included a newspaper clipping of the opening quatrain of Keats’s “Lines Written in the Highlands”:

There is a charm in footing slow across a silent plain,

Where patriot battle has been fought, where glory had the gain;

There is a pleasure on the heath where Druids old have been,

Where mantles grey have rustled by and swept the nettles green;

Maybe these added lines reveal the couple’s nostalgia for home.  “To Autumn” itself is a keen reminder of the abundant beauty of the English countryside, a keen reminder that England, family, and John are so far away from these pioneers now well settled in Louisville, Kentucky. However, I prefer to read into this newspaper clipping how George and Georgiana interpreted the 1820 poem and the poet. It seems to me that George and Georgiana thought of the poem in connection with earlier, more obviously historically-informed works.  Perhaps they treasured the idea of the political Keats and, probably better than most anyone else in his circle, they understood that the poet was always the political and historical Keats, a bard evoking a glorious past to illuminate a troubled present.


At Oxford, I turned my attention to the P.B. Shelley manuscripts available at the Bodleian.  Disappointingly, the letters were all copies (either photo copies or copies in unknown hands), unless they were written to Shelley by a minor Romantic like Thomas Peacock.  I did look at several letters between Shelley and Leigh Hunt and one letter from Keats to Shelley. The letter between Keats and Shelley featured in a paper given by Madeleine Callaghan of Sheffield University at the Keats conference. Callaghan discussed the correspondence between Keats and Shelley, giving a very enlightening reading of their exchange of writing tips. Very interestingly, Keats’s handwriting was much more regular and legible in his letter to Shelley than in his letters and poems to George and Georgiana. I didn’t need internet references at all to transcribe his hand here. This all seems very reasonable, given the very different relationships Keats had with Shelley (often a rival and certainly not a favorite for the young poet) and his family. Keats didn’t theorize literary practice or philosophize off the cuff in this letter to Shelley. While to George and Georgiana Keats would ramble, journal, and test his ideas, his advice to Shelley proves very succinct, measured and bold, though a bit self-deprecating:

Keats to Shelley, August 16, 1820: Courtesy of the Bodleian Library Website. Note the chunk missing from the side, where Shelley ripped open the wax seal.
Keats to Shelley, August 16, 1820: Courtesy of the Bodleian Library. Note the chunk missing from the side, where Shelley ripped open the wax seal.

“You I am sure will forgive me for sincerely remarking that you might curb your magnanimity and be more of an artist, and ‘load every rift’ of your subject with ore.  The thought of such discipline must fall like cold chains upon you, who perhaps never sat with your wings furl’d for six Months together.And is not this extraordina[r]y talk for the writer of Endymion? whose mind was like a pack of scattered cards – I am pick’d up and sorted to a pip.” (August 16, 1820)

One last detail from the Shelley letters that cannot escape comment: Shelley was the worst at peeling the wax seal from his letters!  He left large holes in almost every letter he received.  I had to fight the very real temptation to peel the wax from the torn bits in order to piece together the final paragraphs of many letters.  What this says about Shelley, I will leave for you to speculate upon in the comments below.  I just thought this was a really funny little quirk, and I did not see the same consistency in carelessness in the other letters I viewed.


My most productive research was at Leeds, where I spent several hours pouring over Charles Cowden Clarke’s commonplace book.  What a spectacular item! In addition to sage advice from his father, passages from histories and political essays, CCC quotes at length from Barbauld’s prose and poetry.  He also copied passages from Byron (bits of The Giaour and lines on the Prince Regent), some from Wordsworth and Ollier.  Also, the commonplace book houses several of CCC’s own sonnets, including one titled “The Nightingale,” on which John Barnard has written.

Unfortunately, CCC’s annotating practices were basic at best.  I was really excited to look at his copy of Story of Rimini, but his annotations were little more that check marks and some lines in the margins.  I examined the poem against his published defense of Rimini (a response to the Edinburgh Review’s attack of the poem) to see if there was any significant overlap with his annotations, but I didn’t find anything very fruitful. CCC’s annotations in most of his personal copies (including Keats’s 1820 volume) relate primarily to his appreciation of physical description or elegant phrasing. They do not critique content so much as style.

Sketch by Joseph Severn. Courtesy of the Keats-Shelley House site.
Sketch by Joseph Severn. Courtesy of the Keats-Shelley House.

As controlled and deliberate as CCC appears in other places, his guard seems to fall upon reading his friend’s biography. The annotations in Richard Monckton Milnes Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats can be called copious in comparison to the rest of his library.  Most significantly, CCC created a sort of index in the inside cover of each volume, where he lists topics of interest and page numbers related to the topics.  These include: Shakespeare, puns, moral courage, England, etc.  Also, I found a funny annotation: in a Keats letter copied in the volume, CCC placed an X next to “Byron’s perverted education makes him assume to feel, and try to impart to others, those depraved sensations which the want of any education excited in many”—and in a footnote below, CCC writes “He has given you compound interest for your insolent scorn, my Lord Byron” (lord has a scribble underline). And what was most touching in his annotations: on the page where Milnes copies Severn’s letters to England upon Keats’s death, CCC double-underlined Keats’s last words, and at the bottom of the page he wrote, “Oh God! Too—too awful.” I felt myself tearing up in the middle of the library reading room, and I had to work not to cry into the manuscript! I think this might have been my favorite insight into Keats and his circle of support.


Fortunately much of the material I worked with at the British Library and the Bodleian is digitized.  In fact, in the last couple of weeks, the British Library has made nineteenth century manuscripts, letters, and books available through their Discovering Literature educational website.  I’m really pleased with these little findings. I think they will be very helpful in guiding my dissertation preparation. In the meantime, I am incorporating some of my research into my NASSR paper.  See you in July, Romanticists!