Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey

image of two copies of Homer, bound in red, on their sides

Contributor: Valentina Varinelli

Location: Keats-Shelley House, Rome

Description: Percy Bysshe Shelley’s copy of Homer’s Odyssey is on long-term loan to Keats-Shelley House, Rome, from the present Lord Abinger, the Shelleys’ heir. Homer occupied a pre-eminent position in Shelley’s personal canon, yet the existence of this copy is largely unknown. It consists of volumes 3 and 4 of the so-called ‘Grenville Homer’ (1801) bound together in one volume (the complete set would have included volumes 1 and 2, again bound in one volume, which comprised the Iliad), and it is contained in a custom-made red quarter-leather solander box with “Homer Odyssey” and “Shelley’s Copy” gold-tooled on the spine, which is both an indication and a product of the fetishisation of this volume. The recto of the second front fly-leaf is inscribed: “Percy Bysshe Shelley March 5 – 1816”. (However, the inscription is not Shelley’s autograph. Nora Crook has established that it is in fact in Mary Shelley’s hand of 1816 (private email communication).)

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The Commonplace Book of Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma

Image of an open manuscript book with a red cover

Contributor: Diego Saglia and Francesca Sandrini

Location: Salone delle Feste, tavolo 3; Museo Glauco Lombardi, Parma.

Description: This object, a commonplace book, speaks to a number of questions: What did a European female ruler from the Romantic period read? And how did she respond to the works? And was this reading also a creative, ‘writerly’ act?

Napoleon’s second wife, Marie Louise of Austria, Duchess of Parma, Piacenza and Guastalla from the Congress of Vienna (1814/15) to her death in 1847, was a keen reader who kept several diaries, akin both to English commonplace books and the French practice of extraits et mélanges. There she transcribed longer and shorter extracts from the books she read, as well as her own observations and reflections. This commonplace book in our exhibition is the most significant and representative of them. This kind of artefact was in fact a relatively common phenomenon among women (and men) of the middle and upper classes all around Europe; yet, this specific example offers insights into a woman whose life blended public and private aspects, officialdom and intimacy, in peculiar and significant ways. Mixing reading and writing, reception and creation, Marie Louise’s commonplace book may be argued to be ultimately a vehicle for authoring both one’s own book and, in turn, one’s own Romantic self.

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Transcript of Poems, by John Keats

Image of the handwritten title page of a book, reading "Poems by John Keats"

Contributor: Deidre Lynch

Location: Cambridge, Massachusetts, U.S.A.

Description: Though its title page, imaged here, identifies this as the book Romanticists know as Keats’s debut volume, and though the pages following this one contain, in the identical order and layout, each line of verse that Poems, by John Keats contained in 1817, this is not that book, not exactly. This handwritten transcription of Poems was created in 1828, seven years after Keats’s death. It was commissioned by the poet’s friend Charles Cowden Clarke, who presented it to his sister, the juvenile fiction author Isabella Jane Towers, as a birthday gift. (A notice on the page facing the book’s half-title commemorates Clarke’s gift.) As a consequence of this arrangement this book has, as this title page informs us, both an author –John Keats– and a writer, J. C. Stephens (likely a professional scrivener), whose name is referenced at the foot of the page, along with Towers’s.

The value of Clarke’s gift appears to have derived as much from the labours of that writer’s pen as from the literary content the pen conveyed. For Towers did not require this transcription as a reading copy: a (printed) copy of Poems with her ownership signature can be found at Keats House in Hampstead. Why then was this book created? It is hard to say. What we can say is that its existence challenges some of our usual assumptions about Romantic-period books and European book-culture.

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Fragment of a cancelled copper plate from William Blake’s America

Contributor: Robert Rix

Location: Library of Congress, Washington DC

Description: The poet and artist William Blake (1757-1827) printed his Illuminated Books, combining text and picture, from copper plates. The technique he used was unique and is still subject to debate. We know that he wrote directly on the copper with an acid-resistant liquid; he then proceeded to cover the plate in corrosive acid that etched away the uncovered areas of the plate, leaving text and design in relief, which was finally inked and placed in a rolling press. The exhibit shows how Blake painted text in mirror writing so that the plate, when pressed against the paper, prints in normal script. Legend has it that Blake was instructed in this peculiar printing technique in 1788, when his dead brother, Robert, appeared to him in a vision. However, Blake never gave any detailed account of how his etchings were made. The exhibit is the only surviving fragment on which Blake’s etching technique is visible. It has therefore been of great interest to critics who have tried to reconstruct how Blake made his Illuminated Books.

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Robert Burns’s ‘Kilmarnock’ Edition (1786)

Frontispiece of Burns's Kilmarnock Edition

Contributor: Gerard Carruthers

Location: University of Glasgow Library

Description: John Wilson of Kilmarnock, the printer of Robert Burns’ debut work, Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect (1786), produced only 612 copies, of which this copy is one of the only 84 that survive worldwide. Over half of these are now located in North America (Young & Scott, 2017). This should come as no surprise: an edition of Poems, Chiefly in the Scottish Dialect appeared in the United States of America as early as 1788 (first in Philadelphia, and then in New York). In contrast, it might be tempting to think that Burns must have had a comparatively limited effect on mainland Europe given that only one surviving copy of this book survives there, in the Fondation Martin Bodmer Library, in Cologny, Switzerland. The provenance of this particular copy is something of a mystery, but the story of Burns and Europe is less obscure than it might suggest.

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A Christmas Entertainment in London, Jan 11th, 1826

Pantomime playbill, 1826, for Harlequin and the Magick Rose: or, Beauty and the Beast, Theatre-Royal, Covent Garden.

Contributor: Nicola J. Watson

Location: Theatre Collection, Victoria and Albert Museum, London

Description: Nearly two hundred years ago today, you might have attended this post-Christmas entertainment at the Theatre Royal, Covent Garden in London. The programme characteristically offered a straight piece (here, Richard Brinsley Sheridan’s The Duenna) but it also included a ‘new, grand & comick’ pantomime staged by the famous composer, arranger and producer of such shows, Charles Farley (1771-1859). As nowadays, pantomime in the Regency was one of the more idiosyncratically and resolutely British forms of national popular theatre and an integral part of Christmas festivities. But, as this playbill suggests, British pantomime also drew heavily upon European literary tradition and theatrical practice, even as it staged Britain’s relation to the rest of the world in topical, patriotic and even imperialist mode.

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The notebook shared by the Shelleys, 1814-1818

Location: Library of Congress, Washington D.C., United States of America

Contributor: Anna Mercer

Description: This is the inside cover of a notebook jointly owned by Percy Bysshe Shelley (PBS), Mary Wollstonecraft Shelley (MWS), and Claire Clairmont. It was used by this close-knit group of writers from 1814-18, and is now held in the Library of Congress. The notebook accompanied the Shelleys and Claire on their 1816 travels through Europe, and contains material in all three of their hands, some of which pertains to the composition and publication of MWS’s first novel Frankenstein. Continue reading “The notebook shared by the Shelleys, 1814-1818”

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