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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