My Chest of Books

‘My Chest of Books divide among my friends

- John Keats

Charles Brown distributes Keats’s books

The printed title page of a copy of ‘The Poetical Works of Robert Burns’, published in 1817, which was owned by John Keats.
The Poetical Works of Robert Burns. London. Cadell and Davies. 1817. Title page. George Keats gave the book to his brother Tom in 1818. After Tom’s death it was in John Keats’s library. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/036.

On 14 August 1820, before he left for Italy, Keats wrote to his publisher John Taylor. He enclosed with the letter a piece of paper on which he had written ‘In case of my death this scrap of Paper may be servicable [sic] in your possession.’ At the top he added ‘My Chest of Books divide among my friends.’ Taylor wrote to Joseph Severn in April 1821:

[…] in a little will […] which […] constitutes me a kind of executor, he desired me to divide his books among his friends.

Keats’s will is now in The Morgan Library in the USA and you can read it here.

But Keats’s ‘Chest’ containing his books was at Wentworth Place, and it was Keats’s friend Charles Brown, who also considered himself ‘Keats’s literary executor’, who distributed them. Around July 1821, Brown made a list of the 79 books he found in the ‘Chest’. He kept some books for himself and made a list of friends to whom he distributed the remaining books. The list did not include Keats’s brother George, who complained later that ‘Not a single volume, Picture, bust, Cast – is reserved for me’. Fanny Brawne is also missing from Brown’s list, although she had already been given a number of books personally by Keats.

It took Brown some time to distribute the books. Fanny Brawne wrote to Fanny Keats early in 1822, ‘Mr Brown desired me to give you his compliments and to tell you that he has a large bible and prayer book which belonged to your grandmother which, if you like to have, he will send by the carrier, he considers them as a sort of family relic and that you have the best right to them.’ The ‘large bible’ was a copy of Southwell’s ‘Family Bible’ in which were recorded the birth and baptism dates of members of the Jennings family (Keats’s mother’s side of the family). Both books have long since disappeared, and only the flyleaf recording the family details remains with Fanny Keats’s descendants.

Brown’s list is now in the The Morgan Library.

Brown’s list, page 1.

Brown’s list, page 2.  

Brown’s list, page 3.

The list was published in ‘The Keats Circle’ and you can read it here.

Keats’s library included works in Latin and in French and the list is a valuable record of the books he owned and borrowed. Brown aimed to return the borrowed volumes and then distribute the others to Keats’s friends, while keeping some for himself. Most of the books in Keats’s ‘Chest’ have disappeared, but a few have survived. Some of the books that were not in Keats’s ‘Chest’, such as those he gave to Fanny Brawne, John Hamilton Reynolds and George Keats, have also survived. They are now in collections such as that at Keats House and the Houghton Library at Harvard University. Here for you to explore are links to a selection of the books that were in Keats’s ‘Chest’, with some notes on the copies that have survived.

Fairfax’s Tasso, 8vo, 1 vol.

Brown kept Keats’s copy of this book, and it is now part of the personal library of Charles Armitage Brown and Thomas King, in the Puke Ariki museum and library, New Plymouth, New Zealand.

Hazlitt’s Principles of Human Action, 8vo, 1 vol.

Aikin’s History of the Year, 12mo, 1 vol.

Shelley’s Cenci, 8vo, 1 vol

Adam’s Roman [Antiquities], 8vo, 1 vol.

Davies’ Celtic Researches, 8vo, 1 vol.

Spelman’s Xenophon, 8vo, 1 vol.

Ovid’s Metamorphoses, 18mo, 1 vol.

Coleridge Lamb & Lloyd, 8vo, 1 vol.

Livy’s Roman History (1686), folio, 1 vol.

Keats’s friend Benjamin Bailey gave him a copy of this book in July 1818. It is now in the collection at Keats House.

Selden’s Titles of Honour, folio, 1 vol.

Keats purchased a copy of this book in 1819, probably while working on his abandoned play, ‘King Stephen’. It is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University.

Hunt’s Juvenilia, 8vo, 1 vol.

Fencing familiarized, 8vo, 1 vol.

Burton (abridged), 8vo, 1 vol.

Greek Grammar, 8vo, 1 vol.

Conducteur à Paris, 12mo, 1 vol.

‘This work may have been purchased by George and Tom Keats when they visited Paris in September 1817. […] Inexpensive, practical guides like Keats’s copy were usually left unbound (as is noted on Brown’s list) and often discarded after use. Keats may have kept his brothers’ copy in hopes of making a future trip to Paris […]’.

- From Beth Lau, ‘Analyzing Keats’s Library’. Keats’s copy is lost.

Burns’ Poems, 18mo, 1 vol.

George Keats probably gave a copy of this book to Tom Keats as a parting present when he emigrated to America. After Tom’s death in December 1818 it passed to Keats, and after Keats’s death Brown took it with him to New Zealand when he emigrated. It is now in the collection at Keats House.

Baldwin’s Pantheon, 8vo, 1 vol.

Guzman d’Alfarache, folio, 1 vol. 

Keats was given a copy of this book by his friend James Rice. Brown returned it to Rice after Keats’s death. The book is now in the Houghton Library at Harvard University. 

Ben Jonson & Beaumont & Fletcher, 8vo,4 vol.

Volume 1

Volume 2

Volume 3

Volume 4

A copy of these four volumes of the plays of Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher was given to Keats by his brother George. There is an inscription on the title page of volume two which reads ‘Geo. Keats to his affectionate Brother John’. Volume four contains two poems by Keats, ‘Bards of Passion and of Mirth’ and ‘Spirit here that reignest’. Both poems date from 1818. After Keats’s death Brown kept the volumes and took them to New Zealand. After his death they were sold and volume one was lost, but Brown’s son obtained the other volumes and sent them to Sir Charles Dilke in England. Volumes two, three and four are now in the Keats House collection.

 A hand-written poem by John Keats on a blank page of volume four of ‘The Dramatic Works of Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher’.
‘Spirit here that reignest’ by John Keats. Written in volume four of The Dramatic Works of Ben Jonson and Beaumont and Fletcher. 4 volumes. London. Stockdale. 1811. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/009.

The Keats200 bicentenary is a celebration of Keats’s life, works and legacy, beginning in December 2018 through to February 2021 and beyond. It is led by three major partners – Keats House, Hampstead, The Keats Foundation and the Keats-Shelley Memorial Association – and is open to all individuals and organisations who have an interest in Keats or poetry. The bicentenary of Keats’s most productive years as a poet, and the period when he found inspiration, friendship and love, is an exciting opportunity to (re)discover and enjoy his works as well as engage with poetry and its ongoing relevance to us all today.

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