John Keats’s copy of ‘The Poetical Works of William Shakespeare’

Ken Page, Keats House Museum
The title page of a book, showing the title, the contents, the publisher’s details, and a date.
'The Poetical Works of William Shakspeare.' 1806. John Keats’s copy. Title page. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

‘The Poetical Works of William Shakspeare’ was published in London in December 1806 by Thomas Wilson. The book was ‘royal octavo’ in size and cost 5s, equivalent in 1810 to £11.63 in today’s money, which was 1 day’s wages for a skilled tradesman. The spelling of Shakespeare on the title page was common at the time. The book contains ‘Venus and Adonis’, ‘The Rape of Lucrece’, the sonnets, ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’, ‘A Lover’s Complaint’ and ends with a glossary, which was advertised as ‘a useful Companion to all Editions of his Plays.’

John Hamilton Reynolds and John Keats

This copy of the book was first owned by John Hamilton Reynolds. Reynolds worked in an insurance office in London but was a prolific author, publishing poems, prose and plays. He was a year older than Keats and they met at Leigh Hunt’s house in Hampstead in late 1816. It was probably Reynolds who introduced Keats to Charles Wentworth Dilke and Charles Brown, who were living in Hampstead at Wentworth Place, now Keats House. Keats’s friends enjoyed lending each other their books and giving and receiving them as gifts, and the two friends seemed to have shared this book. In a letter to Reynolds of November 1817, written from the Isle of Wight, Keats writes:

‘One of the three Books I have with me is Shakespear’s Poems: I neer found so many beauties in the sonnets – they seem to be full of fine things said unintentionally – in the intensity of working out conceits – […] He has left nothing to say about nothing or any thing.’
A printed poem, with handwritten markings in ink.
Sonnet 18, by William Shakespeare, showing text markings. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

The texts of the poems are heavily underlined and marked in the margins in ink and pencil. It is not certain who made the markings, but the majority are probably by Keats, as many are like marks that he made in his own books.  

A handwritten poem in ink, with a date and the initials of the author.
'I have no chill despondence that I am’ (‘Farewell to the Muses’). Sonnet by John Hamilton Reynolds. 14 Feb 1818. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

Reynolds recognised Keats’s superior abilities as a poet, and in 1818, at the time he began work in a solicitor’s office and had less time for writing, he wrote his poem ‘Farewell to the Muses’ in the book. Reynolds never published the poem.

A handwritten inscription in ink at the top of a title page of a book.
Inscription by John Keats. 1819. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.  

In 1819 Reynolds gave the book to Keats. Keats recorded the gift on the title page, inscribing it ‘John Hamilton Reynolds to John Keats 1819’.

A handwritten poem in ink.
‘Nature withheld Cassandra in the skies’. Translation from Ronsard by John Keats. 1818 or 1819. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

Either in 1818 or 1819 Keats copied into the book his translation of a poem by the French poet Ronsard. Keats wrote the poem in pencil, and his friend Richard Woodhouse later inked over the poem to preserve it.

The voyage to Italy with Joseph Severn, and ‘Bright Star’

Keats fell ill with tuberculosis in February 1820 and his doctors advised him to travel to Italy. Just before leaving in September 1820, he was looked after by the Brawne family at Wentworth Place, and he was then with his fiancée Fanny Brawne for the last time. He left Wentworth Place on Wednesday 13 September and sailed for Italy with his friend, the artist Joseph Severn, on board the ‘Maria Crowther’. Keats took this volume with him as well as his seven-volume edition of Shakespeare’s plays. He also owned a facsimile copy of the 1623 first folio of Shakespeare’s plays, which he gave to Fanny Brawne as a parting gift.  

A handwritten poem in ink.
‘Bright Star, would I were stedfast as thou art’. Sonnet by John Keats. 1819 or 1820. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

Early in October, while the ship was waiting for favourable winds to head south to the Mediterranean, the passengers landed briefly on the coast of Dorset. Severn later wrote:

‘Arriving on the Dorsetshire coast Keats was persuaded to land with me & for a moment he became like his former self, he showed me the splendid caverns & grottos with a poets pride as tho’ they had been his birthright & when we returned to the ship he wrote for me in a volume of Shakespeares Poems that magnificent sonnet

“Bright Star! would I were steadfast as thou art
Not in lone splendour hung aloft the skies
and watching with eternal lids apart
the moving waters at their priestlike task.

I am not aware if this was not the first transcript of this fine Poetry for it seemed inspired by our recent visit to the seacoast – I believe certainly that this sonnet was the very last poetical effort the poor fellow ever made, for his subsequent letters do not contain anything but his pathetic anticipations of his approaching fate. But this sublime sonnet inspired me with the hope that he might recover.’

Arthur Severn remembered being told another version by his father of the landing on the coast:

‘he told me now and then about the voyage out to Naples and the landing at Lulworth Cove in beautiful weather, and had time to enjoy the green grass and flowers – Keats revelling in the sunshine, running here and there, and behaving just like a boy wild with delight. Before leaving he sat down on a rock and wrote the sonnet which begins “Bright Star, would I were steadfast as thou art.” This was written on the fly-leaf of a volume of Shakespeare's poems, which he gave to my Father.’

Although it is not certain where they landed, Severn’s version of the event was the inspiration for Thomas Hardy’s poem ‘At Lulworth Cove a Century Back’, written in 1920.

Keats probably composed the sonnet early in 1819. Both Charles Brown and Fanny Brawne made transcriptions, but Severn did not know this, and for nearly a century it was thought to be Keats’s last poem. It is possible that Keats may have added the poem to the volume in 1819 and that Severn only saw Keats reading it.  

The poem is written on a blank page facing the opening stanzas of Shakespeare’s ‘A Lover’s Complaint.’ This may be significant, as the poem is usually associated with his passionate relationship with Fanny Brawne, and Keats’s departure for Italy had separated them for ever. How much he was affected by that separation is obvious from a letter he had written a few days before to his friend Charles Brown, a letter that he never posted:

‘The thought of leaving Miss Brawne is beyond everything horrible – the sense of darkness coming over me. I eternally see her figure eternally vanishing. Some of the phrases she was in the habit of using during my last nursing at Wentworth Place ring in my ears.’

Keats may also have been responding to the final lines of the preceding poem, ‘The Passionate Pilgrim’ about the death of Truth and Beauty.

 A handwritten inscription in ink with a signature at the top of the endpaper of a book.
Inscription by Joseph Severn. Jan 1821. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

In January 1821 Keats gave the book to Severn. In his inscription, Severn incorrectly writes ‘January 1820’. Keats also gave him his volumes of Shakespeare’s plays. Keats died in Rome in February 1821.  

After Keats’s death

In June 1821, John Gisborne wrote to Percy and Mary Shelley, including an extract from a letter from Colonel Finch, who had spoken to Joseph Severn. Finch wrote

‘You will be pleased with the information that the poetical volume, which was the inseparable companion of Keats, and which he took for his most darling model in composition, was, the Minor Poems of Shakspeare.’
The spine and front cover of an old book bound in yellow vellum. The book is lying down and the spine has a red label with a title.
Spine and front board. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

Severn later had the seven volumes of plays and the poems bound in Italian vellum. In 1846 he published a facsimile of Keats’s ‘Bright Star’ sonnet in the ‘Union Magazine’, describing it as an ‘unpublished [manuscript] poem.’ Keats’s friend Charles Brown had published the poem earlier in 1838 in the ‘Plymouth and Devonport Weekly Journal’, but that had a limited audience.

A handwritten poem in ink, with the initials of the author.
‘I fear’d to gaze upon her in the day’. Sonnet by Joseph Severn. Before 1879. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

At some time, Severn also added his own sonnet, 'I fear'd to gaze upon her in the day'. Severn kept the volume until his death in 1879.  

After Severn’s death

The book was included in the sale of Severn’s property in 1881 and was bought by Sir Charles Dilke, the grandson of Keats’s friend Charles Wentworth Dilke. The book was included in the Hanover Exhibition in 1890 and was then displayed at Chelsea Public Library. After Dilke’s death in 1911 it was bequeathed to Hampstead Public Library and then transferred to Keats House when it opened as a museum in May 1925. The book is now part of the Keats House collection. Part of the collection is displayed at the house and the rest is cared for by London Metropolitan Archives. The page on which Keats wrote his ‘Bright Star’ sonnet has become discoloured, probably because it has been exposed to light for too long, and the book is now displayed for short periods of time in low light.

For you to explore

‘The Poetical Works of William Shakspeare’ at the Hathi Trust.

Keats’s copy of ‘The Dramatic Works of William Shakespeare’ at the Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Joseph Severn’s facsimile of ‘Bright Star’ published in the Union Magazine, 1846.

‘Keats’s Last Sonnet’ in ‘Life, Letters, and Literary Remains, of John Keats’, edited by Richard Monckton Milnes, volume 2, 1848.

A book open to show two pages. The left-hand page shows a handwritten poem in ink with some handwritten notes below it. The right-hand page shows the title and the first two verses of a printed poem. ‍
‘Bright Star’ by John Keats, and notes by Sir Charles Dilke, facing the first page of ‘A Lover’s Complaint’. Image courtesy of Keats House, City of London Corporation. K/BK/01/010.

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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