Signed “J. Keats” by the poet on the front pastedown, and dated "Sept 1 1813", making this one of the earliest known examples of John Keats’s signature. The volume—signed "to his Brother George" in a second hand, with the ownership inscription "George Keats 1818" on the title-page—was presumably given to George Keats by John as he prepared to leave England for America. The volume is of exceptional rarity, representing one of six books now known to have been exchanged between the brothers, and only the second in private hands. It was uncovered in a home in Lexington, Kentucky, the city in which George Keats’s widow lived out her life. Significantly, all Keats association material with links to George has been traced back to Kentucky, where the entrepreneur established a new life, and where his estate was settled. This is only the third book belonging to John Keats to come up at auction in the last thirty years, and the first inscribed by George in over a century.
Despite the brevity of his life and literary career, John Keats secured his legacy as one of the most remarkable poets of the Romantic era. Keats—who died in Rome in 1821 at the age of twenty-five—published only fifty-four poems, which appeared in three unassuming volumes and a handful of periodicals. While his verse was appreciated by liberal intellectuals, the generally conservative reviewers of the day condemned his work as that of an upstart—or, as John Gibson Lockhart, the Scottish writer and editor once noted, that of a "vulgar Cockney poetaster." Although Keats trained as a surgeon at Guy’s Hospital, and had no formal literary education, his body of work demonstrates a wide range of poetic forms, each defined by his own unique brand of earnestness and energy. The ownership signature present here features the break between the 'e' and 'a' of 'Keats', characteristic of John’s hand. The 't'—with its clean rise and slant, and high definitive cross—is also representative of Keats’s style. The signature on the title-page bears George’s distinctive 'K', exemplified in his correspondence and elsewhere. Most importantly, this inscription—“to his Brother George 1818”—is identical to that found in John Bonnycastle’s 'An Introduction to Astronomy' (1807), which was auctioned in 1914 (the Mrs. J.F. Lovejoy sale, Anderson Galleries, New York, 12 November 1914, lot 288, USD 275.00). 'An Introduction to Astronomy' is now a part of the collection of the Huntington Library in San Marino, California.
George Keats, two years John’s junior, was one of the individuals whom the poet was closest to. “My brother George has ever been more than a brother to me,” John Keats wrote to Ann Wylie on the 6th of August 1818, “he has been my greatest friend.” George was, like so many other young Englishmen of the era, gripped by the desire to emigrate as the modern world was taking shape. While George laid plans to seek his fortune in America, John explored the role of the poet in a society being rapidly reformed by the advent of the industrial revolution. George and his wife Georgiana left Liverpool for America in late August 1818, and upon arriving in Philadelphia, the Keatses journeyed down the Ohio River. The couple wintered in John James Audubon's home in Henderson, and after a failed investment in Audubon’s steamboat venture, the Keatses moved to Louisville, Kentucky, in early 1819, where George established a sawmill and became an influential member of the burgeoning community. After George's death, Georgiana married John Jeffrey, eventually moving with him to Lexington, Kentucky. Jeffrey had taken possession of what little property his wife had—including John Keats’s letters and autograph poems—and in 1845 had copied (or as was often the case, miscopied) some of this material for the use of Richard Monkton Milnes, one of John Keats’s earliest biographers. Georgiana died in 1879, and John Jeffrey in 1881. In the absence of a will, Jeffrey’s estate was disposed of by his brother Alexander, and three court-appointed appraisers. The present volume was in the possession of a prominent Lexington family, who had occupied the same historic home for more than 120 years.
Material autographed or owned by John Keats rarely turns up at auction owing in part to the fragmented dispersal of his work and possessions. Famously, it was John Keats’s testamentary request that his “Chest of Books” be divided among his friends and family, a wish that was executed by Charles Brown, one of the poet’s closest friends. Brown, however, believed that George had intentionally taken money from John, leaving him impoverished throughout his illness, and dependent on the charity of friends. While theories surrounding a rift between the brothers have been largely dispelled through recent scholarship, examples of texts exchanged between John and George remain exceedingly rare.
In addition to John Bonnycastle’s 'An Introduction to Astronomy', two other association volumes were offered in the Lovejoy sale at Anderson Galleries in 1914. The first of which to appear in the sale was Keats’s copy of 'The Works of Mr. Edmund Spenser' (only the first volume of six, 1715), annotated by John, but signed by George and dated 1816 (lot 286, USD 900.00). This is now a part of the extensive Keats collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library. The second was Oliver Goldsmith’s 'Grecian History' (2 vols., 1805), which bore a similar inscription to the volume present here: “To George Keats, 1818” (lot 287, USD 215.00). 'Grecian History' has remained in private hands for the past century. Significantly, prior to Mrs. Lovejoy’s ownership if it, all of the association material offered through this sale had been in the possession of Mrs. John H. Morgan, who was the niece of John Jeffrey.
Despite the difficulty with Brown’s dissemination of John’s modest library, in the early 20th century, major institutions began acquiring the bulk of Keats's letters, manuscripts, and books. To the present, only 28 books belonging to Keats have been identified; twenty-five being listed by Frank N. Owings, Jr. in 'The Keats Library' (c. 1978), with three more coming to light since its publication (Lau, p. 344, note 25). The last book belonging to John Keats to be offered at auction was in 2014 (Tacitus, 'Orationes Omnes', bearing the ownership inscription "John Keats His Book"— Bonham’s London, 18 June 2014, lot 132, GBP 43,750). Prior to this, the last volume belonging to Keats to come up at auction was in 1985 (Sackville, 'The Poetical Works', inscribed “John Keats 1820” on the title-page — Sotheby's New York, the Paul Francis Webster sale, 24 April 1985, lot 55, USD 8,800).
Texts owned or annotated by Keats are tremendously desirable, not simply owing to their rarity, but because of the poet’s susceptibility to influence. Quite simply, much of Keats’s poetry—though it is inarguably and uniquely his own—is the result of other poetry. This renders any material from Keats’s library not only useful when piecing together the details of a remarkably brief life, but also an invaluable element of any critical study surrounding the poet’s body of work. Indeed, rather than dismantling texts—as his Romantic counterparts such as Coleridge and Blake were known to do—Keats lost himself in them. He revered the written word, and his wish to divide his “Chest of Books” amongst his friends as his death loomed, is indicative of his desire to see the works he was so affected by shared with those he loved best. It was a way of measuring out a life that was fast waning. The volumes presented to George Keats as he prepared to emigrate can be viewed as a moving foreshadowing of this event. John Keats was upset by his brother’s decision to leave England, but he nevertheless accompanied George and Georgiana to the port of Liverpool. As John Keats bade his brother farewell, he demonstrated his love for his “greatest friend” through sharing his own volumes of science, history, and verse—through offering up something so essentially a part of himself.
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