This week’s feature is a book, or rather, a three volume set of books, which at first glance present the life works, letters and literary remains of the influential poet, John Keats, but beneath the surface, it also winds together the tales of two very interesting nineteenth century men.
Within one tragic decade John Keats lost his father, a livery stable keeper, to a skull fracture incurred when he was thrown from an agitated horse, then lost his mother to tuberculosis (the disease that would later claim his brother’s and then his own life) and had his guardianship signed over to Richard Abbey; a prosperous but miserly tea merchant. Far from sitting with the young boy drinking cups of fresh tea and sharing tricks of the trade, and valuable life insights, Abbey instead had very little interest in Keats, saw nothing remarkable about him at all, and pulled him from school by sixteen years of age to apprentice him to an apothecary-surgeon.
When his apprenticeship ended however, Keats turned abruptly from the world of infected wounds, unanesthetized surgeries and dreadful human suffering that was the reality of nineteenth century medical practice, and turned his focus inward instead into the deep perceptions of his mind, which dipped well below the surface of the senses. From here he produced the works of poetry that would place him among the greatest romantic poets of his time.
Keats’ first attempts at poetry publications however, were met with ridicule, called “self-indulgent,” and “childish,”¹ and critics urged him scornfully to return to apothecary. It was not until he settled in Hampstead, and fell in love that he became truly inspired and rose to his potential, producing some of his most esteemed poems like: Ode to a Grecian Urn, and Ode on a Nightingale as well as the beautifully poetic love letters composed for his love, Fanny Brawne to whom he was engaged.¹
It was all too soon after Keats began to win the favour of critics, and just before his acclaimed third volume of poetry was to be published in July 1820 entitled, Lamia, Issabell, The Eve of St Agnes and Other Poems, that Keats coughed up blood. It was a sign his medical knowledge would not allow him to ignore, and he admitted to his close friend Charles Armitage Brown, “I know the colour of that blood, I cannot be deceived in that colour; – that drop of blood is my death warrant; – I must die.”¹
The little poetry he had time to produce may too have drifted away and been submerged forever, if not for the interest of Richard Monckton Milnes. Milnes was the first baron Houghton, an author, poet, politician, voracious collector of rare books and curiosities, host of lavish breakfast parties for many prominent societal figures, and described by his literary friend Thomas Carlyle as, despite a dilettante manner, “a most bland-smiling, semi-quizzical, affectionate, high-bred, Italianized little man, who has long olive-blonde hair, a dimple, next to no chin, and flings his arm around your neck”³
Although his own poetry is said to lack inspiration, and to be generally forgettable, Milnes was credited with the ability to discern poetic talent in virtually unknown writers, and to bring their work into the public eye. Arguably his most important such venture was rescuing Keats from obscurity through the publication of Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats in 1848, .³
Milnes was a paradoxical man, whose nature and interests contained much contradiction. As described by literary biographer Richard Davenport-Hines:
He was the most attractive type of ameliorative reformer who knew the corruption of humankind and had no zeal for purifying humanity or purging error; no one could have been less like De Maistre. His compassion was the counter-side to his candid interest in punishment and venality. He voted for the abolition of capital punishment in 1840 and yet collected the autographs of hangmen; his visit to the public execution of François Courvoisier is described in Thackeray’s essay ‘Going to See a Man Hanged’. Though he supported franchise extension to the working class and women’s suffrage, his pamphlet Thoughts on Purity of Election (1842) argued that bribery was not only essential but beneficial in politics. In 1846 he introduced the bill establishing reformatory schools for juvenile criminals, and was afterwards president of Redhill Reformatory; yet he was fascinated by flogging and collected books on flagellation, which constituted part of his extensive collection of pornography.³
Indeed Milnes was fascinated by contradiction in general, and would often bring together figures whose values and standpoints were publicly contradictory in order to observe the collision of such views at his famous breakfasts.³
Milnes travelled extensively, and his impressive literary collection included signed letters, manuscripts, rare editions, a staggering amount of erotica and curiosities like a lock of Keats hair, and the skin of a murderer inserted in the pages of a volume of criminal trials.³
The 3-volume set of Milnes’ publication Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats displays, in addition to the remnants of Keats life, the remnants of its own path as well; from the printing presses in London, England, to Juniper Books in Windsor, Ontario. The signature of Milnes’ wife (and later ex-wife) scrawled in the front of one of the books tells of its time on her book shelves or resting on a coffee table in her living room perhaps, the bookplate stickers in the front announce its arrival in Windsor in the hands of Barbara Bernstein and Merton Bernstein; a former doctor here in the city. For now they rest at Juniper Books, continuing on the purpose given them by Richard Monckton Milnes, of sharing the great works of an inspired poet with the world.
1. Shmoop Editorial Team. “Works Cited in John Keats” Shmoop.com. Shmoop University, Inc., 11 Nov. 2008. Web. 6 Dec. 2012. http://www.shmoop.com/john-keats/childhood.html
2. Poets.org. John Keats. 1997-2012 web. 7, December, 2012. http://www.poets.org/poet.php/prmPID/66
3. Oxford Dictionary of National Biography. Milnes, Richard Monckton. 2004-2012 web. 7, December, 2012. http://www.oxforddnb.com/view/printable/18794 (Richard Davenport-Hines)