This book – which includes copies of John Keats’s poetry in his own hand – has travelled around the world.
In 1818, Keats’s brother George moved to America with his new wife, Georgiana. Keats was upset by the decision, but nevertheless accompanied them to the port of Liverpool on the way, then continued north for a walking tour of Scotland. In a letter to George of 14 February 1819, he is probably referring to the contents of this book when he writes “In my next packet I shall send you my ‘Pot of Basil’, ‘St. Agnes Eve’, and, if I should have finished it, a little thing called ‘The Eve of St. Mark’.” ‘Pot of Basil’ is better known as ‘Isabella; or, the Pot of Basil’.
Besides the poems mentioned in the letter – in Keats’s own hand – the book contains a number of Keats’s poems which appear to have been copied out by George; apparently from the manuscripts he often posted to the couple.
In January 1819 Keats accepted an invitation to stay with the parents of a friend near Chichester. Despite his initial reservations, the comfort and pace of life there suited Keats very well and it was here that he began to write one of his most critically successful and popular poems, 'The Eve of St Agnes', which tells the story of the elopement of Madeline with her lover, Porphyro. On the night before the feast of Saint Agnes, girls are supposed to be able to see their future husbands in their dreams. In the poem Madeline retires to bed and dreams of Porphyro who, having learnt of the ritual and gained access, is hiding in the house. Upon her waking the couple agree to marry and make their escape. The poem is richly detailed with full of intimate descriptions although Keats’ publishers forced him to tone down some of the sexual description for fear of provoking an adverse reaction from readers.
After leaving Chichester, Keats suffered a spell of depression and the need for money became more pressing. As happened frequently in his life, Keats was conflicted over whether he should give up his beloved poetry and go back to his medical career with its guaranteed income. As always, his passion for poetry won out. During the next few months he met the love of his life, Fanny Brawne, and wrote some of his finest work, including 'Ode to a Nightingale', 'Ode on a Grecian Urn' and 'Ode on Melancholy' as well as the sonnet, 'Bright Star', and the masterly 'La Belle Dame Sans Merci'.