Among the library's treasures is an inconspicuous volume of poetry titled simply Poems. This lack of pretension belies the inherent significance of the slender monograph, a first edition of John Keats' first collection of poetry, printed in London in 1817.
It could be argued that the publication's outward plainness reflects its author's own humble background. Keats, born in London in 1795, was the son of a livery-stable keeper. He was educated at the Enfield School, where he met Charles Cowden Clark, his tutor and later his close friend. Clark is credited with introducing Keats to the arts, especially poetry. He later recalled receiving a remarkable gift from Keats, the famous sonnet "On First Looking into Chapman's Homer," left on his breakfast table after an evening the two men spent together reading Homer's Iliad and Odyssey.
Keats was apprenticed to a surgeon but abandoned the medical profession upon reaching his majority in order to devote himself full time to poetry. He became friends with Leigh Hunt, a poet and journalist who would publish a few of Keats' earliest poems in his literary paper, The Examiner. Hunt touted Keats as a rising star among poets and introduced him to contemporaries such as William Wordsworth; William Hazlitt, an essayist and literary critic; and Percy Bysshe Shelley. Hunt also used his influence to help Keats publish Poems. He dedicated his first volume of poetry to Hunt in recognition of his support.
In Poems, there are echoes of Wordsworth, William Shakespeare, John Milton, Lord Byron, and especially Edmund Spenser, whom Keats quotes on the title page. Well-known titles in the collection include "Chapman's Homer" (previously published in The Examiner), "To One Who Has Been Long in City Pent," "I Stood Tip-Toe Upon a Little Hill," and "Sleep and Poetry." Though Keats' poetry is widely appreciated today, Poems was panned by contemporary critics, who labeled Keats "the Cockney Poet."
Only three volumes of Keats' poetry were published during his lifetime. The Rare Book, Manuscript, and Special Collections Library owns first editions of all three. Poems was purchased by the library in 1985 in honor of Elvin Strowd, who retired that year as University Librarian, with funds provided by Harry L. Dalton '16, Hon. '65, a longtime supporter of Duke's libraries.
On First Looking Into Keats
Selections from Duke Library
November 30, 2004