Modern Books & Manuscripts Collection

The Harvard Keats Collection

Portrait and signature

Joseph Severn. John Keats. Ink on paper, [after 1829]. *65M-13. Gift, Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1965. Superimposed is the signature of John Keats, from his letter to Richard Woodhouse, 27 October 1818]. MS Keats 1.38.

Overview and History

There is probably no English writer more closely identified with the Houghton Library and Harvard University than John Keats. From small beginnings—a souvenir snippet of lines from “I stood tip-toe” in the autograph album of Boston publisher James T. Fields, which entered the collection in 1915—the Harvard Keats Collection has grown to the largest collection of Keats manuscript material in the world, preserving nearly three-quarters of his surviving autograph poetry, and, with 86 autograph and 24 unique transcript letters, the largest single collection of Keats’s correspondence.

   Image of speech draft

John Keats. Paper silhouette, 1819. *42M-486. Purchase, Friends of the Harvard College Library fund, 1943.

Like most of the Library’s core research collections, the Harvard Keats Collection grew almost entirely through gifts.  The defining gift was the bequest of Amy Lowell in 1925.  Lowell--poet, philanthropist, and eventual biographer of Keats--amassed the largest Keats collection in private hands, including such treasures as the rough first draft of The Eve of St. Agnes (which Lowell said taught her “more about writing poetry than anything else in the world”), manuscripts of On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer and To Autumn, and numerous letters by Keats to his publishers Taylor and Hessey and to the young woman he loved, Fanny Brawne.

If Amy Lowell defined the collection, it was Arthur A. Houghton Jr. who transformed it from a “collector’s collection” into a world-class research collection.  Houghton began collecting Keats in 1929, shortly after his graduation from Harvard.  His gift of funds to build the Houghton Library, and within it the Keats Room that forms the central feature of the upper floor, was the catalyst for great growth in the Harvard Keats Collection.  Houghton’s gifts included the Crewe Collection, collected by Richard Monckton Milnes in the preparation of his Life, Letters, and Literary Remains of John Keats; the family papers of Keats’s sister Fanny Keats Llanos; voluminous material to and by Keats’s friends, including letters and important contemporary transcripts of Keats’s poetry by Richard Woodhouse,  Charles Brown, and others; numerous presentation copies of Keats’s published works; and fourteen books from the poet’s library, including his annotated copy of Shakespeare.

Image of speech draft

Edmonton. Engraving,1806. MS Keats 10 (224) Louis A. Holman Collection. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1940.

Other New Englanders’ collections, attracted by the collections of Lowell and Houghton, have come to enrich the holdings at Harvard. Louis Holman’s collection of Keatsiana visually documents places and people associated with the poet. The comprehensive collection of editions of Keats's works formed by the sculptor John Gregory, from the first collected Galignani edition to the latest, documents the transmissions of Keats’s poetic legacy over the generations. The journals of Keats’s friend, the artist Benjamin Robert Haydon, were presented in 1977 by Willard B. Pope in memory of his wife , Evelyn Ryan Pope. Materials continue to be added, from the last leaf of Keats’s 60-page-long journal letter to George and Georgiana Keats (MS Keats 1.53), the gift of Stellita Crilley in 1995; to an album of drawings by Charles Brown, Keats’s house-mate, purchased in 2009 with the Amy Lowell Trust fund.

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Digital Resources within the Harvard Keats Collection

  Image of speech draft  

Joseph Severn. [Sketch of Keats in Rome] Pencil on paper, [1820]
MS Eng 1460. Gift, Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1970.

During his lifetime, Keats gave away many of his drafts, and following his early death his friends further dispersed them, cutting up manuscripts as souvenirs for those who loved the poetry. As Keats’s fame grew, these manuscripts became highly valuable.  This passing from collector to collector and prolonged exhibition by proud owners, combined with the “inherent  vice” of the iron-gall ink in which they were written, made the originals extremely fragile. Use of the originals at Harvard has been restricted for many years, with access primarily through photostats and black and white facsimiles.


North Front of Guy’s Hospital. Hand-colored engraving, 1815. MS Keats 10 (314). Louis A. Holman Collection. Gift, Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1940.

In 2009, Harvard’s Weissman Preservation Center stabilized and rehoused the Keats holograph material, in some instances removing old repairs that clumsily covered portions of the original text; removing silking where possible  to improve legibility; repairing tears that impinged on the text; and removing old hinges and mounts—a process designed to restore the manuscripts, as closely as possible, to their appearance when they first left the poet’s hand.  The manuscripts and letters were then digitally photographed in color, with generous funding provided by the Class of 1952 Manuscript Department Fund.

Additionally, while the project was underway, the Harvard University Library’s Open Collections Program digitized many of the transcripts and commonplace books kept by Keats’s friends, and many of the books Keats annotated, as part of its digital project Reading.  These two projects, combined, bring virtually all the Harvard Keats holograph material online, with more to be added as time and funding permits.

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John Keats. "To Autumn." Autograph manuscript, [1819] MS Keats 2.27. Bequest, Amy Lowell, 1925.

Locating and Using Images

Primary access to digital images of Keats letters and manuscripts is through the Guide to the Keats Collection. It is organized as follows:

  1. Letters by John Keats, organized chronologically. Note that the text is searchable.  The underlying text is from The Letters of John Keats, 1814-1821, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins. (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1958).
  2. Poetry, arranged alphabetically by first line.  This includes separate manuscripts, poems included in letters, and transcripts.
  3. Transcripts, including the compilations of Richard Woodhouse, Charles Brown, Georgiana Keats, Tom Keats, and John Jeffreys.

The Library holds a number of books owned by John Keats, all with markings or annotations. For convenience, a browsable list is available; these digital books are also linked to their respective HOLLIS records.

To obtain copies of images, and guidelines on use, please consult the Houghton Library’s Reproductions and Permissions page.

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Due to the fragility the of the originals, researchers are required to use the reproductions available instead. Permission to consult the originals must be approved in advance by the Curator of Modern Books and Manuscripts, who can be reached by e-mail. For general information about hours and rules for the Houghton Reading Room, see Using the Reading Room.

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Keats-related Collections at Houghton

The major manuscript and visual collections in the Harvard Keats Collection are as follows:

Photograph of Keats

Louis A. Holman, photographer. [Well Walk, Hampstead]. Photograph, 1908. MS Keats 10 (254) Louis J. Holman Collection. Gift of Arthur A. Houghton, Jr., 1940. "These lime trees, considerably over 150 years old, must have been known to Keats. The so-called 'Keats' seat' was beside the small building on the left."

Haydon, Benjamin Robert, 1786-1846.
Miscellaneous papers (MS Eng 1331.7)

Haydon, Benjamin Robert, 1786-1846.
Papers (MS Eng 1331-1331.4)

Haydon family.
Papers (MS Eng 1331.5)

Holman, Louis A. (Louis Arthur), 1866-1939.
Louis Arthur Holman collection of Keats iconography and related papers (MS Keats 10)

Houghton, Arthur Amory, 1906-1990, collector.
Arthur Amory Houghton Collection of Manuscripts Concerning Joseph Severn (MS Eng 1427)

Keats, Fanny, 1803-1889.
Papers (MS Eng 1509)

Keats, John, 1795-1821.
John Keats collection (MS Keats 1-6)

Keats, John, 1795-1821.
John Keats miscellaneous papers and portraits
(MS Keats 7)

Keats, John, 1795-1821.
John Keats portraits and artifacts (Keats Room)

Keats, John, 1795-1821.
Keats Family Books in the Harvard Keats Collection, Houghton Library (various call numbers)

Severn, Joseph, 1793-1879.
Papers (MS Eng 1434)

Other individual manuscripts, such as the Severn album of drawings, drawings by Charles Brown, Oscar Wilde’s sonnet on the sale of Keats’s love letters, and manuscripts by other Romantics such as Percy Shelley and Leigh Hunt, can be found through HOLLIS by searching under the author’s name, then limiting the search to “Manuscript” of “Visual” format material.

With the exception of the books annotated by Keats mentioned above, there is no separate, easily browsable list of the thousands of published works in the Keats Collection; however, all are cataloged and findable through HOLLIS.  For example, to find association copies of Keats’s works, use Expanded Search and search Author Words “Keats, John” limit to Location “Houghton” and Date Range 1617 to 1822.

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Other Sites of Interest

Keats House, Hampstead
Collection material includes letters written by Keats, books in which Keats wrote some of his poetry, portraits of Keats, and artifacts such as the engagement ring given by Keats to his fiancée, Fanny Brawne.

Keats-Shelley Memorial, Rome
Collections include paintings, objects, and manuscripts celebrating the lives of Keats, Shelley, and Byron, and a library dedicated to the later British Romantic poets. Examples of collection items include a reliquary containing a lock of Milton and Elizabeth Barrett's hair, a manuscript and poem by Oscar Wilde, splendidly bound first editions and letters by Wordsworth, Robert Browning, Joseph Severn, and Charles and Mary Cowden-Clarke.

British Library
The site provides images of a selection of manuscripts in the BL’s collection, including “Ode to a Nightingale.” 
Letters and manuscripts by and about Keats can be located through the Manuscript Catalogue.

Keats-Shelley Association of America
The KSA publishes the Keats-Shelley Journal and organizes and supports such landmark events as the Keats Bicentennial Conference at Harvard University in 1995, and the Mary Shelley Bicentennial Conference in New York in 1997. The Association also presents an award each year to the best new essay (see Past Recipients) on the younger Romantics, an annual Distinguished Scholar Award, and the Carl H. Pforzheimer, Jr., Research Grants.

Romantic Circles
A refereed scholarly website devoted to the study of Romantic-period literature and culture.
The site includes a searchable concordance to Keats’s poetry.

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