Building the Morgan's Keats collection

After J. Pierpont Morgan’s death in 1913, Greene continued to make major acquisitions on behalf of his son and heir, J. P. Morgan, Jr. In the summer of 1915 she purchased two important Keats items from the Philadelphia bookseller A. S. W. Rosenbach (1876–1952): an early manuscript of Keats’s sonnet “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” and the copy of Shelley’s Adonais given to Joseph Severn. The surviving invoice shows that she paid $15,000 for these two items as well a copy of Shelley’s Zastrozzi.

“On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is the most celebrated of Keats’s early poems, composed and published in the fall of 1816. The story goes that Keats and his friend Charles Cowden Clarke (1787–1877) stayed up all night reading George Chapman’s translation of Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey (1616). The next morning Keats rapidly composed a sonnet on his transformative reading experience, likening it to the discovery of new planets or Europeans’ first glimpse at the Pacific Ocean’s eastern shore. After finishing the poem he promptly sent it back to Clarke, who was able to read it while eating breakfast.

Though scholars have long thought that the manuscript preserved at Harvard University’s Houghton Library is the original sent to Clarke, recent work has convincingly shown that the Harvard manuscript was sent instead to Joseph Severn; the original manuscript sent to Clarke, it seems, is now lost. The Morgan manuscript of “On First Looking into Chapman’s Homer” is in Keats’s hand and was given to his friend John Hamilton Reynolds (1794–1852), who later inscribed it to his sister, “To Mariane Reynolds.” We can date the text of the Morgan manuscript as later than the Harvard copy, but earlier than the authoritative version published in Keats’s 1817 Poems. The Morgan manuscript’s “Yet could I never judge what Men could mean” in line 7 would become “Yet never did I breathe its pure serene” in the 1817 Poems, while the Harvard manuscript’s “wond’ring eyes” becomes “eagle eyes” in the Morgan copy (and “eagle eyes” would remain in later versions).

Invoice from The Rosenbach Company, 17 June 1915. ARC 1310. Archives of the Morgan Library & Museum.