Nothing but paper passed along with the breath
of its words alive with fire. Scraps of paper,
scraps of words written in fire.
—Stanley Plumly, Posthumous Keats: A Personal Biography (2008), p. 364.
Stanley Plumly’s meditation on the ephemerality of Keats’s poetry manuscripts—their miraculous survival in the face of oblivion—speaks to a theme of profound relevance to the story of Belle Greene’s Keats. Going back to the February 1818 letter and Keats’s first poetic axiom—“poetry … should strike the Reader as a wording of his own highest thoughts, and appear almost a Remembrance”—it is vital to stress the almost in “almost a remembrance.” On one hand it captures the idea of poetry as authentic imaginative expression. But the word equally signals a partial remembering, a half memory, and this idea is borne out in the extant archives, riddled with gaps, that we must rely on to tell the stories of Keats and Greene.
Despite the extensive literary manuscripts and letters that survive, Keats destroyed or neglected his papers, much of which are extant because friends took the pains to preserve or transcribe them. It is well known that the letters he received from his fiancée Fanny Brawne are buried with him in Rome. Belle da Costa Greene famously burned her personal papers at the end of her life and is even more elusive in the archive than Keats. Yet these gaps have a presence; they leave traces of writing alluded to but no longer with us. As “scraps of words written in fire,” these archival lacunae haunt the story of Belle Greene and John Keats while at once contributing to their respective mythologies.
The scraps of paper on display in this exhibition trace an activity typically invisible to museum visitors, namely the work of librarians and archivists, as exemplified by the career of Belle da Costa Greene. The exhibition’s physical location in the museum is significant in that regard, as the Rotunda is positioned mere steps away from Belle da Costa Greene’s former office in the North Room of J. Pierpont Morgan’s Library. It is there where she wrote her correspondence with bookdealers, planned the English literature exhibition at NYPL, met with Amy Lowell, and drafted the first research guide to the Morgan’s Keats manuscripts.
Re-positioning Greene in multiple spaces of the library, and in multiple stories about the library, will continue to be a major emphasis as we move toward 2024, when the Morgan will mount a major exhibition on Belle da Costa Greene to celebrate its centenary as a public institution.