Before leaving for Italy in 1820, Keats made arrangements “in case of [his] death” and sent this unofficial will to his publisher John Taylor:
My Chest of Books divide among my friends.
In case of my death this scrap of Paper
may be servicable [sic] in your possession.
All my estate real and personal consists
in the hopes of the sale of books publish’d or
unpublish’d. Now I wish Brown and
you to be the first paid Creditors—the
rest is in nubilus—but in case it
should shower pay my Taylor the
few pounds I owe him.
Though owed an inheritance unfairly withheld for years, at the end of his life Keats was afflicted by poverty, with only a small library and “the hopes of the sale of books” to his name. Written in iambic pentameter, “My chest of books divide among my friends” would prove to be his last line of verse.
To help execute the will’s terms, his former roommate and sometime traveling companion Charles Armitage Brown drafted a catalogue of Keats’s library and the names of friends who had lent or given books to the poet. The list includes volumes of Keats’s favorite writers—Dante, Spenser, and Shakespeare—along with literary works by Wordsworth, Tasso, Petrarch, Chaucer, Bacon, Erasmus, Rabelais, and Ben Jonson, as well as standard classical texts like Horace and Terence along with outliers such as “Fencing Familiarized.” (Keats, however, was known for his pugnacity as a young man and enjoyed boxing.) His multi-volume sets of Shakespeare and Spenser—missing their sixth and final five volumes, respectively—are preserved at the Houghton Library of Harvard University.
The list is bound within a volume of letters, transcriptions, and documents compiled by Richard Woodhouse (1788–1834), a lawyer who worked with Keats’s publisher John Taylor and helped edit his poems for print. Woodhouse was also the first Keats collector, not only gathering letters and documents written by friends of the poet but also assembling literary manuscripts and transcribing his poems, in some cases from now-lost original sources. The Woodhouse collection at the Morgan includes copies of several well-known Keats poems, including “Day is gone, and all its sweets are gone” and “Isabella: or, the Pot of Basil,” which is transcribed in shorthand.