“Oh, weep for Adonais—he is dead!”

Soon after Keats’s death, Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote what is arguably the most famous literary elegy in English. Yet Adonais has done much to distort its subject’s reputation, characterizing Keats as exceedingly weak and fragile—as a “nursling,” a “gentle child,” a “pale flower” withered by bad reviews. Shelley reinforced these notions in his preface to Adonais, where he attributes Keats’s death to negative press directed at Endymion:

The savage criticism on his Endymion, which appeared in the Quarterly Review, produced the most violent effect on his susceptible mind; the agitation thus originated ended in the rupture of a blood-vessel in the lungs; a rapid consumption ensued, and the succeeding acknowledgments from more candid critics, of the true greatness of his powers, were ineffectual to heal the wound thus wantonly inflicted.

Shelley gave this copy of Adonais to Keats’s deathbed companion, Joseph Severn, as recorded in a handwritten note on the title page: “J. Severn— Rome 1821 given [to] me by Shelley shortly before his death.” Severn marked several passages in the volume, including those that imagine fellow poets Lord Byron (“The Pilgrim of Eternity”) and Shelley (“a pardlike Spirit beautiful and swift”) mourning Keats. Another marked passage draws attention to the critics allegedly responsible for Keats’s decline, here figured as “herded wolves” and “obscene ravens, clamorous o’er the dead.”

The Morgan additionally owns the letter Shelley sent Severn to accompany the volume. Undoubtedly with a dose of affected modesty, Shelley characterizes his “Elegy on poor Keats” as deficient, written “before [he] could attain any particular account of his [i.e., Keats’s] last moments.” He continues with a well-known pronouncement on the literary reputation of Keats; according to Shelley, neither poet will ever become popular:

In spite of his transcendent genius Keats never was nor ever will be a popular poet, & the total neglect & obscurity in which the astonishing remnants of his mind still lie, was hardly to be dissipated by a writer, who, however he may differ from Keats in more important qualities, at least resembles him in that accidental one, a want of popularity.

Shelley also speaks to a nascent interest in Keats’s literary remains, “the remnants of his compositions”: “Has he left any poems or writings of whatever kind, & in whose possession are they?” Despite Shelley’s prediction that Keats’s work will languish in “total neglect & obscurity,” interest in his life and poetry would only increase over the nineteenth century, culminating in the first major scholarly work on the poet, Richard Monckton Milnes’s Life, Letters and Literary Remains of John Keats (1848).

Percy Bysshe Shelley, Adonais: An Elegy on the Death of John Keats, Author of “Endymion,” “Hyperion” Etc. Pisa: with the types of Didot, 1821, pp. 16–17. PML 20023. Purchased by Belle da Costa Greene on behalf of J. P. Morgan, Jr., 1915.