Keats’ Annotated Copy of Paradise Lost is Now Online!!
Most of my focus at The Real Percy Bysshe Shelley is on Percy Shelley’s poetry and prose - and his radical politics in particular. But every now and then, it is important to draw attention to other poets in his circle; particularly those whom he admired. So today I want draw everyone’s attention to the recent digital publication of Keats’ two volume copy of Milton’s Paradise Lost. Why is this important?
Well, owned by Keats House, the volumes are usually housed in the London Metropolitan Archives and were rarely available to the general public - folks like you and me. They could occasionally be seen by lucky visitors to Keats House if they visited during one of the rare public viewings. This was very disappointing because the annotations provide, in the words of the Keats Library, “a remarkable record, not just of the poet’s response to Milton’s epic poem, but of his reading practices, aesthetic tastes, and habits of mind more broadly.” It turns out the annotations are very detailed in some cases. Just check out the image below.
From my review of the wesbite, I am able to relay the following: Daniel Johnson, the Digital Humanities Librarian from the University of Notre Dame’s Hesburgh Libraries, “worked through technical and legal issues in the acquisition of the page scans from Keats House, established transcription practices, developed the TEI-XML encoding strategy and documentation, encoded the transcriptions and developed the web site.” Anna Brown helped with transcription while Alissa Doroh provided administrative support. Greg Kucich, a Professor of English at Notre Dame, acquired a major grant and liaised with Keats House regarding logistics. Beth Lau, a Professor of English at California State University (Long Beach), who is writing the scholarly introduction, also acquired a grant, helped transcribe the text and also communicated with Keats House about logistics for the edition. These folks are owed a great debt of gratitude.
The fact we have these volumes at all is something of a story in and of itself. According to the Keats Library,
“Keats gave these volumes to Maria Dilke before he left for Italy; the second volume is inscribed “Mrs Dilke from / her sincere friend / J. Keats.” Keats’s Paradise Lost remained in the Dilke family throughout the nineteenth century. Both volumes contain C. W. Dilke’s bookplate, and they eventually were donated to the Hampstead Libraries by his grandson Sir Charles Dilke as part of the valuable Dilke bequest.”
What this all means is that you can now see this all for yourself! It is to be observed that the designers of the Keats Library website note their site is in a “beta release” format - so there is much work to be done. However, while the website itself is extremely rudimentary, it is hard to understand what is yet to be done to the digital edition itself - so wonderful is the interface and so astonishing are the high resolution images.
Is there a connection to Shelley? Most certainly. Both poets clearly revered Milton and were intimately familiar with his work. According to James Bieri, Shelley “considered Paradise Lost superior to any other poem.” Compare this with Keats who said in his annotations, “There is a greatness which the Paradise Lost possesses over every other Poem.” Shelley refers to Milton many times and some of his most famous poetic creations are clearly drawn in a manner that sets Shelley up almost in competition with his great poetic forebearer. In the Preface to Prometheus Unbound, for example, Shelley notes that “the only imaginary being resembling in any degree Prometheus, is [Milton’s] Satan.” Going on to suggest Prometheus is a more “poetical character” than Satan, Shelley then sets out to explicitly distinguish the two, noting that in contrast to Prometheus, Satan had “taints of ambition, envy, revenge, and a desire for personal aggrandisement.”
Timothy Webb noted that:
“Shelley did not go so far as to claim with Blake that Milton ‘was of the Devil’s party without knowing it’, but he did claim that ‘Milton’s poem contains within itself a philosophical refutation of that system [presumably Christianity] of which, by a strange and natural antithesis, it has been a chief popular support.’ (Shelley: A Voice Not Understood, p 169).
Frankly, I think that Shelley’s analysis here is far more clever and intellectually subtle than Blake’s. My impression, from a fast review of Keats’ annotations, is that Keats was more concerned with the artistry of Milton’s poem than he was with its philosophical underpinnings. Shelley, as usual, always goes straight for the philosophical and political implications of what he is reading. Shelley was also highly competitive in his approach to even the greatest of poets - he wants to understand the essence of what he is reading and then to build upon it - if not our do it! Whatever the case, clearly both Keats and Shelley laid great store in the poetry of Milton. And YOU now have a chance to see first hand what Keats thought about Milton’s masterpiece!!
I would be very interested to hear from readers about what this think Keats’ relationship to Milton was.