The Hand of the Poet: Poems and Papers in Manuscript
Rodney Phillips, Susan Benesch, Kenneth Benson, and Barbara Bergeron
The Hand of the Poet provides a personal, intimate connection with poetry and its creation. One hundred poets, ranging from John Donne and William Blake to Stanley Kunitz and Julia Alvarez, are represented by biographical sketches, illustrations (all from the Library's collections), and poetry excerpts. Emphasis is on poetry-as-process, with many poems shown in early drafts; some of these poems would undergo extensive revision before, and even sometimes after, their first appearance in print. The volume also includes essays by poet Dana Gioia about the value of literary manuscripts and the history of the Berg Collection, and a bibliographical essay by Rodney Phillips offering suggestions for further reading.
"I think what poets love most is the labor of poetry itself, that deeply absorbed work. This collection brings it alive like nothing I've seen."
-- Robert Hass, former U.S. Poet Laureate
Inspired by an enormously successful exhibition organized by The New York Public Library's Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, The Hand of the Poet provides a personal, intimate connection with poetry and its creation. One hundred poets, ranging from John Donne and William Blake to Stanley Kunitz and Julia Alvarez, are represented by biographical sketches, illustrations (all from the collections of The New York Public Library), and poetry excerpts. Emphasis is on poetry-as-process, with many poems shown in early -- sometimes wonderfully messy -- drafts; some of these poems would undergo extensive revision before, and even sometimes after, their first appearance in print.
The personal side of poets and poetry is shown through manuscripts of a poem written by Elizabeth Bishop for Robert Lowell, and the poem he wrote for her in response; a typescript of a poem Muriel Rukeyser wrote for her son, accompanied by a snapshot of the poet with the newborn child; photos of Robert Lowell with his daughter, Randall Jarrell with the cat to whom he gave his wartime meat rations, Donald Justice (who abandoned a music career for one in poetry) at the piano, and James Schuyler in his poetically cluttered Chelsea Hotel apartment. Also illustrated is an assortment of realia from the Berg Collection: a pencil made by Henry David Thoreau in his family's pencil factory, Elizabeth Barrett Browning's slippers and lorgnette, a wild flower pressed by Edward Thomas into a manuscript notebook, and poet and civil servant Humbert Wolfe's CBE medal.
The Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature, one of the world's most celebrated collections of rare books and manuscripts, was presented to The New York Public Library in 1940 by Dr. Albert A. Berg, a well-known New York surgeon, in memory of his brother, Dr. Henry W. Berg. The collection covers the entire range of English and American Literature, with special emphasis on the 19th and 20th centuries. The collection is rich in both manuscripts and first editions of Samuel Johnson, Mark Twain, Charles Dickens, Lewis Carroll, and Jack Kerouac, among many others. Among its treasures are the typescript of T. S. Eliot's The Waste Land, with Ezra Pound's handwritten changes, and the holograph novels, diaries, and letters of Virginia Woolf. Recent additions include the papers of Vladimir Nabokov.
Rodney Phillips was Curator of the Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
Susan Benesch is a New York-based freelance writer. Kenneth Benson and Barbara Bergeron are editors in the Publications Office of The New York Public Library.
Poets represented in the volume:
W. H. Auden
Imamu Amiri Baraka
Elizabeth Barrett Browning
William Cullen Bryant
Samuel Taylor Coleridge
E. E. Cummings
T. S. Eliot
Ralph Waldo Emerson
Oliver Wendell Holmes
D. H. Lawrence
Henry Wadsworth Longfellow
James Russell Lowell
W. S. Merwin
Edna St. Vincent Millay
Percy Bysshe Shelley
Robert Louis Stevenson
Alfred Lord Tennyson
W. M. Thackeray
Henry David Thoreau
William Carlos Williams
William Butler Yeats
Sample Entry: John Keats, 1795-1821
John Keats -- the London-born son of a prosperous livery-stable manager -- was a pugnacious, ardent, generous, and high-spirited youth who cared little for books, at least in his early schooldays. A classmate later reminisced that he was possessed of an absolute "penchant" for fighting, that thrashing friends, brothers -- anyone -- was "meat & drink" to him. But by age 14, Keats's passion was literature, which "he devoured rather than read." Orphaned in 1810 when his mother died, probably of tuberculosis, he was apprenticed to an apothecary. He later trained -- halfheartedly -- in surgery, often penning doggerel instead of taking proper notes during anatomy lectures. In December 1816, Keats finally abandoned medicine for poetry, flabbergasting his guardian, who called him a "Silly Boy."
Keats's second book, the woefully ambitious Endymion (1818), was savaged by the Tory press. Blackwood's sneered: "It is a better and wiser thing to be a starved apothecary than a starved poet; so back to the shop Mr John." Undeterred, Keats entered a period of rapid intellectual and poetic development, beautifully charted in his remarkable and moving letters. With astonishing speed, supreme confidence, and the greatest artistic mastery, Keats wrote virtually all his major poetry between January and September of 1819. This amazing creative flowering could not last.
On February 3, 1820, Keats coughed blood for the first time ("That drop of blood is my death warrant. I must die."). Here began the final phase of an excruciating danse macabre with the disease that had claimed not only his mother, but -- little more than a year before -- his beloved younger brother, Tom. He traveled to Italy in a desperate effort to regain his health, but died there on February 23, 1821, directing that the epitaph for his Roman grave be inscribed "Here lies one whose name was writ in water."
Oscar Wilde on John Keats:
... who but the supreme and perfect artist could have got from a mere colour a motive so full of marvel: and now I am half enamoured of the paper that touched his hand, and the ink that did his bidding, grown fond of the sweet comeliness of his charactery, for since my childhood I have loved none better than your marvellous kinsman, that godlike boy, the real Adonis of our age.... In my heaven he walks eternally with Shakespeare and the Greeks....
-- Oscar Wilde, letter to Emma Speed (née Keats), the poet's niece, in March 1882, thanking her for the gift of the original manuscript of Keats's "Sonnet on Blue," after he lectured in her hometown of Louisville, Kentucky
Joseph Severn. Portrait of John Keats. Engraving, after the 1819 miniature by the artist. Inscribed, at the bottom of the print, "3rd proof Jan 1883." NYPL/Carl H. Pforzheimer Collection of Shelley and His Circle.
The artist Joseph Severn sailed to Italy with Keats in September 1820 and attended him in his final illness. He wrote that Keats struck one immediately by "a peculiarly dauntless expression, such as may be seen in the face of some seamen" and that he was graced with "hazel eyes of a wild gipsy-maid in colour, set in the face of a young god." Almost all of Severn's numerous portraits of Keats (except the well-known 1819 miniature, on which this 1883 engraving is based, and the haunting sketch of Keats on his deathbed) are posthumous and are, undoubtedly, rather idealized representations of the poet.
John Keats. "Ode on Melancholy." Holograph manuscript of the third and last stanza of the poem, ca. May 1819. NYPL, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
A work of beautifully modulated despair and supremely controlled utterance, Keats's "Ode on Melancholy" explores the poet's painful sense that joy is inseparable from sorrow, that beauty is always transitory. This manuscript -- a draft of the poem's third and final stanza -- was originally attached to another sheet on which Keats had drafted the poem's first two stanzas. That sheet -- brought to America by the poet's brother George in 1820, and later given by him to John Howard Payne, the actor, playwright, and lyricist of "Home Sweet Home" -- eventually found its way to the Princeton University Library. The present manuscript was once owned by Charles Brown, a businessman with a toe-hold in London's literary circles, who was one of the poet's closest friends. His pencil sketch of Keats, which is now in the National Portrait Gallery in London, is perhaps the best portrait we have of the poet.
From "Ode on Melancholy":
She dwells with Beauty -- Beauty that must die;
And Joy, whose hand is ever at his lips
Bidding adieu; and aching Pleasure nigh,
Turning to poison while the bee-mouth sips:
Ay, in the very temple of Delight
Veil'd Melancholy has her sovran shrine,
Though seen of none save him whose strenuous tongue
Can burst Joy's grape against his palate fine;
His soul shall taste the sadness of her might,
And be among her cloudy trophies hung.
John Keats. Autograph letter to Fanny Brawne, [Mortimer Terrace, Kentish Town], ca. early-mid-August 1820. NYPL, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
When Keats's love letters to Fanny Brawne were first published in 1878, not a few eminent Victorians were shocked. Matthew Arnold abhorred a great poet's "abandonment of all reticence and all dignity." And Swinburne, recoiling from the "piteous outcries" of Keats's "wailing and shrieking agony," asserted that the letters ought never to have been printed, adding for good measure that "it is no less certain that they ought never to have been written." Intense and extravagant they are, and perhaps none more so than this wrenching letter from August 1820, in which Keats, seriously ill, writes to Fanny, probably for the last time, with a wild and bitter alloy of helpless fury and equally helpless passion. This is the letter's third and last page.
From Keats's last letter to Fanny Brawne:
To be happy with you seems such an impossibility! it requires a luckier Star than mine! it will never be.... Shakespeare always sums up matters in the most sovereign manner. Hamlet's heart was full of such Misery as mine is when he said to Ophelia "Go to a Nunnery, go, go!" Indeed I should like to give up the matter at once -- I should like to die. I am sickened at the brute world which you are smiling with. I hate men and women more. I see nothing but thorns for the future. . . . I wish you could infuse a little confidence in human nature into my heart. I cannot muster any -- the world is too brutal for me -- I am glad there is such a thing as the grave -- I am sure I shall never have any rest till I get there.... I wish I was either in your a[r]ms full of faith or that a Thunder bolt would strike me.
God bless you -- J. K --
Endymion: A Poetic Romance.
1st edition, 1st issue. London: Printed for Taylor and Hessey, 1818. Presentation copy, inscribed, from the author to Leigh Hunt. NYPL, Henry W. and Albert A. Berg Collection of English and American Literature.
Keats inscribed this copy of the first edition of Endymion (1818) to that minor poet and generous soul, Leigh Hunt. He can fairly be said to have begun, as he himself wrote, as Hunt's "élève"; but Keats's estimation of his erstwhile mentor changed rapidly, and he could be scathing. Hunt was "certainly a pleasant fellow in the main when you are with him," Keats wrote his brother George in late 1818, but he "does one harm by making fine things petty and beautiful things hateful."Reproduction information
Copyright © 2000 The New York Public Library, Astor, Lenox and Tilden Foundations
368 pages, Over 300 b/w illustrations. Published by Rizzoli International Publications, Inc., 1987.
Hardcover. $40.00. ISBN 0-8478-1958-2.