An Emblem of Keats’s Celtic Romanticism
This exquisite palm-sized, gilded edges, soft leather-bound classics, Odes, Sonnets, and Lyrics by John Keats (1795-1821), published in 1908 by The Century Co. in New York, is rare. So rare is its Celtic-style book cover design—making it emblematic of Keats’s Celtic Romanticism.
Nearly all book cover designs on Keats’s works nowadays use Roman and Greek backgrounds; hardly do these modern book cover designers recognize that the essence of Keats’s spirituality roots more in Celtic Romanticism than in Roman and Greek.
During his lifetime, Keats, just like Celtic Romanticism, was marginalized. His works were poorly received, and Lord Byron, representing an elitism that ostracizes Keats, even went so far as to call Keats’s works as forms of intellectual “onanism”.
Celticism, thus, became a perfect match for Keats because it offered him a vehicle to resist against the aristocratic literary establishment in which classical learning distinguished ranks and breeding. The fairy-faith in Celticism, also experiencing a resurgence at the time, was also more suited to his fluid and flighty verses which open to endless possibilities and create ambiguity in interpretations: His verses, one must remember, are anti-establishment political statements that can hardly be grounded.
The lyre harp on the front cover and the bird (perhaps, it is Keats’s Nightingale) on the back capture the ethereality and elusiveness of Keats’s works. This book cover design, interestingly, appears to remind us not to overlook the Celtic influence in Keats’s works.
This book comes with a Preface by Edmund Clarence Stedman (1833-1908) and a Note by Richard Watson Gilder (1844-1909), both American poets and critics. Gilder’s account of his traveling to Rome in 1879 to meet with John Keats’s friend and portrayer, Joseph Severn (1793-1879), an English painter, offers us another direct testimony of Keats’s close acquaintance, also Keats’s last before he died. Severn accompanied Keats to Italy in 1820 in an attempt to cure his tuberculosis in a warmer climate, but Keats died within months.
Shell-Patterned End Sheets
Opening the book, you can see the beautiful vintage shell-patterned marble end sheets in light and deep earthy brown, lines in milky-white, invariably imbued with spots of saffron-yellow. The shell pattern was introduced in the late eighteenth or early nineteenth century, and, unlike the stone pattern, the shell pattern had a small amount of oil added to the paint to create changing layers and depths. Here, the colors of these end sheets were, patently, selected to match the soft leather cover and, perhaps, to mirror the tectonic shifts of Keats’s poetic landscapes.
The small book well captures the essence of Keats: nothing epic, but delicate emotions of life, of life against the big currents.
The condition of this book is good, with its edge looking a bit brittle, but nothing peels off. This soft leather book more than a century old has weathered the test of time well. leather tooling is still sharp, with shining gilded edges. No loose pages, very clean inside. WorldCat.org records only three copies (1908) in circulation, all in different colors, dark blue, dark brown, and light brown, which is our copy.
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