The extraordinary books and manuscripts exhibited here do more than just keep great poetry alive—they bring readers into intimate connection with John Donne (1573–1631), who did not intend his poetry for publication; the admirable and versatile Katherine Philips (1632–1664); resilient Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784), exploited and then neglected by her admirers; young and ambitious John Keats (1795–1821); Robert Browning (1812–1889) as a boy, first encountering the poems of Percy Bysshe Shelley; and Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861), the definitive poetic voice of her age.

John Donne (1573–1631). “Poems of J. D. not printed.” [Manuscript on paper]. [England, ca. 1630-33]. Bound with: Poems, By J. D. With Elegies on the Author’s Death. London: M[iles] F[lesher] for John Marriot, 1633; [and:] Juvenilia or Certaine Paradoxes and Problemes, written by J. Donne. London: Printed by E[lizabeth] P[urslowe] for Henry Seyle, 1633. Friends of the Princeton University Library.

The first line says it all: “Poems of J[ohn] D[onne] not printed.” Bound with first editions of Donne’s Poems and Juvenilia (both 1633), this anonymous manuscript compilation includes 16 elegies, problems, and lectures that were omitted from these printed editions. The manuscript embodies the intimacy of the circulation of Donne’s works among his contemporary admirers and casts interesting light on these works in relation to his published oeuvre.

Katherine Philips (1632–1664). Poems by the Most Deservedly Admired Mrs. Katherine Philips, the Matchless Orinda. London: Henry Herringman, 1667. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.

Katherine Philips (“Orinda”) earned admiration as a poet and literary pioneer. The British parliamentarian’s wife wrote some 125 poems – many concerning female friendship – and a translation of Pierre Corneille’s Pompey that became the first drama credited to a woman to be performed on the English stage. The first authorized edition of her Poems (with a frontispiece by Milton’s portraitist, Faithorne) appeared three years after smallpox took her life at 32.

Katherine Philips (1632–1664). “On the numerous access of the English to waite upon his Ma[jes]ty in Flanders,” [et al.]. Manuscript of 17 poems, written on paper. [Oxford? ca. 1675].

Many of Katherine Philips’ admirers “commonplaced” her poems within their own manuscripts of miscellaneous texts. This gathering of Restoration era poems, long owned by the Harcourt family of Oxfordshire, evidently was compiled by Oxford University students during the 1670s. The seventeen poems include anonymous Latin and French texts, three compositions by Andrew Marvell, and celebratory verses that Philips addressed to Charles II as his nine-year exile ended in May 1660.

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784). Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A[rchibald] Bell, 1773. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.

The young author of these poems was named Phillis after the boat that stole her from her West African childhood, and Wheatley after the Bostonians who enslaved her for thirteen years. A prodigious learner, she became America’s first Black published poet in 1767 and in 1773 was presented as a curiosity to London’s society elites. Manumitted in November 1773, she died in Boston eleven difficult years later, unsupported and alone.

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784). Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A[rchibald] Bell, 1773. Sid Lapidus, Class of 1959

The first edition of Wheatley’s Poems is adorned with an engraved frontispiece portrait of the author, tentatively attributed to Scipio Moorhead, who was the subject of her poem “To S. M. a young African Painter, on seeing his Works.” The volume was published during Wheatley’s 1773 visit to London with support from the dedicatee, Selina Hastings, Countess of Huntingdon. This copy is notable for bearing the author’s faded ink signature.

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784). Poems on Various Subjects, Religious and Moral. London: A[rchibald] Bell, 1773. The Miriam Y. Holden Collection on the History of Women.

In the two exhibited poems Wheatley expressed her investment in the Christian teachings of her American upbringing. “On Being Brought from Africa to America” is autobiographical, but only insofar as the poet had wrestled a spiritual gain out of her loss of freedom. “On the Death of the Rev. Dr. Sewell, 1769” exhorted the congregation of Boston’s Old South Church to heed the “warning voice” of their departed pastor, Joseph Sewall.

Phillis Wheatley (1753–1784). ‘Farewell to America’. The Massachusetts Gazette and the Boston Weekly News-Letter (13 May 1773). Purchased in 2022.

Wheatley’s early celebrity is made evident by this issue of the Massachusetts Gazette, which not only reported on her departure for London, but also published the poem that she had written for the occasion. Alluding to her own ‘health deny’d’ (verse 4), the poet hoped the English voyage would alleviate her chronic asthma, just as the Wheatleys hoped it would provide greater opportunities for finding a publisher for her work.

“I felt rather lonely this morning at breakfast so I went and unbox’d a Shakespeare – ‘There’s my Comfort’.”

John Keats, quoting Shakespeare, The Tempest, Act 2, Scene 2

John Keats (1795–1821). Poems, by John Keats. London: Charles and James Ollier, 1817. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.

In January 1818 John Keats, aged 22, inscribed this copy of his Poems with “sincere reverence” to his idol, William Wordsworth (1770–1850). The two poets had been introduced by the London painter Benjamin Haydon, who invited them to a “literary dinner” hosted by Mary Wordsworth’s cousin, Thomas Monkhouse. It appears that Wordsworth never warmed to Keats’ gift, or his groundbreaking work, cutting open very few of these pages for reading.

John Keats (1795–1821). On Melancholy. Autograph manuscript. One leaf only. Hampstead, between 26 April and 18 May 1819. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930

This manuscript by Keats preserves the opening stanzas from “On Melancholy,” one of the five “summer odes” that he composed during a period of intense creativity inspired by his beloved neighbor, Fanny Brawne. Brought to America in 1820 by Keats’s brother George, the literary relic then passed through several private collections. A matching sheet from this early version, bearing the third stanza, is in New York Public Library’s Berg Collection.

Percy Bysshe Shelley (1792–1822). Miscellaneous Poems. London: W. Benbow, 1826. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.

Late in life the poet Robert Browning (1812–1889) inscribed this book’s inner front cover, quoting from Shelley’s “Lament” (1821):

This book was given to me, probably as soon as published, by my cousin J[ames] S[ilverthorn]. The foolish markings and still more foolish scribblings show the impression made on a boy by this first specimen of Shelley’s poetry.

-Robert Browning, June 2, 1878. “O world, O life, O time!”

Elizabeth Barrett Browning (1806–1861). Aurora Leigh. London: Chapman and Hall, 1857. Robert H. Taylor, Class of 1930.

Written in Florence in the decade following Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s elopement with Robert Browning, this innovative “novel in verse” tells the first-person story of an independent woman pursuing a career as a writer in Florence. Princeton’s copy consists of proof sheets prepared for the second London edition in October 1856, with corrections jotted by Robert Browning and the author’s inscription authorizing Charles S. Francis to print a New York edition.

Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s slant-topped mahogany writing desk. (England, ca. 1840). Peter N. Heydon, Class of 1962.

Browning wrote Aurora Leigh on this desk while residing in a fifteenth-century palazzo in Florence, the subject of her poem “Casa Guidi Windows” (1851). Auctioned by Sotheby’s in 1913 after the death of the author’s son “Pen” Browning, the desk and the Brownings’ silver tea kettle were purchased by the British writer Florence Barclay. Both artifacts were presented to Princeton by Peter S. Heydon, founding president of the Browning Institute.

After George Mignaty (1824–1895). Salon at Casa Guidi, 1861 (copy by David H. Lowrey). Oil on canvas, [ca. 1980]. Peter N. Heydon, Class of 1962.

Commissioned by Robert Browning in July 1861, just days after Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s death at age 55, the original Salon at Casa Guidi, 1861 painted by George Mignaty (1824–1895) recorded the appearance of the room in which Aurora Leigh was written. In this replica, the author’s cluttered writing desk (exhibited below) appears front and center. Mignaty’s original painting is preserved at Mills College Library in Oakland, California.