Perhaps the greatest of the Fitzwilliam Museum’s many literary treasures is the autograph manuscript of Ode to a Nightingale by John Keats (1795-1821), given to the Museum by the Marquess of Crewe in 1933.
The poem was composed two hundred years ago this May in the garden of Wentworth House, Hampstead, where Keats was living with his friend and biographer Charles Armitage Brown. It signalled the start of an extraordinary period of creativity.
To mark the bicentenary, the Fitzwilliam’s manuscript will return to Wentworth House, now Keats House Museum, for a short spell over the May Bank Holiday (3-6 May) as part of their Keats 200 celebrations.Written on two scraps of cheap paper which Keats tore hurriedly from a notebook, the Fitzwilliam manuscript is the only surviving copy of the poem in his own handwriting. It bears all the hallmarks of his intense, utterly focussed method of composing ‘in the moment’ – false starts, hurried crossings outs, re-phrasings.
These fragile pages, written only two years before Keats’ death at the age of 25, owe their survival to a succession of friends, admirers, scholars, and collectors. Later in the year, the manuscript will form the centrepiece of a display on Keats at the Fitzwilliam Museum. Assistant Keeper of Manuscripts and Printed Books, Dr Suzanne Reynolds, will also be giving a lunchtime talk about the Ode to a Nightingale manuscript on Wednesday 22 May.
Come and find out more about this precious manuscript and the story of its journey from Hampstead garden to the Fitzwilliam Museum.