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Recently acquired Nancy Cunard typescript documents a dreamy connection to poet John Keats

By Emily Neie

On December 31, 1956, writer and political activist Nancy Cunard visited the Keats-Shelley House in Rome. She went there to contribute an account of one of her earliest, most intimate experiences as a young writer and to memorialize her connection with one of the most important figures of the Romantic period, John Keats. Although Keats had been dead for many years before Cunard was born, she vividly remembered meeting him—in a dream.

 

Cunard writes that the dream occurred when she was 15 years old, during “a summer of adolescence” when she was “troubled by her own lines and words.” She had read nearly everything Keats had written, “knew much of him by heart,” and believed herself “in love with him.” In the dream, the likeness of Keats told Cunard that she “should write, that [she] should be a poet.” Cunard was moved by the dream and continued to feel connected to Keats throughout her life. She signed off the piece she prepared for the Keats-Shelley House by writing, “thus, to the treasure of this house, I offer my small leaf… with love, and with a tear.”

 

Cunard’s dramatic prose reflects her own dynamic life and personality. The British writer and political activist was the daughter of a baronet. She attended private schools in London, Germany, and Paris, where she met the friends who would later call themselves the “Corrupt Coterie.” Despite her privileged upbringing, Cunard was quick to jump into the fray of political activism and regularly spoke out against fascism and racism.

 

The Ransom Center recently acquired several items relating to Cunard’s pilgrimage to the Keats-Shelley House in Rome, including Cunard’s personal copy of Neville Rogers’s book Keats, Shelley & Rome: An Illustrated Miscellany. Other related materials were laid in the pages of the book, including a postcard sent to Cunard by Vera Cacciatore—then curator of the Keats-Shelley House and a friend of Cunard—and a letter sent by Cacciatore, thanking Cunard for a recent review on Byron and imploring her to visit again.

 

One highlight of this acquisition is the original typescript Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House, her four-page account of her childhood dream of Keats. These materials join the Ransom Center’s extensive Cunard collection, the bulk of which were acquired between 1969 and 1977. The collection includes manuscripts of her works, personal papers, and correspondence, as well as poems and essays by many of her friends and associates.

 

The Center also recently acquired Cunard’s library.

 

Related content:

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The Daily Beast: Beautiful commonplace books by Lewis Carroll, Nancy Cunard, and more (slideshow)

Image: Page from the original typescript Nancy Cunard presented to the Keats-Shelley House. The document contains her four-page account of her childhood dream of John Keats.

Locks of Ages: The Leigh Hunt hair collection

By Richard Oram

Among the most popular “show and tell” items at the Ransom Center is the collection of famous people’s hair compiled by the Romantic poet and essayist Leigh Hunt. It features locks from 21 authors and statesmen, including John Milton, John Keats, and George Washington.

Scattered about the collections are many other hair samples belonging to various celebrities. The most important were taken from Charlotte Brontë (brunette), Marie Antoinette (a blond lock), and Edgar Allan Poe (a black braid, kept in a locket he gave to his sometime girlfriend Elmira Shelton). When the latter’s hair was exhibited last year for his 200th birthday, it swiftly became one of the most popular items, with younger visitors calling it “creepy.”

There is just something about hair. Composed mostly of the tough protein keratin, it survives practically forever, along with bones (thus Donne’s “bracelet of bright hair about the bone”). The Victorians had a particular obsession with hair, as documented in a recent study by Galia Ofek in her book Representations of Hair in Victorian Literature and Culture (Ashgate, 2009). In an age in which death was omnipresent, hair kept in lockets or bracelets was a way of remembering loved ones. It also had a certain fetishistic component for the Pre-Raphaelities, whose good (Millais’s Mariana) and bad (Holman Hunt’s Isabella) subjects usually had hyperactive follicles.

I had often wondered why Leigh Hunt formed the collection and how it came to us. After a bit of digging, I discovered that John L. Waltman had answered my questions about the hair collection in an obscure journal article back in 1980. Hunt’s interest in hair is well documented. He mentions the collection in one of his “Wishing Cap” essays (ca. 1830s) and wrote three poems on Milton’s hair. Part of the collection derived from Dr. Johnson’s friend John Hoole, although how and when they came to Hunt is not exactly clear. Later locks were clipped from Hunt’s poet friends, such as John Keats, Percy Shelley, and Robert Browning.

Along with Milton’s hair, which may have been removed when he was disinterred in 1790, a single golden hair from Lucretia Borgia’s head was Hunt’s prize. He described it as “sparkl[ing] in the sun as if it had been cut yesterday.” Lord Byron stole a portion of a lock in the Ambrosian Library in Milan and presented it to Hunt with a quotation from Alexander Pope: “and beauty draws us with a single hair.”

The Hunt hair collection, minus Lucretia Borgia’s strand, stayed in the Hunt family until 1921, when it was sold at Sotheby’s and purchased by Mrs. Miriam Lutcher Stark, who in turn gave it to The University of Texas at Austin. Until the late 1990s, when the album was rehoused by the Center’s Conservation department, it was still possible to touch the hair of your favorite literary celebrity; today, one can only gawk.

While the authenticity of some of the earlier locks (notably Milton’s) is in some doubt, those of Hunt’s contemporaries are presumably all genuine. They look exactly as one imagines they should: Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s curls rather like the coat of her spaniel, Flush; Keats’s wavy and luxuriantly brown; the older Wordsworth’s hair blondish, thin, and flecked with gray.

Please click on the thumbnails below to view full-size images.