Geoffrey Keynes. The Gates of Memory. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1981, Pp. 428. $24.95.
When Sir Geoffrey Keynes began working on Blake, there was no reliable edition of the complete writings, no bibliography, and no catalogue of the separate plates. Keynes provided all these and much, much more. Few other scholars can have contributed so much of the fundemental research on a major figure, and yet Blake has been only one of Keynes’s numerous literary interests, and those interests coexisted with his brilliant career as a surgeon. The Gates of Memory provides us with a fascinating account of the “real Self” of one of the extraordinary figures of our century.
Keynes’ editorial interests seem to date back to 1902, when he met Rupert Brooke at Rugby. As a result of their ensuing friendship, Keynes began collecting Brooke’s poems; much later he would edit the Poetical Works (1946), Bibliography (1954), and Letters (1968). First authorship also occurred at Rugby with the publication of a prize essay on Roman remains unearthed in a field begin page 234 | in Cambridgeshire. (For his prize, Keynes chose the Collected Works of Aubrey Beardsley.) At Pembroke College, Cambridge, another lifelong interest developed: with his friend Cosmo Gordon, Keynes began to collect works by Sir Thomas Browne. His Bibliography of Sir Thomas Browne was to be published in 1924, and his Browne collection is almost certainly the greatest in private hands today. Another Cambridge acquisition was Henry James in the flesh. In response to an invitation from Keynes and two other undergraduates the Master replied:
You are all magnificent & I am dazzled, overwhelmed—deeply affected. I subscribe to everything, delight in the prospect of everything, give myself up to you to do with me whatever best suits your convenience—on which, indeed, through everything, I shall keep my eyes jealously & devoutly fixed. I shall have to tear myself from you on the Tuesday a.m.—& I exhibit the one invidious preference for Tea in one of your gardens (oh delirium![e]) over even the sight of your contending crews. But for the rest I am of each & all of you the grateful slave, & have gluttonously marked with rapturous accent the items of the list you have so kindly enclosed. (p. 69)The visit itself seems to have been remarkably successful, with James exclaiming at Erasmus’ tower “How intensely venerable!” and punting on the Cam with Rupert Brooke.
Keynes preparation for the medical profession began in 1910 at St. Bartholomew’s Hospital, an institution with which he was to have an enduring relationship. Outside the hospital, one of his early patients was Virginia Woolf, after a suicide attempt.
Leonard Woolf and I dashed through the streets to Bart’s in a taxicab waving aside the policemen (in the then absence of traffic lights) shouting ‘Doctor! Doctor!’ if they tried to stop us. However it was that we accomplished our task, we succeeded. The stomach pump was fetched. (p. 116)It would not be correct to say that Keynes’ medical career was interrupted by World War I, since as a doctor in a field hospital in France he performed thousands of operations and pioneered in techniques of blood transfusion that would later be adopted in peacetime. As a surgeon Keynes no more limited himself to one specialty than he did as a bibliographer. He developed an international reputation for treating both cancer of the breast and myesthenia gravis, the latter a paralytic condition that Keynes learned could be cured by removal of the thymus gland. World War II saw him in uniform once more, this time as Acting Air Vice Marshall in the R.A.F. He retired from medical practice in 1951 and subsequently gave the Harveian Oration to the Royal College of Surgeons and the Oslerian Oration at the Royal College of Physicians. These honors were highly appropriate: Keynes had published his Bibliography of Harvey, (based largely on his own great collection) in 1928 (rev. ed. 1953) and would receive the James Tait Black Memorial Prize for his Life of William Harvey in 1966, while with Sir William Osler he had enjoyed a long friendship in which medical and bibliographical interests combined.
It is astonishing to consider that so distinguished a surgeon also became the great pioneer of textual scholarship on Blake. Keynes writes of this combination of vocations:
I wanted to advance British surgery if it were possible and to have a full life, intellectually, aesthetically, and humanly, no matter how hard I had to work. Above all, I wanted the understanding and affection of friends and family. It was asking a great deal of life, but not too much. I had found Blake and his conviction that Imagination was the divine gift to the human race and believed that he was right. The gift must therefore be exercised and appreciated in others to the utmost of one’s ability. (p. 221)The stages of work on Keynes’ Blake Bibliography (1921) are recounted in Religio Bibliographici, a Presidential Address to the Bibliographical Society delivered in 1953 and reprinted as an appendix to The Gates of Memory. One cannot help envying the conditions that prevailed when Keynes began his Blake collecting. Before 1914 he obtained the seven Dante engravings from the Linnell family for seven guineas, and even in 1942 he was able to buy eleven major items (including the Ugolino recently given to the Fitzwilliam Museum) for £500. But it is not only the early under-valuation of Blake that accounts for the formation of a magnificent collection by a collector of limited means. In acquiring his Blakes, Keynes seems to have combined the astuteness of a detective with the passion of a lover. All those many Blake scholars who have enjoyed the hospitality of Lammas House can testify to the remarkably high quality of each of the treasures there, as well as to the generosity and patience with which Sir Geoffrey shared his knowledge with us, when it often must have seemed to him that we were busily reinventing the wheel.
Readers of Blake need hardly be told in detail of the significance of Keynes’ Complete Writings, first published by Nonesuch in 1927 and still alive and well, after numerous revisions, in the Oxford Standard Authors series. The checklist of Keynes’ writings on Blake from 1910 (when he published a note on “Laughing Song”) to 19721↤ 1 “Fons et Origo” by G. E. Bentley, Jr., in William Blake: Essays in Honour of Sir Geoffrey Keynes, ed. M. D. Paley and Michael Phillips (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1973), pp. 349-76. is a compendious one, and it now needs to be expanded with the works of another decade, including a third edition of the Letters. Worthy of special mention are the introductions and appendices for the William Blake Trust’s splendid facsimiles. Keynes account of the formation and activities of the Trust also reminds us once more of how much we are indebted to the late Arnold Fawcus, whose Trianon Press produced work of such inestimable quality.
An unusual byproduct of Keynes’ Blake scholarship was the ballet Job: A Masque for Dancing. With his sister-in-law,[e] the artist Gwen Raverat (whose delightful Period Piece: A Cambridge Childhood should be read along with The Gates of Memory), Keynes produced a scenario based on the engraved designs. Ralph Vaughan Williams composed a beautiful score with the understanding begin page 235 | that there was to be no dancing on point (“which made him feel ill”). The idea was then offered to Diaghilev, who turned it down as “too English and too old-fashioned.” In the end, the work was brilliantly choreographed by Ninette de Valois and performed by the Camargo Society in 1931. Thence it passed into the repertoire of the Sadler’s Wells Ballet, now the Royal Ballet. A revival of this ballet, so splendidly true to Blake’s vision, is long overdue (hopefully with the restoration of the original Raverat sets rather than the rather inappropriate ones by John Piper that were later substituted for them).
Space does not permit more than the mere mention of Geoffrey Keynes’ other bibliographies: those of John Donne (1915, 4th ed. 1974), the works published by William Pickering (1924), Jane Austen (1929), William Hazlitt (1931), John Evelyn (1937), and Bishop George Berkeley (1977). His achievement as a book collector is indicated by the catalogue of his library, comprising over 4,000 titles, published in 1964. His remarkable life is symbolized for me by one of the many fascinating photographs in this book, showing G.L.K. aged ninety-two in front of the enormous tulip tree at Lammas House. When he died three years later, many a scholar half a century younger felt the loss of one who was at the same time a founder of our discipline and an invigorating contemporary presence—“a friend with whom he liv’d benevolent.”2↤ 2 Milton, 15:27, The Complete Writings of William Blake, ed. Geoffrey Keynes (London: Oxford University Press, 1966), p. 497.