Certainly in the rankings of Keats’s most famous and celebrated letters, today’s has to be right up there near the top. We won’t waste too much time giving you background on the letter–you have the good fortune to be able to read Susan Wolfson’s excellent essay for that information instead–but suffice it to say this: Shelley invited Keats to Italy, and this letter was Keats’s response. What emerged was not a direct reply to Shelley’s offer (in fact, Keats’s reply on that score was quite ambiguous), but a deeply considered reflection on some of the most fundamental issues about poetry that Keats explored throughout his correspondence.
If you don’t know the letter, or if you just want to read it anew on its 200th anniversary, fear not. We have a few options for you. You can read the letter in Harry Buxton Forman’s 1901 edition of Keats’s complete works, which has the added benefit of including the text of Shelley’s letter to which Keats was responding (Wolfson in her essay engages significantly with Shelley’s letter as well, so it may be worth your time to see the whole text of it). The manuscript of Keats’s letter is at the Bodleian Library, and they have kindly digitized the letter and made the images available. We also include the images here in case you want to practice your skill at reading Keats’s handwriting.
Once you’ve read the letter, prepare yourself for lots of fully-loaded rifts, jam-packed with ores of insight, and go check out Wolfson’s essay!
Keats’s 16 August 1820 letter to Percy Bysshe Shelley. Images courtesy of Bodleian Libraries, Oxford University.