The Body of the Letter

To launch the KLP, we’ll be featuring responses, written by the founders, to Keats’s first extant letter, the verse epistle ‘To George Felton Mathew.’ You can read the poem here, and the previous response in the series here. Once collected, all responses will be here.

The whole Truth of the matter is that I have been very, very ill; your letter remained four days unread, I was so ill. What effect it had upon me I cannot express by words; it lay under my pillow day after day. I should have written 20 times, but as it often and often happens with me, my heart was too full and I had so much to say that I said nothing. I never received a delight that lasted longer upon me, “brooded on my mind and made it pregnant,” than the last six sentences of your Letter…

–Coleridge to Tom Wedgwood 25 January 1804

Anyone who has held an 18th– or 19th-century letter knows that even the neatest of them bear the palpable traces of the hands that have written on them, have opened them, have held them as they were read and reread. This is to say nothing of the feet that may have stepped on them, the tears that may have fallen on them, the clumsy elbows that may have spilled wine on them, the pillows that may have crushed them (like Coleridge’s above), or, as Keats writes to Fanny Brawne in early 1820, “the smear of black currant jelly” that may have left some “lines…a little disfigured” in them (334). It is easy to forget about the materiality of letters when we read clean, typed, and possibly even digital transcriptions of them. But as Coleridge conveys so strikingly in the quote above, the “effect” of a letter has much to do with its embodied presence, and can be beyond articulation in “words.” I quote from Coleridge partly to save Keats’s letters for the years of KLP to come, and partly because, as with so many things, Coleridge expresses with unusual vividness a set of ideas that were common to his contemporaries. The material conditions related to writing, posting, receiving, and reading letters alter the ways that they can transmit affect, alter what they can do, and Coleridge’s quote is just one of countless instances in which a Romantic author articulates the potent feeling elicited not just by the content of a letter, but also by its status as an object.

In this, my digital epistle to Brian and my other fellow Keatsians, I’m taking Coleridge’s lead. I want to claim that in addition to its textual contents, the physical attributes of a letter supply a second, often complementary and sometimes conflicting, dimension of meaning. This is because letters not only bear the traces of their authors’ bodies (notebooks and manuscripts and edited drafts do this, too), but also because—by design—letters bear the traces of their authors’ bodies into the hands of other human bodies. Our digital age has estranged us from 18th– and 19th-century methods of communication, especially for those of us who may have only written letters in the 1980s or 1990s, as email was already beginning to supplant the post. But I wonder if in one sense this may put us at an advantage. If to some extent the medium is indeed the message, then the message may appear more obvious to us at a distance.

So what may strike an emailer as strange about Coleridge’s letter, and what translates across platforms? Just as Coleridge delayed reading Wedgwood’s letter because of its likely contents (Coleridge’s dear friend and patron was mortally ill at this point), I might avoid reading an email message that might cause me pain if I were already feeling unwell, although my browser or iPhone would nonetheless present its subject and first words to me. Of course most 18th and 19th century letters were mundane, just as most of the email messages I send and receive are mundane. In such instances, the letter’s prosthetic function may matter little, if at all, but at other times this function may be transformative. Put simply, email doesn’t contain all of the data that a letter does, and lacks what in fact may transmit news most powerfully: handwriting in illness or at times of distress or joy or haste looks different; likewise, smudges, stains, insertions, and strikethroughs may communicate aspects of the author’s state of mind and body, as well as the state of his or her surroundings. Thus the physical attributes of a letter may confirm its content, amplifying its emotional impact, or may reveal an important unspoken context, converting what might otherwise have seemed to be a mundane letter into an anxiety inducing one. And these are just some of the dimensions of meaning that are lost in a digital medium—or, in other words, just some of the ways that unlike an email, a handwritten letter can function as a body that connects two human bodies, sometimes across great spaces and times.

As Coleridge makes plain, moreover, the embodiedness of a letter leads to distinct conceptualizations of the possibilities of the written word. I would never say that an idea in an email made my mind pregnant. This is not just because the soil of my imagination is not so fertile as Coleridge’s, but also because of the ways that email works. Because the letter is also an object that bears traces of a human body, the letter may function differently: were I to hold a letter that bore a loved one’s handwriting, or especially if I were to sleep with that letter under my pillow, the image of mental impregnation might present itself. Coleridge’s metaphor works because the letter is a body that is capable of impregnating another body, a prosthesis that connects Wedgwood’s person to Coleridge’s.

I insist here on the materiality of letters in what may seem an awkward circumstance—in musing on a “letter” that is really (in 2015, at least) just a poem, and one without a manuscript to turn to. As Brian’s comments beautifully remind us, moreover, this “letter” to George Felton Mathew—in both its mysterious non-self and in its content—is all about silence, absence, and what is never told. But to my mind it is perhaps yet more important—or at least more interesting, if also troubling—to insist on materiality in the context of a (presumed) epistle whose actual existence in the material world we can at most assume. I would like to think that this gesture towards embodiment and materiality is appropriate to Keats, and not just because of his medical education and the ways that bodies work their way into his poems. (I first wanted to become a Romanticist when as an undergraduate I read the lines in “Ode to Psyche” in which the speaker promises to build “A rosy sanctuary” “dress[ed] / With the wreath’d trellis of a working brain.”) Keats’s letters are also richer for their awareness of and engagement with their own materiality. In the instance of the jam-smudged letter to Fanny Brawne, this material trace leads Keats to think about the colors between purple and blue that may best be called “purplue which may be an excellent name for a colour…and would suit well to start next spring” (334). The 1820 letter bore not only the abstract idea of purplue to Brawne, but also its embodiment.

It is difficult to know what to do with epistolary verse, but it is my contention that attending to the embodied potentiality of letters can open up new and productive ways of thinking about the poetry contained in them. So what of Keats’s poem to Mathew that is also a letter, and therefore also (presumably) an object that connected Keats’s body to the body of his friend? Does its (presumed) materiality require us to revise our ideas about how “song” functions in the poem, reminding us of the embodiedness of voice? How does an emphasis on materiality require us to rethink the poem’s meaning of “pleasure,” given that pleasure is often an explicitly embodied concept? After all, the particular pleasures the poem could be expected to elicit in Mathew are not just intellectual in origin: silent reading and contemplation. They are also physical: the pleasure of voicing the poem, the pleasure of seeing a text written in the hand of a friend linked by “brotherhood in song”—the pleasure of holding a text touched by that absent friend.

Emily B. Stanback

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