So how can I with any face begin without a dissertation on letter writing—Yet when I consider that a sheet of paper contains room only for three pages, and a half how can I do justice to such a pregnant subject?
—Keats to C. W. Dilke, 20, 21 September 1818
Though Keats playfully acknowledges the need for attendant thinking and commentary as he constructs his letters, and though there have been, especially in the past few decades, numerous singular critical efforts to emphasize the literary qualities of the letters as a whole, so far there has been no large-scale, concerted effort to offer systematic close readings and literary analyses of the letters. Though the importance, and even the literary quality, of the letters is no longer in dispute, no large-scale study of the letters exists.
The Keats Letters Project addresses this situation. This web site publishes each of the letters on the 200th anniversary of the day Keats penned it, and each letter is accompanied by a critical commentary, a short dissertation, aiming to shed new light on the letters, reconceiving received ideas and offering reevaluations. The commentaries bring to bear on each letter one or more of many available, revealing approaches and methodologies, including applying knowledge of Keats’s relations with specific correspondents; sensitivity to the letters’ rhetorical dynamics; awareness of genre and literary conventions, from business and family letters to journal letters and verse epistles, to literary, dramatic, and art criticism; recognition of Keats’s epistolary tendencies, including speculation, “proing and conning,” allusion, and obsessive wordplay; and information about the material bases of letter writing, including an emerging postal system, in the early nineteenth century.
An online publication, the critical commentary included in the Keats Letters Project is not confined by the material demands of sheets of paper. Indeed, the digital nature of this project allows for various kinds of collaboration, co-writing, and critical and creative dialogue—any techniques that allow for the more in-depth examination scholars long have known the letters deserve.
While always aiming to surprise and reveal, even more fundamentally, the Keats Letters Project hopes to offer its readers a unique connection to Keats’s epistolary oeuvre, and by extension to Keats himself. In a journal letter from 16 December 1818 – 4 January 1819, Keats suggests to his brother and sister-in-law, who had emigrated to North America, that they all read a passage of Shakespeare at the same time to feel closer to each other. By allowing readers an opportunity to read alongside Keats as he writes, and by encouraging readers to lean in and read closely, the Keats Letters Project hopes to offer a renewed sense of Keats’s vital, if virtual, presence.