Although the Romantic poets lived two hundred years ago, a remarkable number of their manuscripts, belongings, and other assorted ephemera still survive and are preserved in archives and collections across the globe. Most of the time, these artefacts are tucked away in museum collections, or specially stored in boxes to preserve the delicate paper or materials used to make them. Generally only a select few are allowed access to these items, predominantly the archivists, curators and custodians of these wonderful remnants and the researchers who are lucky enough to be working on them. Therefore, the aim of this exciting series on the K-SAA Blog is to bring to the fore the hidden and hidden-in-plain-sight artefacts of the Romantic poets, particularly those belonging to the Shelleys, Keats, Byron and their circles. We also aim to provide you, the reader, with behind-the-scenes access to these collections, along with insider knowledge from archivists, curators, and scholars.
For this edition of ‘Uncovering the Archive’, Dr Rosie Whitcombe explores the Keats Collection at Harvard’s Houghton Library. Dr Whitcombe explores both the letters themselves, and the materiality and meaning of the correspondence.
The standard edition of Keats’s correspondence, edited by Hyder Edward Rollins and published in 1958, contains a total of 249 letters, all of which Keats wrote between 1814 and 1820. The largest single collection of the original manuscripts of these letters is held in the Keats Collection at the Houghton Library, Harvard University. Digital images of these manuscripts have been made publicly available through the library’s website, access to which proved indispensable to me while I was researching for my doctoral thesis on Keats’s letters. As numerous critics have pointed out, reading and studying the original manuscripts can be intimately revealing. In his reading of a letter Keats wrote to Mrs. Brawne (mother of Fanny Brawne) on 24 October 1820, John Barnard identifies how the changes in Keats’s handwriting betray the state of his mental health:
This letter obeys the decorum of a family letter, written evenly and clearly and filling the whole sheet. Yet at the last moment Keats gave way to his feelings: at the foot, below his signature, is scrawled in a smaller shaky hand, “Good bye Fanny! god bless you.” The difference between the carefully shaped handwriting in the body of the letter and that in the postscript shows how difficult it must have been for Keats, seriously ill on board ship, to maintain mastery of his writing materials (quill, inkpot, and paper) for the length of this letter. The postscript’s truthfulness belies the control evident throughout the rest of his letter, and moves towards the wordlessness of grief and despair.
Examining the changes in Keats’s handwriting can alter the way the language of the letter is read and understood. The way he uses the paper (whether he leaves room for a margin, whether he leaves space at the end of a page) can indicate something of the way he relates to a given recipient, illuminating the hierarchies and insecurities that shape an epistolary relationship.
During my research, I was (and continue to be) intrigued by the letters that contain what Keats calls his ‘cross wise writing’, the practice of writing a page, turning it ninety degrees, and writing over it, common in the Romantic period because it allowed the sender to write more in less space and save on the cost of paper. Keats’s choice to cross his letters is, in part, practical; but an examination of the manuscripts of these letters reveals that, in some cases, crossing is a unique formal experiment through which Keats can play with, and diversify, the scope of his expression. In some letters, crossing allows Keats to present a dual perspective on a given experience or occasion in the literal layering of words on the page. In others, the deliberate crossing of verse over prose means Keats can achieve a unique form of meaning through the material merging of forms, a practice that sometimes leads him to question or challenge a particular poetic convention. Of course, the inclusion of ‘cross wise writing’ in a letter does not mean there is always a deeper significance to be found; but there are a number of instances in which Keats, as a highly self-conscious letter writer, uses this aspect of the form to communicate beyond the scope of language alone.
Not only does the Keats Collection provide access to digital images of manuscript letters written in Keats’s hand, but to many of the transcripts of his letters made by his contemporaries. Though Keats chose to make a ‘general conflagration of all old letters’ (LJK, 2, p. 112) in his possession in May 1819, his correspondents thought highly enough of his letters not only to keep them, but to transcribe them into journals to preserve them. Richard Woodhouse transcribed fifty-seven of Keats’s letters, twenty of which are the only existing copies. As Rollins writes, Woodhouse was an ‘admirable scholar and a painstaking copyist whose transcripts are, in the main, reliable’. Though he was not especially careful to copy Keats’s grammar and routinely omitted the names of individuals, Charles Brown also provided fairly accurate transcripts of the nine letters he copied. The same cannot be said for John Jeffrey, who was not a correspondent of Keats’s, but who volunteered to copy the letters that came into his possession after marrying George Keats’s widow, Georgiana, long after the poet’s death. Rollins writes that Jeffrey
changed words or phrases that he disliked or did not understand or could not decipher; he reversed the order of certain sentences, reformed spelling, punctuation, grammar. Worse yet, with no warning he omitted words, sentences, paragraphs, at times whole pages.
Using the Keats Collection to examine these transcripts for what they choose to include and omit and, where possible, to compare these editorial decisions with Keats’s original manuscripts, provides a fascinating insight into the cultures of omission and appropriateness of the early-nineteenth century, and of the decision-making-challenges faced by all transcribers and editors.
Reading and studying these manuscript letters – both those written by Keats himself and those transcribed by others – is uniquely informative about the practice of letter writing and Keats’s experimental use of the form. Engaging with the original manuscripts, viewing the intimate flourishes of the writer’s hand on the page, marks made now over two hundred years ago, offers a perspective that is unavailable in a reading of the printed editions alone.
Dr Rosie Whitcombe is a Postdoctoral Researcher at Birmingham City University. She completed her PhD on the letters of John Keats in 2021. Her essay, ‘Connection, Consolation, and the Power of Distance in the Letters of John Keats’ won the 2020 Keats-Shelley Essay Prize and is due to be published in The Keats-Shelley Review later this year. To follow Rosie on Twitter, click here.
For more information on the Harvard Keats Collection, please see here.
 John Barnard, ‘Keats’s Letters: “Remembrancing and enchaining”’, in The Cambridge Companion to John Keats ed. by Susan J. Wolfson (Cambridge: CUP, 2001) pp. 120-134 (pp. 127-8).
 The Letters of John Keats, ed. by Hyder Edward Rollins, 2 vols. (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011) vol. 1, p. 181 (Further quotations will be from this edition, with volume and page numbers following in parentheses).
 Rollins, Introductory material to The Letters of John Keats, vol. 1, p. 18.
 Rollins, Introductory material to The Letters of John Keats, vol. 1, p. 20.