Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress
A Critical Chronology

Mapping Keats’s Progress & the Holy Grail

MKP has three conjoined purposes.

The first: To map some of Keats’s life in London. Marking a place or street address on a map of greater London is the rather simple objective, though digging up reliable addresses from two centuries ago and then locating them does, at times, involve a little detective work, especially given the rapidly changing suburban landscape of Greater London up to and during the Regency era. One realization: maps can, alas, be wrong—as can addresses or even the names of streets. And no doubt some of the markers on the 156 maps on this site are wrong, too.

This goal of finding and noting places on a map is, however, in itself both limited and limiting. In the case of Keats, how much does it matter if a place on a map indicates that, for example, here at 76 Cheapside Keats lives for short while, that here at 41 Great Marlborough Street he breakfasts, or here at 48 Mortimer Street he dines? Is it such a big deal to represent via map placements something that we hardly have to prove—that, as Michael Dirda puts it, Keats is a Londoner through and through. [1] Moreover, Keats’s life extends beyond London, to places like the Isle of Wight, Margate, Teignmouth, Oxford, Winchester—not to mention all kinds of excursions, including a depleting six-week walking tour through northwest England and into Scotland with very close friend Charles Brown. Then there’s Rome, where Keats sinks to an agonizing end, aged twenty-five. But, admittedly, there is a pleasure in gazing upon maps, and that can be an end in itself: like a god, we can survey those tiny, neat, and intricate names and lines and spaces that represent the larger, messier world. Ah, the feeling of order and control.

The second inducement for the project—its theory, in effect: To re-imagine the critical book. That is, MKP attempts to re-imagine the form and potential of an academic genre whose origins rest in the idea of a printed, traditional monograph. The mapping metaphor now takes up not just the idea of putting a mark upon a map, but the more involved and important idea of associating and connecting elements in Keats’s poetic progress in ways that a three-dimensional book cannot quite do. The site’s structure of progressive reduplication (between multiple, overlapping micro-chapters) acknowledges and attempts to embrace the fact that the dominant means to access information—via the technology you have in front of you right now—changes the way we find, look at, and engage such information.

The third and final purpose, and perhaps the most important: To account for Keats’s remarkable poetic development, mainly between 1816-1819. This, of course, is a more interesting and engaging objective than plotting Keats’s mappable whereabouts—and it has driven much profitable work on Keats. W. J. Bate articulates this in a question:

When, and under the influence of what shaping forces, did he [Keats] become a great poet? Any literary biographer who can answer those two questions will have achieved the holy grail of Life-writing. [2]

The intriguing and complicated problem, then, is what Keats does to develop as a poet during the period of living at 76 Cheapside, or what influence those friends he dines with at 48 Mortimer Street have on his poetic progress. Relative to his poetic aspirations and poetic character, who does he talk and write to? What does he say to them, and they to him? What does he read and purposefully study? What do his friends read? What takes up most of this thinking? What, for example, impacts him on his walking expedition through Wordsworth and Burns territory, and how does this, if at all, work itself into his poetic development? What impact does the landscape—both natural and cultural—have on him? How do his poetics (mainly articulated in his letters) anticipate, or even propel, his poetry? When and how does he become Bate’s great poet? These kinds of questions and considerations guide much of this site’s purpose: To consider possible key moments in and the critical qualities of Keats’s poetic progress; to suggest the relationships between his good, bad, and indifferent poetry (much of it is indeed indifferent); to probe the complex, intertwined factors that lead to that great work; to develop some original readings Keats’s work.

Now, MKP does not pretend to have achieved Bate’s holy grail, but it does make some specific suggestions and offer theories about those shaping forces, while, almost as a prompting side-effect, also providing a kind of geo-spacial biography of Keats. That is, if a reader decides to go through all 156 entries (micro-chapters, I call them), that reader would, I hope, have a considered sense of both Keats’s life and, more importantly, his developing life as a poet. In short, mapping places and sometimes picturing them is one aspect of the site, but this becomes the excuse and then backdrop for presenting a critical narrative of Keats’s poetic development. And given what I have thus far noted, I can suggest nine factors or moments—shaping forces—that contribute to his startling poetic progress:

~ Keats’s constant practice in the writing of poetry, beginning about 1814, and possibly earlier;

~ his very deliberate study of poetry, starting in earnest over 1815 into 1816, but set off by the early literary tutelage of Charles Cowden Clarke;

~ his development of a complex and increasingly original poetics that guides and, interestingly, anticipates his progress;

~ Keats’s respected place within a particular intellectual network and literary scene, with a group of highly supportive friends, with Leigh Hunt as one hub in this network, beginning late 1816;

~ the fact that Keats does not have to work while he pursues his poetic career;

~ in preparing Endymion for publication in early 1818, Keats importantly (but also obviously) recognizes it is the haphazard work of an immature poet, and time to move forward;

~ coming to terms with the agonizing death of his younger brother, Tom, in December 1818 profoundly deepens his thinking and feeling about mortality in the face of death and suffering, and this shapes his thinking about the greater role of poetry;

~ Keats determining what kind of poetry he does not want to write is as important as figuring out what kind of poetry he hopes to write; here Keats’s critical study of and critical determinations about Milton, Wordsworth, Hunt, and Robert Burns are key;

~ and finally, of course, there is what we might call the Junkets factor: Keats’s complicated, unique, and ultimately unknowable capacities—his innate creative and imaginative potential, his unlearned emotional and intellectual nature.

[These factors are discussed more fully at 20 December 1819.]

—GKB

  1. Michael Dirda, Poet of Loss, The Weekly Standard, 22 April 2013.
  2. W. J. Bate, The Real John Keats. The Times Literary Supplement. 4 December 2012.