Romantic Reimaginings is a BARS blog series which seeks to explore the ways in which texts of the Romantic era continue to resonate. The blog is curated by Eleanor Bryan. If you would like to publish an article in the series, please email firstname.lastname@example.org.
Today on the blog, Suzie Grogan discusses the reimagining of Keats’s journey through the Mapping Keats’s Progress website.
As students of Romantic poet John Keats we might sit, hushed, in a library surrounded by books. We may have open next to us the latest critical thinking, the biographies by Roe, Motion, Gittings, Bate. In our files we may have, printed off, the latest academic papers or edited collections of the same. Or we could be trawling JSTOR or British Library sites, intent on ensuring we miss nothing, note everything.
But reimagine that scene. We could be sitting quietly at a computer, or in a café with our tablet, perusing the Mapping Keats’s Progress website at http://johnkeats.uvic.ca/ notebook beside us, finding and re-finding, reflecting and diverging and walking with Keats through his development as man and poet, using location and life events to associate and connect in a way that is more difficult when surrounded by the paper equivalent. Books are a wonderful thing, but referencing and cross referencing is a demanding and time consuming process for all scholars, and is exclusive of those with a general interest who have only the most minimal access to the work. Re-imagining the critical book – or indeed the book in general terms – is inclusionary and revolutionary. We must ensure the relevance of the Romantic is taken on into the 21st century. Widening access is a necessary part of this process.
Mapping Keats’s Progress (MKP) is a project that, despite already having over 150 ‘micro-chapters’ is still developing alongside our knowledge and interpretation of Keats’s life and letters. The architect and main brain behind the project is Dr Kim Blank, Professor of English at the University of Victoria, Canada. His published work includes books on William Wordsworth and Percy Shelley, edited books of original essays on Shelley and 19th-century poetry and he is author of numerous papers and articles. His credentials are impeccable and his dedication to an understanding of Keats’s development is extraordinary. He says:
‘MKP is a critical work, biographical study, and a resource for Keats studies. I am also aware that, professionally, the site occupies the odd space of scholarly limbo-accomplishment: I didn’t want or need a grant (these days a grant is apparently some indicator of success and credibility), and neither is it refereed by peers, though continuing feedback from peers governs some of the site’s directions’
The website states three main aims:
- To map some of Keats’s life in in London (in fact it maps Keats’s journeys around the British Isles)
- To re-imagine the critical book
- To account for Keats’s remarkable poetic development, mainly between 1816-1819.
If you are reading this whilst connected to the internet, flick backwards and forwards between this blog post and the MKP website. You will immediately notice just how much information there is available, taking us through Keats’s life chronologically, but with opportunities to refer to previous pages, to articles of interest outside the main chapter and onwards into what is, as Blank says, the ‘never-ending story’. This infinite quest for what Jonathan Bate describes as the ‘holy grail’ of understanding Keats’s remarkable period of poetic development, most particularly in 1818/19 is partly due to the ‘Junkets’ factor, what Blank describes as ‘Keats’s complicated, unique, and ultimately unknowable capacities—his innate creative and imaginative potential, his unlearned emotional and intellectual nature, and his profound ability to fuse novel relationship with inductive thinking.’ We can never know or understand enough.
Blank challenges the ‘irresistible habit of hopping around online’ by working with it. The current need for speed and the endless searching, clicking on and clicking away from web sources can, in other circumstances, result in a loss of context, an habitual search and re-search for the original. Worse still, there is the possibility of the total loss of credibility that comes from an incorrect reference, a basic factual error or research that results in a generic reproduction of well-worn facts lacking in original thinking. Within the MKP website, Blank has utilised what he calls ‘progressive reduplication’ – the micro-chapters overlapping and repeating key facts thus offering a productive stay for any user, at whatever level and recognising that the needs of each user is different, their knowledge at a different stage. There is much of general interest, but graduate study and scholarly article will most benefit from the myriad references, cross references and context that only a site such as MKP can achieve. It offers discoveries unavailable on other websites and certainly difficult to replicate using a physical book.
In response to a suggestion that the site itself might encourage random roving at will, Blank says:
‘The purposeful structure of MKP does indeed encourage moving around. The difference between moving around within the site and non-discriminatory, attention-deficit research is, I hope, that something knowable about Keats’s story is gathered with most of the definable micro-chapters, that then begins to form the larger picture after not too many stops. That is, most of the parts (the 157 micro-chapters) are both parts and wholes.
The MKP site is the ultimate in ‘reimagining’ as it is a genuine experiment, examining the traditional critical model and working with it to come up with an alternative method of exploration. But can Blank’s approach ever change our relationship with the monograph? Can it replace the book? Blank again:
‘Digital media, and more specifically for us, the digital humanities, is after all, an uncontrollable, utterly diverse force of possibility that powerfully impacts how we do and see and use our work. But I admit that within the profession there remains something of a fetish relationship with The Book—that 3D object that physically surrounds us in our libraries and offices, offering the sight and weight (and with old books, the smell) of materialized tradition and rippling nostalgia; the book also represents metaphysical safekeeping…’
It is not an attempt to replace the book, Blank adores them as much as any of us, insisting they remain ‘a joy forever’, but MKP offers the opportunity to evolve, move, expand, correct, revise – all those things a book can’t do. ‘Thinking-through becomes an unending process, rather than the terminus that a published book offers’.
The Mapping Keats’s Progress site spent a significant amount of time in beta to identify bugs, ensure everything works and to get feedback from users, making sure it was launched in a ‘robust and lasting form’. It is a complex structure, already used regularly to support new critical works and student study alike. There are 721 maps and images on the site, many of which will be new to the user. There are 157 micro chapters, 177 transcribed poems and the word count (not including those poems) is approaching 200,000. The site has received plaudits and unsolicited praise from respected colleagues that have justified the amount of work Blank has undertaken and the most important thing is that it respects and loves the life and work of John Keats himself, positioning him as a leading member of the vast Romantic circle the site features, and highlighting how remarkable is the poetry for which he is best known.
Suzie Grogan is a professional writer, researcher and editor. She is published in the fields of social history and mental health, her most recent books being Shell Shocked Britain on the lasting legacy of the Great War health and Death Disease & Dissection on the life of a surgeon apothecary 1750-1850, inspired by her lifelong study of John Keats. John Keats: Poetry Life & Landscape is commissioned for the bicentenary of the poet’s death in 2021. See www.suziegrogan.co.uk for more details.