About a million years ago, when I was an MA student, I wrote a comparative thesis on the poetry of John Keats and Percy Shelley. Some years later, as a prof, and after a PhD on ShelIey and William Wordsworth, I was able to write Shelley out of my system. I later managed to do the same with Wordsworth.
But Keats—not so much.
Yet, from the start, he was the dead, white, English, male poet who intrigued me most, and thoughts about him continued to plague and attract me. The old question lurked: How did little Johnny (all five-foot-two-inches of him) become so damn good so darn quickly? How did he move so fast, and so dramatically, from writing mainly bad, random, I-wannabe-a-poet poetry to composing some of the best verse in the language? When, in October 1818, Keats confidently (though privately) declared he would be an enduring poet after his death, he hadn’t written much to earn that claim. But he was about to. And almost all of it within a year. After that, circumstances and the slow death sentence of consumption wasted him away. He died in Rome in February 1821, aged twenty-five.
About eight years or so ago, I began a book on Keats, with the working title of Keats’s Progress. It was a subject—Keats’s development and his poetical character—taken up by some of the most esteemed literary critics of the modern era, the likes of Walter Jackson Bate, Helen Vendler, Christopher Ricks, and Susan Wolfson. There was no shortage of brilliant yet sensible Keats’s criticism and biography, but I figured there was still something more to say.
Well, after making some kind of scattered start on the book while sitting in the library at Harvard (with most of Keats’s manuscripts stored somewhere in the building), I also had one eye on the digital humanities. Though seemingly unrelated, I was also thinking about how research was increasingly driven by Google’s insidiously energetic algorithms, and that users were eager to click on and on and on. It was a practice quite unlike working through the material object of a book.
Then some kind of thought came to me. Tainted by blind ambition, I figured I could do so much more in exploring the complex story of Keats’s development if I designed a website that, at the same time, represented an implicit challenge to the traditional scholarly book, and by working with the googleized compulsion to click on and on.
Anyway, 156 chapters (170k words) and 700 images later, the thing (mainly biography and literary analysis) was completed: Mapping Keats’s Progress: A Critical Chronology, version 1.0.
How did it up and running?
Luckily, Dr. Arnie Keller, a retired colleague here at the University of Victoria, and an expert on web design, told me anything could be done. Just describe exactly how you want it to look, how you want it structured, and how you want it to function. After some growing pains while I almost got used to how to do work within the site he was building, and while he almost got used to my fussy ways when it came to things like layout, a decent version of the site came into being. As a labor of friendship and as a challenge relative to my capabilities, Arnie had worked some virtual magic—it was indeed up and running!
Soon after Arnie withdrew from helping out with site (who could blame him—he was retired!), for technical support, I connected with the Humanities Computing and Media Centre here at UVic. It had a long, strong track record with supporting and developing some big and complex DH projects. Martin Holmes of HCMC generously took sight of the site, performed some significant and ingenious under-the-hood cleaning up, mainly by enhancing functionality (a few more details here) that would also ensure site longevity. Martin immediately directed me to a better way to work with the site: Oxygen XML Editor. Better indeed. (Hope they pay for this endorsement.) Martin continues to make sure the engine runs smoothly—and better.
As for the site’s structure: it was designed so that users should be able to jump into any of the chapters (each one a web page) and, because of the what’s on that page, not be lost in terms of MKP’s greater critical narrative. All poems mentioned in each chapter are available via the page; all people mentioned have popup personographies; often there are links to other related chapters; and a detailed chronology for the whole year is beside every chapter. Importantly, and key, most chapters contain discursive signals that often look both forwards and backwards along the narrative line. (I somewhat pretentiously called this structure progressive reduplication.)
And then there are the images. Feedback suggests that some users simply like to cruise through the pages, just to look at stuff. I understand. Who doesn’t take some pleasure in thumbing through magazines just for the pictures? The site does have the largest online gathering of representations of Keats in the Gallery, some of them lifted from fairly obscure regions of the Internet. There are also plenty of facsimiles, portraits, paintings, photographs, the odd word cloud, some Keats-related material never seen before, and every chapter has a map that points to a Keats-related place. Like I said, a traditional book can’t do all of these things. Further, most books can’t say, “Go ahead, start anywhere.”
But when all the cool digital stuff is torn away, a monograph on Keats is still in there, complete with arguments, critical observations, and opinions to go along with purely factual and visual material. The hope: that the information and ideas and images work together to create—well, whatever MKP is.
Is the site done? No. Will it ever be done? No. There’s always another thought about Keats and his poetry, another interesting image to put up—and, of course, another typo to correct. The worst one so far: “pubic” for “public.” Arg.
If you find more, do drop a line. We’ll call it collaboration.