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Letter Writing Among Poets

From William Wordsworth to Elizabeth Bishop

Edited by Jonathan Ellis

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The first book to look at poets’ letters seriously as an art form

Fifteen enlightening chapters by leading international biographers, critics and poets examine letter writing among poets in the last two hundred years. They range from Coleridge, Wordsworth, Keats and Shelley in the nineteenth-century to Eliot, Yeats, Bishop and Larkin in the twentieth. In doing so, they respond to the following questions. Who are the great letter writers of the past? Why is reading other people’s mail so addictive? What is the relationship between letter writing and other literary genres such as poetry? Divided into three sections—Contexts and Issues, Romantic and Victorian Letter Writing, and Twentieth-Century Letter Writing—the volume demonstrates that real letters still have an allure that virtual post struggles to replicate.

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Introduction: For what is a letter? JONATHAN ELLIS
1 Dangerous Letters: A Biographer’s Perspective HERMIONE LEE
2 Editing Poems in Letters DANIEL KARLIN
3 Editing Twentieth-Century Letters: The Road to Words in Air THOMAS TRAVISANO
4 Just Letters: Modern Poets in Correspondence HUGH HAUGHTON
5 Wordsworth’s Sweating Pages: The Love Letters of William and Mary Wordsworth FRANCES WILSON
6 The Oakling and the Oak: The Tragedy of the Coleridges ANNE FADIMAN
7 “Any thing human or earthly”: Shelley’s Letters and Poetry MADELEINE CALLAGHAN
8 “Another sort of writing”? Invalidism and Poetic Labour in the Letters of Elizabeth Barrett Browning MARCUS WAITHE
9 Passion and Playfulness in the Letters of Gerard Manley Hopkins MICHAEL D. HURLEY
10 The Gift of George Yeats MATTHEW CAMPBELL
11 Epistolary Psychotherapy: The Letters of Edward Thomas and Philip Larkin EDNA LONGLEY
12 Lorine Niedecker’s Republic of Letters SIOBHAN PHILLIPS
13 “Wherever you listen from”: W. S. Graham and the Art of the Letter ANGELA LEIGHTON
14 Fire Balloons: The Letters of Robert Lowell and Elizabeth Bishop PAUL MULDOON
15 Last Letters: Keats, Bishop, and Hughes and Donaghy JONATHAN ELLIS

About the Author

Jonathan Ellis is Reader in American Literature at the University of Sheffield. He is the author of Art and Memory in the Work of Elizabeth Bishop (Ashgate, 2006). His articles and essays on twentieth-century poetry have appeared in various journals, including English, The Journal of Modern Literature, Mosaic, PN Review and Poetry Ireland Review. He is currently co-editing (with Angus Cleghorn) The Cambridge Companion to Elizabeth Bishop (2014).


Letters---that thoroughly familiar yet under-studied form of writing, always ancillary and yet essential to literary understanding. They blur the boundaries between ordinary experience and art, improvisation and convention, individual expression and collaboration. Somehow they matter especially for poets and poetry. With speculative force, nuanced interpretation, and lively narrative too, the various essays in this book, the only one of its kind, begin to answer the question (important to poetry and letters both) of why.    

Langdon Hammer, Yale University

- Langdon Hammer, Yale University

"Vicarious lives, the alter egos of unwritten or belatedly written poems, trap doors into hitherto unseen aspects of a personality, feints and personae—poets’ letters can be and have been all these and more, and the all-star lineup of critics, poets and essayists here demonstrate. This collection isn’t just the last word so far on a topic (two topics, at least) or permanent interest, but an example for literary critics in general: Anne Fadiman’s defense of Hartley Coleridge, Paul Muldoon on Bishop and (or Bishop vs.) Lowell, Michael Hurley on humour in Hopkins, Ellis himself on frustration and temporality in Bishop and Keats—here is a model for writers. And for readers. And for letter-writers, scholarly and otherwise, everywhere."


Stephen Burt

The fifteen essays in this volume consider letters written during the past two centuries, and shed light on the state of correspondence today. The editor, Jonathan Ellis, offers a gentle admonition to critics who mourn the 'lost world' before the internet (in the words of Rebecca Solnit), a time when everyone wrote at length and thought in depth... The scholarly contributors to Letter Writing Among Poets argue that letters merit as much critical attention as texts in other genres, and that poets' letters reward particular scrutiny. A letter may offer explicit commentary on individual poems or poetics, as does one written by Keats on December 27, 1817, explaining his concept of negative capability. Others, such as those exchanged by Coleridge and his contemporaries, contain gossip that provides insight into the way literary networks operated. Every letter exemplifies its writer’s literary style, while some can be a testing ground for poetry.

- Nancy Campbell, Times Literary Supplement

The collection looks backwards rather than forwards, celebrating the productive hybridity of letters as 'not only a source of information but a form of information'; letters are taken seriously as an art form in their own right, rather than a secondary source the critic mines for insights. Central to the collection is the shared conviction that letters are not 'autobiography by another name' but rather 'performances'... Covering the Romantic period through to the twentieth century, the volume addresses a miscellany of subjects, although Keats and Bishop are, rightly, important touchstones... the essays are penetrating and engagingly written.

- Ruth Hawthorn, PN Review

To read poets' letters to other poets is to gain insight into the context in which they operated and into the complex bond of common obsession and lonely practice that ties and at the same time separates them. It also, of course, casts light on the work itself.

- Peter Sirr, Poetry Ireland Review

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