Letter #47: “To any friend who may call” (on John Taylor), January (?) 1818

We’re running out of days in January, and the best guess for the date of today’s letter is sometime in January 1818, so we’ll go with today! There’s a lot we don’t know about this letter. We’ll count among the uncertainties that it was even written in January 1818. The note was acquired by Amy Lowell in 1903 when John Taylor’s descendants auctioned off his papers. She ventured a guess of January 1818 as the date of the letter’s composition, and no one else has made another guess since. Rollins prints it as the first letter of January 1818, but we’re guessing that, if it were written during that month, it probably happened toward the latter half of it. Here’s why.

The letter is addressed “To any friend who may call,” and it reads like this:

Mr Taylor’s Com pts to any Ladies or gentleman his friends who may call, and begs they will pardon him for being led away by an unavoidable engagement, which will detain him till eleven o’clock to night

In Richard Woodhouse’s transcript of the note, he prefaces it with this explanation: “Keats Persuaded Taylor to accompany him one afternoon to Hampstead & left wrote for him the following note–“. Woodhouse offers no date. In his notebook he copies this letter after Keats’s 10 June 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey, and before the 23 January 1818 letter to Taylor (see image below). Woodhouse’s transcripts are not copied in a regular chronological order, but if the transcript’s placement before the 23 January letter is the justification for dating the letter to that same month, then we could just as well argue that we ought to date it to the month of the transcript that precedes it: June 1817. Keats was in Hampstead during that month as well, and he could presumably have visited Taylor during that month (he had, after all, asked Taylor for a loan in his 10 June letter). All of this is to say, we’re dating this letter as January 1818, but we have no real confidence in that dating.

Now, why are we going with late January instead of early? All respect to our hero, Hyder Edward Rollins, but there is some decent circumstantial evidence to point the letter toward later in the month. So here goes. Keats writes to Taylor on 10 January and apologizes for not seeing him for a while. If he had convinced Taylor to spend an afternoon with him in Hampstead at some point in the nine days preceding that letter, it seems unlikely that he would open the letter by apologizing for a long absence. We know Keats visited Taylor on 11 and 12 January, but there’s no evidence to suggest Taylor went to Hampstead on either of those days (and Keats writes to George and Tom on 13 January of being absent from Hampstead for the two days prior). Keats brought his first book of Endymion to Taylor on 20 January, but he also attended Hazlitt’s lecture at the Surrey Institution that evening (or tried to do so–he arrived at 8 pm for a 7 pm lecture). So if Taylor spent an afternoon and evening (“till eleven o’clock at night”) in Hampstead with Keats, it wasn’t on that day. Our supposition, then, is that the visit occurred sometime after January 23, when Keats had corresponded with Haydon and with Taylor about the prospect of having an engraved frontispiece for Endymion. Perhaps while still mulling the possibilities, Keats persuaded Taylor to walk with him from his shop in Fleet Street northwest toward Haydon’s residence in Lisson Grove, and then on to Hampstead where they could all chat further.

But alas, we just don’t know! Sorry, folks–the KLP demands of its readers a bit of that good ol’ fashioned negative capability. Now stop irritably reaching after fact and reason!

Keats’s Jan (?) 1818 letter to callers on John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 1.17). Houghton Library, Harvard University.

Transcript of Keats’s January (?) 1818 letter to callers on John Taylor. Keats Collection, 1814-1891 (MS Keats 3.3). Houghton Library, Harvard University.