University of Calgary
Re: Keats’s 10 June 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey
It’s difficult for me to get into Keats’s headspace at the best of times, but I find his letter of 10 June 1817, in which he asks his publishers for a substantial loan, especially baffling. I can picture John Taylor absentmindedly opening the seal—oh! another letter from John Keats! perhaps he is offering us a provisional schedule for his work on Endymion, or thanking us for the money we recently sent him! I imagine James Augustus Hessey snickering in confusion as Taylor reads Keats’s purpose aloud: “I must endeavor to lose my Maidenhead with respect to money Matters as soon as possible.” Like, in what situation would this be the right rhetorical strategy? Even taken literally, as an attempt at seduction, it disappoints; as a metaphorical way of requesting financial assistance, it bewilders.
What in the world was Keats thinking? I try to imagine myself a young male surgeon-turned-poet with one commercially unsuccessful book of poetry to my name, and just having moved to Hampstead a month or so ago. Just a few weeks ago, my new publishers, unbidden, sent me an advance payment for the poetry I’m now writing, and I had written to thank them in the strangest possible way. But the hydra apparently not defeated, my creditors are coming for me, and things are getting pretty desperate. (Historical value conversions are notoriously difficult to calculate fairly, but if Keats’s creditors needed £30, that would be more than £2000 in 2017 currency, by a conservative estimate by based on purchasing power [Officer and Williamson]). I have with Taylor and Hessey a business relationship of only a few months’ length, and it is not expected to profit anyone involved. How would I go about asking for that loan? Would it be better to be a bit apologetic, or just matter-of fact? All I know for sure is that I would definitely not liken myself, twice in three paragraphs, to a maiden seeking defloration from my publishers.
Yet Keats admits to feeling “a little maidenish or so, and I feel my virginity come strong upon me.” Studies by Anne K. Mellor, Joel Faflak, and Susan J. Wolfson have revealed Keats to be guardedly willing to experiment with female subjectivities, often with tremendous anxiety (Mellor 171–86, Faflak 199–231, Wolfson 205–242). Is this ribald metaphor another of Keats’s gender subversions? Or is it an example of what has been termed, in the parlance of our dark times, “locker-room talk,” signaling a homosocial, and thus homophobic, dude-bro alliance with his publishers? And what is the tenor of this metaphor, anyway? Is there anything that Keats is here trying to experience, relinquish, or enjoy for the first time? Is he capitulating? and if so, to what—to an ongoing business relationship with his publishers? Is he offering to have sex with them for money? That seems to be the subtext, even if it’s only expressed metaphorically. Was the desired loan being likened to a first sexual encounter? No, because Taylor and Hessey had previously sent Keats £20. Matthew Rowlinson explains that: “Keats’s editors and biographers view it as a loan, though it could be regarded as an advance payment for Endymion, then in composition. We know at any rate it that it was not sent in response to any request for a loan on Keats’s part” (Rowlinson 128). Alexander Dick has discussed that situation, and contextualized it for us, in a frustratingly astute (and, for this author writing on the same topic, worryingly recent!) installment for KLP analyzing the letter of 16 May 1817. Perhaps it is Keats’s very asking for money that is now, metaphorically, his “Maidenhead?” No, because that letter of 16 May, which was in many ways the prequel to this one, definitely seemed to insinuate such a request.
As Rowlinson explains, Keats’s agreement with Taylor and Hessey, signed only in April 1817, stipulated that Taylor and Hessey would pay Keats the proceeds from his poetry once the volume had recouped its costs of publication and offset losses from the publication of any of his other volumes. It was not a bad deal for Keats: Taylor and Hessey were presenting themselves to Keats more as “an agency acting on his behalf” than as a commercial enterprise (Rowlinson 127). Between 1817 and 1820, Taylor and Hessey would transfer a total of £70 to Keats. In the end, all of Keats’s writings for Taylor and Hessey would be published at a loss (Rowlinson 126)—except, in a beautiful irony, for the correspondence! Yes, this “Maidenhead” became a commodity when, in 1845, Taylor sold the copyrights to Keats’s letters. In the process, it helped Taylor to “collect” on the imagined debt that the letter had yearned to incur and repay! This is a letter that really arrived at its destination. So deeply satisfying!
I like to think of this letter as a disappointing first draft of “The Eve of St. Agnes,” a poem that Taylor and Hessey would publish in 1820. In the poetically realized version, the virgin Madeline performs rituals that enable her to gain a vision of her future husband, which gives her immense jouissance just thinking about it, even as Porphyro observes her from the closet in his own perverse visual reverie. It is amusing to think about Keats, similarly “meagre, barefoot, wan,” immersed like Madeline in a world of text and dreaming of his future seduction (“Eve” l. 13). He has “duns” pursuing him already, but “it would relieve my mind if I owed you instead,” he says wistfully—just as Madeline has “many a tiptoe, amorous cavalier” ready-to-hand, yet fantasizes about losing her virginity “otherwhere” (“Eve” l. 60, 62). Like Madeline, Keats ensures that the deferral of sexual enjoyment can become, exquisitely, a jouissance in itself. This sort of arrangement lends itself to strange temporalities: we can imagine the penniless Keats going “supperless to bed,” as Madeline did, so that he can receive “all the bliss to be before to-morrow morn” (l. 51, 72). Yet somehow “the bliss to be” must happen immediately if it is be experienced in the future. So too in this letter: the transfer must happen “as soon as possible,” because the creditors, those “pelican duns,” “have opened upon me” earlier than expected, and so “in a month’s time I must pay.” Things now seem to be ahead of and behind schedule. Wonderfully, Keats wrote “The Eve of St. Agnes” out of “an urgent need to make money by writing” (Rowlinson 119)—and thus the poem expresses his desire to repay the imagined debts that he wished to incur in this early epistolary version.
Rowlinson has observed, in his analysis of other Keats letters, how the “process of self-deferral … is resolved in an acknowledgment of debt” (125), and how Keats’s writing of poetry came to be understood as labour, and his poems as commodities. The letter of 10 June 1817 gets at something different: it presents the space and time to write as commodities, and thus a writer in a precarious financial situation would have to purchase their own labour on credit with one’s reputation as collateral. Hence self-deferral is the instantiation of debt. Here, the debt is acknowledged in advance of the loan: Keats signs this letter “your obliged friend,” which was literally and legally true to the extent he was actually friends with his publishers. Keats certainly is obliged in advance, by contract, but is aspiring to add a second layer of obligation, one that steps from his wish for friendship, as incurred by the very fact of his asking for financial assistance. And so his “maidenhead” is neither the publishers’ money, nor his asking for it. Like Madeline, what he is attempting to buy is some time: he currently has money (“25 good notes in my fob”), but knows that he will want money (“in a Month’s time I must pay”), and this feeling from the future impinges upon him at present. He has money but is seeking to borrow time, in the form of more money. Yet Keats’s request for time plays out as an encomium to the relative leniency of Taylor and Hessey: he is asking not for an extension, but for a less vigorous collections agency. In effect, he is seeking to be given a more indeterminate term—meaning that he wants his creditworthiness to be established by his not being good for his loan. And by being already “obliged” in advance, Keats seems to be requesting “a gift of time that is also a demand of time” (Derrida 41). I would say more about this, but I note (once again) that Dick has beaten me to Derrida and Given Time (of course!), so I must reluctantly yield.
“I am sure you are confident in my responsibility,” offers Keats, bafflingly. Here he writes without hesitation about the way that he imagines others to see him. We can feel doubly secure, as he is “sure” that “you are confident.” Keats seeks to confer himself with “responsibility” by imputing the impression of it to his addressees. He thus demonstrates theory of mind: as Jacques Lacan promises, “the subject will see himself, as one says, as others see him” (Seminar XI 268). A psychoanalyst would call this transference. Overriding all material and circumstantial evidence, including his disclosures that “duns” are bearing down on him and that he is barely covering his rent, is a general sense that Keats has “the sense [of] squareness that is always in me,” and that that “sense of squareness” is supposedly perceptible to others. That is how confidence in another person—and thus a system of credit—works in Keats’s estimation: it’s more a relay of perceptions than an evaluation of one’s financial history or prospects. The maidenhead seems to be his guarantee: like Madeline, he is known to be “so pure a thing, so free from moral taint,” even in the glut of his jouissance (Keats, “Eve” l.225). This “sense of squareness” that is “in me”—what Slavoj Žižek would call “factor X”—is supposed to guarantee the repayment (Žižek 145–150). It is in this sense that Keats’s “maidenhead,” and by extension the letter itself, can function as a commodity. Lacan mocked those who would treat the ego as “the subject’s collateral” (Écrits 282). Here, Keats is offering his superego as collateral—it is a property of his, something “always in me” and more than me, that supposedly governs my social and financial behaviors.
What could constitute “the sense of squareness” in this situation, in the absence of any squareness of accounts, and how could it guarantee a loan? All we know is that it is separate from Keats’s sense of “responsibility,” in that it becomes something supplementary to it: “I am sure you are confident in my responsibility,” he says, and (additionally, separately) “in the sense of squareness that is always in me.” Is there any relationship between these two items, or does one simply haunt the other from the other side, so to speak, of a Moebius strip? The former is claimed as an attribute of Keats’s, even an obligation: it is “my responsibility.” The latter is identified as something not naturally belonging to Keats, but inhabiting him—an alien presence “that is always in me.” How did it get there? It seems to have been installed in Keats by the gaze of the Taylor and Hessey—it is an index of the “confidence” with which they have (supposedly) noted Keats’s (supposed) “responsibility.” Imagining himself caught in the gaze of his publishers and aspiring to be worthy of their positive evaluation, Keats is separating his financial reliability along the axes of ego and superego: at the level of ego, he expects he will be worthy of their esteem, but then (also, separately) experiences that esteem again as their evaluator gaze returns. Very Madeline! This is what embeds this “sense of squareness” in him—it arrives as a relay from the Other. That is why it is “the object that cannot be swallowed”—the objet petit a— “never crosses this gap” (Lacan Seminar XI 270): it sustains the gap between ego (imaginary) and superego (symbolic), absolving Keats of his shortcomings but at the cost of his “maidenhead.”
The letter narrates an ongoing battle of wills: in writing, Keats indicates his “will” to lose his maidenhead. This is a will that extends beyond the requirements of necessity. He first says that he “must endeavor to lose [his] Maidenhead,” which makes us wonder about this compulsion—why “must”? Is he saying that the financial situation is so dire, that he must, unfortunately, ask for money and for time? Or does he think that asking for money, or for time, is something everyone must do eventually, so he had better get it over with—a reading that is more in tune with the “maidenhead” conceit. “So here goes—” sounds more like the self-talk of someone cheerfully acquiescing to a norm than someone acknowledging the degradations of personal finance. Yet the must is supplemented by the additional remark, “and I will to.” He must ask for money, yes of course, everyone does, but additionally he desires to.
What function does must fulfill in a world of such desires, which seems governed by the logic of “I will to—so here goes—”? Once again, it enables Keats to distinguish between the level of the ego, with its appeals to personal will, and the level of the superego, with its punishing requirements. But in distinguishing between these levels, Keats makes them coincide, as Keats’s “will” begins to supplement the general “will,” adding nothing to it but sustaining it. Sara Ahmed notes that such “wills,” which express the general “will” of symbolic obligations, become complicit in hegemonic power structures: “When willing ‘agrees’ with what is willed, the part recedes, becoming part of a background” (Ahmed). She retains hope for a willfulness that “might ‘come up’ when an act of willing does not agree with what has receded” (Ahmed). And yet what is truly willful here, in the sense that Ahmed has used that term, are the duns, which are the letter’s most superegoic characters: their voices externalized to become an unruly cacophony, their cries “have opened upon me with a cry most ‘untuneable’ never did you hear such un ‘gallant chiding.’” (Keats, Letters). The letter pits Keats’s own will, which accords with the general will, against the willfulness of the duns, who won’t keep quiet when they were supposed to. Far from being “lonely subjects, who are living rather precariously out on a limb” (Ahmed), these “pelican duns” seem to embody hegemony in their pursuit of squared ledgers and zeal for legal obligations. Here, unusually, precarity comes from a will to obey the rules, while those enforcing those rules seem willful. As a result—and this is exquisitely Keatsian—rule-obeying becomes punishable by further and more fanatical rule-obeying, once rule-obeying can be externalized as a superego. It is the big Other that chides ungallantly in this letter.
Another Will—namely, Shakespeare—bursts upon this scene very willfully, creating a maze of allusions that goes nowhere, as can be the wont of mazes. This had also been the case in the letter of 16 May, which used an even wider and wilder set of literary allusions. Responding to that letter, Dick finds that: “Keats saw a parallel between the structure of literary allegory and the magical substantiality of credit.” Dick posits that literary allusions enabled Keats to offer some cultural capital in place of any actual capital. It suggested:
an easy familiarity with the national poetic canon, a sign of breeding, education, and class, [and so] represents a kind of exclusive knowledge that . . . sustained young, indebted gentleman as they fought perennially with “the Dun.” This is Keats’ standard of value.
Yet Keats’s allusions in the 10 June letter function differently, or perhaps fail to function properly. They seem hyperactive and inapt, and prove unintentionally ominous and counterproductive. In describing the duns, Keats invokes a conversation in Act 4 of A Midsummer Night’s Dream, in which Hippolyta and Theseus admire and claim to emulate “the gallant chiding” of Hercules’s Spartan hounds, with their “cry more tuneable” (4.1.109–124). It seems strange to quote Shakespeare twice in a sentence, but to add “un” each time to negate the allusion, as if nothing from the allusion were actually applicable to the situation at hand. Is there such thing as an unallusion? Keats detests, rather than admires, the sound of the duns, which he calls (in an inversion of Shakespeare) “most ‘untuneable’” in their “un ‘gallant chiding.’” By “untuneable,” Keats seems to suggest that the duns do not have a coordinated effort underway to collect their debt; Keats, in this allusion, would be the bear cornered by the duns, who would be hunting dogs: from the bear’s perspective, I suppose, any barking would have always been “untuneable.” But the allusion does not work very well, as it encourages us, on the one hand, to admire the tenacity of the duns, and on the other hand, to consider them as easy to evade. Similarly, his dismissive reference to his creditors as “pelican duns” un-recalls Lear, who bemoans his ungrateful “pelican daughters.” Keats, in this allusion, is perhaps supposedly Lear, soon to be booted from his house in Hampstead thanks to “unkind daughters” who I suppose would be the duns (Shakespeare, King Lear 3.4.68–73). Yet the pelican metaphor works better for Shakespeare than for Keats: if the duns were ungrateful baby pelicans, would that mean that Keats was their parent—and thus not possessed of his “maidenhead”? It’s hard to see how Keats is in any sense wounding himself to feed his children, the duns. It makes more sense to think of Keats as the baby pelican, feasting upon the wounds of Taylor and Hessey, who have been willing to go to personal expense to support their fledgling poet and to publish him at a loss. The duns would then have nothing to do with the pelican metaphor, and Keats would be teaching Taylor and Hessey to regret having Keats in their stable of poets. As Gordon Downie would say: he is not Cordelia, he will not be there. Keats may even be making a third allusion to Shakespeare here—to the opening scene of Romeo and Juliet, where the Capulet serving-men Sampson and Gregory joke about decapitating maidens as a kind of sexual violence: “I’ll first begin with the maids, and off with their heads … the heads of their maids, or the maidenheads, take it in what sense thou wilt” (I.i.19–23). This allusion falters as well, in that it undermines the entire argument of the letter: it suggests that Keats’s “will” to lose his “maidenhead” to his publishers subjects him to a kind of summary execution, so that the financial help would really be a form of sexual violence and a death sentence. The proper thing to do, by this logic, would be to push John Keats “to the wall,” or marginalize him by ravishment—not to find ways of allowing him to survive. “Thou hadst been poor-john,” as Gregory would say, with reference to shriveled genitals (Romeo and Juliet 1.1.28): Keats sounds pretty self-pitying here. The letter’s Shakespeare allusions tend to work against Keats’s rhetorical aims, then, even when disavowed.
What the allusions do establish, though, is an enormous gap between the letter’s extravagant figural apparatuses and its banal, if presumptuous, purpose: Keats has constructed a baffling “maidenhead” conceit, and then supplemented it with an equally baffling array of inapt Shakespearean allusions, all so he can ask for a loan in the most awkward way possible. He then apologizes, incredibly, for not having asked for the money more straightforwardly: “I am afraid you will say I have ‘wound about with circumstance’ when I should have asked plainly.” Here is a second example of theory of mind: Keats is thinking about what his publishers will be thinking about him, upon receiving the ridiculous letter. He knows that the letter is extravagant, even decadent, and he expects, even sort of asks, to be chided for his bad manners. He sees that he has mismanaged his rhetorical aims. So why not throw away one’s draft and start again? Instead, as if compulsively, Keats introduces a fourth allusion to Shakespeare—this one to The Merchant of Venice—as his way of acknowledging that the previous three may have been a little much. He suspects that Taylor and Hessey aren’t the types to think kindly upon this highly pretentious network of failed allusions—so why not just one more? It seems strange to quote Merchant when asking for a loan, as it seems to make Endymion a pound of Keats’s flesh.
Perhaps the letter could have been more direct, but there’s a perfectly good explanation: he is feeling a little maidenish or so—and he feels his virginity come strong upon him! Well, that certainly explains it. Only Keats, who in three short paragraphs devised to separate the ego from the superego completely enough that he could suffer all the more, even when requesting leniency, could write such a thing. The consequent gap is how and why his virginity seems imposed on him from the outside, instead of being a property of his own experience! It comes upon him strong. Yes, this is a thoroughly weird way to ask for a loan.
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