Letter #20: To John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey, 16 May 1817

As we’ve seen in the letters this spring, Keats has been on the move. When he last wrote to Taylor and Hessey (on 12 or 13 April), he had time (and paper) enough for but a “shabby affair” of a letter before leaving town. On 15 April Keats was in Southampton, from which he wrote to George and Tom (Richard Marggraf Turley’s response gives us an excellent account of what that journey from London to Southampton would have been like). For about a week, maybe a bit longer, Keats stayed at Carisbrooke on the Isle of Wight, where he began work on Endymion. While there he wrote to John Hamilton Reynolds, and for that letter we have not one, not two, but three fantastic responses! (Allison Dushane’s, Rosie Whitcombe’s, and Victoria Rego’s). Feeling restless and a bit too solitary, Keats relocated to Margate sometime around the last week of April and was joined there by his brother Tom. They would not remain there for long either, but Keats did write more of Endymion during those weeks, as well as three letters that have survived: to Leigh Hunt on 10 May (response from John Strachan), to Benjamin Haydon on 10 and 11 May (response from Mike Theune), and today’s letter to Taylor and Hessey. And then Keats sets off again! He’ll visit Canterbury and then Hastings (where he first meets Isabella Jones) before arriving back in Hampstead by early June.

In today’s playful letter to Taylor and Hessey, we see Keats addressing a topic that will remain a source of anxiety in future years: “that spring-headed Hydra the Dun.” Debts and other money matters will only get worse for the Keatses going forward. But now we see how funny Keats can be while discussing money. At the same time, one senses the uneasiness in Keats’s inclination to spin a plan for an allegory of debt when intending to simply express his thanks to Taylor and Hessey. We can also see that Keats’s relationship with his new publishers is a fresh one from the simple fact that he fills only two pages in this letter, and even adds a post-script at the bottom of the second page, perhaps after realizing that he ought to at least attempt to fill the whole of that second page. In this case it’s probably fortunate that the third page was blank, since the hastiness with which the letter was opened left a whole the size of the wax that had sealed the letter. One supposes that the busy publishers were trying to get through their correspondence quickly and didn’t realize that they might be eliminating precious words from the epistolary output of John Keats! Come on, Taylor and Hessey! The KLP forgives and forgets, though. And we thank the Taylor family for caring for these papers until they were sold at auction in 1903. Amy Lowell snatched up most of the Keats items from that sale the next year and bequeathed them to Harvard in 1925. We reproduce the MS images here courtesy of the Houghton Library, and we direct you once again to Harry Buxton Forman’s 1883 edition for a printed text (Forman most likely relied on Milnes’s 1848 or 1867 edition for this letter, not having the MS available to him).

For help understanding the broader historical and cultural context for Keats’s comments on debt and money, we have a response from Alex Dick. He expertly sketches that context, demonstrates its significance for writers during the period, and close reads the letter for an articulation of Keats’s thinking on value, monetary and poetic. Enjoy!


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