Illinois Wesleyan University
RE: Keats’s 23 August 1819 letter to John Taylor
As I detailed in my earlier analysis of the 14 August letter to Benjamin Bailey, Keats was passionately committed to solitary self-reliance, vehemently independent, and he dreaded the notion of settling—sedentary dependence on the binding affection of others, or the fixed prudentiality of “domestic cares” (25 July, 1819, to Fanny Brawne). Nevertheless, as the “dog-cart” labors of Keats’s diligent summer drew to a necessary close, so, too, did the poet’s accounts grow dangerously barren, making his paramount ideal of unsettled life increasingly unfeasible. Embroiled in the economically debilitating ordeal of an aunt’s “threatened chancery suit” (which promised to keep Keats’s inheritance out of his reach even longer than feared), his financial circumstances were dire, and, in his 23 August letter to John Taylor, Keats embarrassedly remarks, “I have been rather unfortunate lately in money concerns.” Thus, Keats was “forced by necessity” to rely on the goodwill and the sometimes questionable talents of his companions, as he begged for payment from Taylor and regrettably “engaged” with Brown in a Tragic collaboration. Amid financial desperation, the preferably unanchored and self-sufficient poet had no choice but to settle—and he did so in a spectacularly strange, domestic fashion, fraught with the humiliating echoes of traditional and repressive gender roles.
The first in a series of pitiful settlements, Keats’s 23 August letter to Taylor is written—primarily—with the admittedly “harsh, distant & indelicate” intention of settling—at the very least, alleviating—the poet’s worsening economic woes. Though he apologizes for the harshness of his “business manner of wording and proceeding,” Keats’s destitution was such that—beyond a mere “desire of order and regularity”—his very survival may have depended on this straightforward entreaty for funds. As their mutual companion Richard Woodhouse notes in his 31 August, 1819, letter to Taylor—who, alarmed by what he read in Keats’s request, had forwarded it to this common friend—Keats was inadvisably generous with friends, prone to the careless granting of unaffordable loans: “I wish he [Keats] could be cured of the vice of lending—for in a poor man, it is a vice.” Suddenly—excruciatingly—aware of this vice’s debilitating repercussions, Keats writes to Taylor that, in the unanticipated absence of other funds, his livelihood is regrettably contingent on the swift delivery of new and generous advances: “…I relied a little on some of my debts being paid—which are of a tolerable amount—but I have not had one pound refunded.” While understandable and fiscally responsible, Keats made such requests for repayment with problematic infrequency, and seems noticeably pained in his letter by the necessity of collection. His few, ineffectual appeals to outstanding debtors having failed, Keats—forced to settle and degradingly rely on the charitable impulses of his friend—now turned to Taylor for relief.
Still, no instance of Keats’s forced settling is quite so debasing or awkward as the financially necessary professional and personal relationship which Keats shared with Charles Brown. As I described in my introduction to this project, as well as in my response to the 31 July letter, Keats and Brown were woefully imperfect, imbalanced partners; and while Keats’s name now occupies a prime place amid the canonical catalog of English literary masters, the grave budgetary circumstances which motivated Otho the Great’s conception and creation effectively reduced Keats to the cheaply artistic position of an overqualified stenographer or poetic translator. Yet beyond the embarrassing inadequacies of this mechanical writing process, further, more pressing disparities—namely, Brown’s superior fortune—eventually left Keats the lesser, passive half of a bizarrely gendered dynamic: a strange kind of marriage which—in a predictably, though also ironically, heteronormative fashion—cast John Keats as the stereotypically subjugated bride and Charles Brown as his breadwinning groom.
With Otho’s tragic verse as the eventual defective offspring of their painstaking labors, the pair worked in close collaboration through much of the summer of 1819—were indeed united in a secret engagement, as Keats remarks to John Taylor: “We have together been engaged (this I should wish to remain secret) in a Tragedy which I have just finish’d.” Of course, both Keats and Brown were, around this time, additionally mired in the chaos of separate, secretive romances: Brown, with a possible clandestine marriage to his (perhaps illegitimately) impregnated Irish lover, Abigail O’Donohue, and Keats, with his disconcerting passions for Fanny Brawne. Nevertheless, the cozy cohabitation and single-minded laboring which birthed Otho constituted a similarly intimate (though noticeably less lustful) affair, especially given their couple-like conjoining of resources and sharing of financial burdens. It is difficult, then, even though the procession of romantic milestones is a little off (a proposal begins an engagement), to not read Keats’s next statement as a confirmation of their union: “Being thus far connected, Brown proposed to me, to stand with me…” Keats himself may have been swept up by his own figuration: he initially, mistakenly, calls his offered “Bill” a “Bond,” a financial and marital term.
Where Keats introduces the pretty concepts of proposal, bonds, and engagement, though, the marriage is really certified by Brown’s contribution to the letter. In yet another act of collaboration, Brown, on the letter’s doublings, finalizes and signs the contract. With no hemming, hawing, or “hammering” to be found, Brown’s is the husband’s contribution. His is the masculine, straightforward approach, and—all business—he is the one who knows that what he and Keats are creating is in fact a “Bill.” (Given the fact that there are no other crossed out words in Keats’s letter, one imagines that either Brown suggested the change after reading over what Keats wrote, or else that Keats recognized his error after having read Brown’s “Bill.” In either case, it was Brown who was in the know.) Acting, then, as a benevolent patriarch, Brown oversees the remedying of Keats’s destitution and past “vices,” and guarantees the soundness of Keats’s bill by bestowing upon his friend/betrothed that most traditional of marital offerings: his name: “…Keats especially would be uncomfortable at borrowing unless he gave all [he] in his power; [&] besides his own name to a Bill he has none to offer but mine, which I readily agree to…. It is therefore to be considered as a matter of right on your part to demand my name in conju[n]ction with his.” Brown’s professionalism, however, is so front-facing—so over-emphasized—in the letter that he, too, is likely compensating for the strangeness of his implicitly gendered relationship with Keats. Most notably, right after stating that he will gladly add his name to any of Keats’s bills, Brown is sure to parenthetically underscore that he is “speaking in a business-like way,” perhaps registering some awareness of his gesture’s romantically inflected nature.
Whether or not Keats’s and Brown’s suggestive use of matrimonial terminology was entirely conscious (perhaps even a shared running joke), the consistent tonal seriousness of the 23 August letter, paired with some crucial symbolic shifts near the close of Keats’s contribution, suggests the genuine soberness with which Keats internalized his unwitting femininity. Although the letter begins as a businesslike request for payment, the repeated admittance of his pitiful economic state—his reliance on debtors and wifely ties to Brown—seems to weigh on Keats, who, in a presumably subconscious effort to compensate for his stereotypically ladylike condition, turns to more masculine symbols and subject matter. Even while inquiring after monetary scraps, Keats—sure of his own chameleonic literary skill—boastfully assures Taylor that, given certain artistic compromises, his writing could effortlessly charm the masses: “I feel every confidence that if I choose I may be a popular writer.” Obstinate in his adherence to high-minded artistic standards, however, Keats would rather solicit his friend—pitifully—for the means of his survival—quite possibly, would rather starve—than capitulate to the whims of the reading public: “Who would wish to be among the commonplace crowd of the little-famous–who[m] are each individually lost in a throng made up of themselfes? is this worth louting or playing the hypocrite for? To beg suffrages for a seat on the benches of a myriad aristocracy in Letters?” Delivered with a flair of braggadocious machismo, Keats’s hardline stance against so-called “popular writers” is particularly impactful here, given the poet’s regular association of popular and female authors: “the drawling of the blue stocking literary world” (14 August, 1819, to Benjamin Bailey).
Though Keats certainly disliked and disrespected a number of more marketable men in his field, the poet’s exceptional disdain for women contrasts sharply with his wifely relationship to, and financial dependence on, Brown—an emasculating predicament ineffectually offset by Keats’s proclamation of faith in the romanticized manliness of solitude and pride: “…‘How a solitary life engenders pride and egotism!’ True: I know it does but this Pride and egotism will enable me to write finer things than any thing else could—so I will indulge it.” Moreover, amid all this theoretically redeeming bravado, Keats not-so-subtly compensates by injecting his letter with a thoroughly masculine and militaristic metaphor: “Just so much as I am hu[m]bled by the genius above my grasp, am I exalted and look with hate and contempt upon the literary world—A Drummer boy who holds out his hand to a field marshall—that Drummer boy with me is the good word and favour of the public.”
Yet in spite of all his blustering chauvinism—despite presenting himself as the illustrious and dignified “field marshall”—Keats, in the context of Brown’s own words, still resembles that unremarkable, unknown, and powerless “Drummer boy,” if not some soldier’s downtrodden wife. A visible instance of collaboration reminiscent of a co-written passage in the 31 July letter to C.W. Dilke, Brown actually writes his clarifying note to Taylor—his 23 August letter—on a portion of Keats’s entreaty for payment. Whereas, in the 31 July letter, Keats is driven to reclaim “possession” of his correspondence, now Brown’s intrusive manner of writing goes virtually unchecked by the now-destitute and dominated poet. Keats’s postscript serves mainly to confirm what Brown has written, though it also exceeds such propriety, concluding with Keats’s endeavor to uphold his reputation as unsettled. In reality, Keats asserts, he is a fickle companion: “Had I to borrow money from Brown and were in your house, I should request the use of your name in the same manner.”
With such weirdness permeating both Keats’s and Brown’s respective sections of the letter, it should come as no surprise that its initial recipient found the correspondence somewhat troubling. Having been forwarded the letter, Woodhouse, in his 31 August reply to Taylor, attempts “with [his] usual disposition to understand” the complex and irregular “terms” in Keats’s distracted request. Still, neither Woodhouse nor Taylor seems especially concerned with the secret and strictly gendered relationship in which their friends are evidently engaged. Whether they—somehow—failed to notice the peculiar couple’s pseudo-marital dynamic, or whether the issue was simply too bizarre—too taboo—to even address, is unclear, but Woodhouse’s letter dwells primarily on what likely was Taylor’s main concern: the tangentially related issue of Keats’s pride. Whereas Taylor, in his prior letter to Woodhouse, apparently expressed his discomfort with the young poet’s self-described and flaunted “Pride,” Woodhouse is generally unconcerned by Keats’s youthful (and deserved) cockiness, confident in Keats’s personal integrity, as well as his poetic prowess. For Woodhouse, Keats is describing “literary Pride,—that disposition which arises out of a Consciousness of superior & improving poetical Powers.” Offering to “spare £50” to aid in Taylor’s loan to Keats, Woodhouse is evidently willing to overlook—in fact, he aims, as much as possible, to sever, to cure—those temporary bonds and compensating sensations of Pride which accompany a symbolic marriage or financial desperation; prescient, observant, he recognizes the ability of Keats, under more favorable economic circumstances, to join the ranks of history’s greatest writers—to remain unsettled, ethereal, free: “Whatever people [say they] regret that they could not do for Shakespeare or Chatterton, because he did not live in their time, that I would embody into a Rational principle, and (with due regard to certain expediencies) do for Keats.”