Mental Debauches and Manufactured Rags

Alexander Dick
University of British Columbia

Re: Keats’s 16 May 1817 letter to Taylor and Hessey

The subject of this letter from Keats to his publishers John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey is debt. Keats would return to this theme many times in his correspondence with his publishers. And why not? Contracts between writers and publishers during the Romantic period were notoriously gregarious, with each side constantly cajoling each other for promises of investment and guarantees of return. Keats had requested a short advance on his contract for Endymion and they obliged the poet with a note for 20 pounds, which Keats dismissively calls a “manufactured rag.” But Keats’s delight in receiving the loan, an obligation that will allow him to repay the obligations he already owes to others, is palpable. This strange combination of attitudes tells us something very important about the centrality of money, debt, obligation, and friendship to Keats’ poetics if not to Romanticism more broadly.

Debt had been something of a national obsession for decades by the time Keats began his poetic career. The steady increase in the national debt throughout the eighteenth century inspired a good deal of (mainly political) opposition. But things came to head in February, 1797 when a small troop of French soldiers landed at Fishguard in South Wales. Although the soldiers were quickly rounded up, fears of an invasion spread rapidly and frightened country farmers and merchants to take their paper notes to their local banks and demand gold, real money, as they were promised they could on each and every bill. The result was a mass financial panic. The Bank of England closed its doors and refused to exchange any gold for notes, an action known as a “suspension of cash payments.” That the Bank of England held no gold at the time (it had been shipped to the continent to pay for the war effort) was not mentioned. Intended to last about six weeks, the suspension actually went on for twenty-four years.

In the meantime, as I have discussed at length elsewhere, economists, politicians, journalists, and poets debated the relative merits of a paper money system, which Britain then had, and the gold standard, which Britain had never actually had but which was being devised as the most economically prudent and philosophically rational solution to the presumed fragility of paper credit and promoted as the “ancient standard of the realm.” The “bullion controversy,” as its now called, began in earnest in 1810 when a bill drawn up by Francis Horner, one of the founding editors of The Edinburgh Review and then a young MP, urging Parliament to lift the suspension of cash payments and allow the free exchange of coin and bullion to circulate in the banking sector and between Britain and the continent, failed to pass on the grounds that the existing paper credit system was necessary to continue the war. For the next several years, the debate waxed and waned without much effect. Whiggish political economists (like David Ricardo who began his writing career as a commentator on money matters) warned that “excessive” issues of paper notes would inflate prices on domestic goods and thus threaten the equilibrium of the “natural” market. But others, bankers and accountants especially, observed that the economy was doing quite well without gold anyway, so why should an arbitrary standard be imposed on it? Even during the agricultural crises that followed the victory at Waterloo, when bankruptcies threatened the very farmers who had sustained the credit system in the first place, the Bank and Parliament refused to lift the suspension. In the fall of 1816, a few months before Keats penned his letter, Parliament passed at Act of reform the silver coinage, which effectively turned all coins valued below 1 guinea into tokens and put Britain on a gold standard for the first time in its history. But the suspension continued until 1821.

It wasn’t the only suspension of cash payments that concerned the public. Indeed, gentlemen of Keats’ acquaintance had no trouble using and passing paper money unbacked by any metallic guarantee, as we have all been doing quite happily since the Nixon administration suspended the international gold standard in 1971. What really concerned the journalists and writers that Keats knew and read was forgery: through the later 1810s, hundreds of people were transported or even executed merely for holding forged, small 1 and 2 pound notes which even the Bankers themselves could not tell from “authentic ones.” Keats’ expression “manufactured rags” was a slang term for paper banknotes that also referenced the production of rag paper for making books. An anonymous pamphlet published in 1818, entitled Rotten Rag Manufactory!!!, subtitled, The Threadneedle‐Street Catechism; or Bank Bubble Exposed devoted four of its eight pages to railing against the Bank’s use of the courts as a way to protect its already engrossed and enfeebled financial system. It contended that the forgery crisis had been caused by “the common and cheap manner in which … notes are executed; by which any engraver’s apprentice may easily imitate them; thus holding out temptations to weak and wicked persons” and recommended that the only way to secure the currency against forgery was either for the bank to recall all small notes and issue instead “tokens, issued under the mint price” or, at least, for merchants to be allowed to stick examples of forgeries in their shop‐windows to show people what they looked like. Unfortunately, the pamphlet goes on, Bank clerks had taken to “collaring” any merchant sticking up forged notes in their windows on the charge of holding a forged note. Other caricaturists like James Gillray (in the 1790s), George Cruikshank, and William Hone depicted the paper credit system as itself “forgery” and thus, as Ian Haywood has noted, created in the public mind an equation between government finance and arbitrary injustice.

But other thinkers produced various theoretical justifications for maintaining the debt. Samuel Taylor Coleridge, for instance, believed that debt was essential to Christian faith. The Crucifixion was God’s gift to humanity and we are thus obliged perpetually in return for our salvation. Echoing Edmund Burke, Coleridge urged in his Statesman’s Manual and Second Lay Sermon (both published around the time of this letter) that the real arbiters of the national debt were not political economists but the Clerisy, clergyman and aristocrats, the keepers of the nation’s properties and values, and who, in turn, were owed the thanks (and tithes) of the whole population. Percy Shelley, of course, had no truck with Coleridge’s clerical standard, and though, like the radicals, William Cobbett, Thomas Wooler, and William Hone, that he professed to admire, he railed against the existing paper credit system, he did not endorse gold. Instead, Shelley believed in what I have elsewhere called a “poetic standard,” a consciousness of the need for symbols and metaphors to circulate universal signs accompanied by a concomitant awareness, known primarily to the poets themselves, of their inter-relations, complexity, and evanescence. Poetry, for Shelley, was the embodiment of an ideal system, one that was in constant need of reformulation, to which the administrators of economic welfare should appeal. This is why poets were “unacknowledged legislators.”

Keats’ allusive and effervescent manner in his latter to Taylor and Hessey makes the internal contradictions of the poetic standard immediately evident. Evading the demands of creditors—the ‘Dun’—as Keats imagines himself doing here is not a matter of substituting a fraudulent sign of value (paper) for a real one (gold), but of transforming one medium of exchange into another. The imagined myriad of fanciful weaponry, all of which he calls “scaly commodities” and which probably were meant to refer to the “metallic” defenses of the economists against the ever-threatened catastrophe that was the national debt. As Keats’ little allegory implies, the solution to debt, national and personal, is not metal (which is itself presented as farcically excessive) but the “Bank-note of faith and the cash of salvation.” In one image, Keats parodies both the fetishization of real value shared by liberal and conservative economists and the kind of religious justifications for the continuation of the debt outlined by Coleridge—which Keats likely would have known through Hazlitt’s review of The Statesman’s Manual published in early 1817. The promiscuously satirical tone suggests that Keats himself disdained the whole debate. On the other hand, as Rollins’ scrupulous notes make clear, Keats’ references to a panoply of chivalric romances, Spenser’s Fairie Queene (the “spring-headed Hydra”, Archimago, the Castle of Carelessness), the anonymous Amadis of Gaul (Urganda), Virgil’s Aeneid (Sybil’s leaves), Dryden’s Alexander’s Feast (“never ending still beginning”), Cibber’s Love’s Last Shift (“Sir Novelty Fashion”), and Shakespeare’s Venus and Adonis (“Snail’s Horn”) and The Tempest (“green sour ringlets”), suggests that Keats saw a parallel between the structure of literary allegory and the magical substantiality of credit, a parallel that is also evident in his verse. But it also shows, perhaps more tellingly, the way that an easy familiarity with the national poetic canon, a sign of breeding, education, and class, represents a kind of exclusive knowledge that defines in turn Margot Finn calls the “character” that sustained young, indebted gentleman as they fought perennially with “the Dun.” This is Keats’ standard of value.

Nevertheless, the gentlemanly “poetic” standard, the paper-thin romance of both literary imitability and capitalist exchange that enables him to keep the dragons at bay also gives Keats a “swimming in the head.” But like Derrida, who in Given Time: I. Counterfeit Money, and in spite of his awareness of the fictitiousness of money as such, argued that its “true” value is irreducible except to already circulating debts and gifts, Keats finds in his own contemplations on money and value an impulse or promise to carry on, a philosophical confidence that is at the same time a product of his own financial and intellectual embarrassment, to use Samuel Johnson’s definition of the term to mean “perplexity,” what Keats calls his “anxiety” or “mental debauch.” There is no “real” power in money, or even thinking about money, but all the same, the 20 pounds marks a “Progression,”—to leave Margate and go to Canterbury, to “remember” yet another literary personality (Chaucer), to see himself as a “billiard ball” (an image Rollins noted Keats probably derived from Hazlitt’s lecture “On Liberty and Necessity” but which is also a riff on Hume’s refutation of necessary causality), to complete his poem. The media of credit and obligation proliferate here, with only the nose-tapping understanding of its immateriality to sustain its real value. In his next letter to Taylor and Hessey (June 10), Keats would equate his need for money to pay his debts with “los[ing] his Maidenhead,” an image that conjures both the loss of innocence and the pleasure of sex. The letter concludes, “I shall be happy to hear any little intelligence in the literary or friendly way when you have time to scribble.” Gossip too is a medium of value, like allegory, friendship, romance, and desire.

So where is Keats at this moment? Like a banknote, it seems, Keats is nowhere and everywhere: he is perpetually in/between. He is the 20 pounds he receives from Taylor and Hessey which they in turn procured from their banker, who took in money from another investor, who may have procured it as another loan, or a banknote, or a bill of exchange… and on it goes. Like literature, like gossip, like a billiard ball, like money, Keats moves, Keats circulates. An intrepid traveller, Keats knows that this circulation is the meaning of his character, his experience the source of his value.

Eventually, debts would catch up with Keats. The “anxiety” Keats implies means both energy and fear. As well as his own obligation to Taylor and Hessey to finish Endymion (which clearly gives him pause), not to mention the various creditors he apparently relied on during his travels, including the landlady of the Bell tavern on the Margate High Street, Keats was worried about poor sales and bad reception and these did nothing for his straightened circumstances and, later, weak health. Keats also had the misfortune of an “expectation,” what Robert Gittings termed “the Keats Inheritance” a sum of more than 3,000 pounds that he believed was due to him from his grandfather’s estate, but which, because of its own vague wording and perpetual legal delays, the poet never actually saw. This did not stop many of his friends and associates—including Reynolds and Hunt—from asking Keats for personal loans and which, for the sake of said friendships, Keats was loathe to refuse much as he himself here and in the letter that follow repeatedly cajole Taylor and Hessey for loans and advances. In the years that followed excess credit became more of a concern for Keats. After reading The Cenci, a text that itself is replete with subtle references to the credit crisis, he warned Shelley to clip his outlandish poetical wings and “load every rift with ore.” But, as this early letter makes clear, Keats’ financial struggles and debauched reflections can help us explain the economic and political contexts for his vivacious and allusive style.


Works Cited

—. Rotten‐Rag, Manufactory!!!. The ThreadneedleStreet Catechism, 7th ed., London: Fairburn, 1818.

Derrida, Jacques. Given Time I: Counterfeit Money. Trans. Peggy Kamuf. U of Chicago P, 1992.

Dick, Alexander. Romanticism and the Gold Standard: Money, Literature, and Economic Debate in Britain 1790-1830. Palgrave, 2013.

Finn, Margot. The Character of Credit: Personal Debt in English Culture, 1740-1914. Cambridge, 2003.

Gittings, Robert. The Keats Inheritance. Heinemann, 1964.

Haywood, Ian. Romanticism and Caricature, Cambridge UP, 2013.

Keats, John. The Letters of John Keats Vol. 1, 1814-1818, ed. Hyder Edward Rollins, Cambridge UP, 1958.

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