Letter #43: To Benjamin Robert Haydon, 23 January 1818

The 23rd of January was a busy day of letter-writing for Keats. It’s a sad fact that many letters Keats wrote have not survived. It’s simply the nature of things. Paper is ephemeral, and people don’t always preserve correspondence forever. We’re coming to terms with it. So we know that there are plenty of other days when Keats probably wrote four or more different letters. But today is unique: today marks the only day on which Keats wrote four letters that have all survived! It was such a busy day of letter-writing that he even commented on it in the fourth letter, to George and Tom: “this is my fourth letter this morning & I feel rather tired & my head rather swimming–so I will leave it open till tomorrow’s post.”

OK, so that letter comes to us only via a Jeffrey transcript, and Keats wrote it across the 23rd and the 24th, but still. Pretty cool stuff. There are many days from which we have multiple letters that survive, but today is the only 4-bagger. (Apologies to our UK readers for the baseball metaphor.) In fact, strangely enough, there is only one day from which we have three letters that survive (22 September 1819). All the rest of the multiple days are for two letters. All of that said, we should note that there could be other 4- or 3-letter days, but many of the letters, especially once we get to 1819 and 1820, are difficult to date precisely, so really we’re talking about the only certain 4- and 3-letter days.

First up, then, is the letter to Haydon. The topic is a proposal John Taylor seems to have devised upon seeing the fair copy of Book I of Endymion. He thought Haydon could do an illustration of a scene from the poem which could be engraved and featured as a frontispiece to the volume. Taylor even offered to go with the bigger format of a quarto book if Haydon agreed. Keats’s letter to Haydon shows why it happen this way: basically Haydon (understandably) felt uncomfortable trying to rush something to completion. As we’ll see from the day’s next letter (to Taylor), Haydon even graciously proposed another idea (an engraving of one of Haydon’s sketches of Keats’s head in profile). That didn’t happen either. Alas.

For a response to both the Haydon letter and the Taylor letter, we are debuting a new format: the KLP Interview! Brian Rejack sat down with Thora Brylowe (University of Colorado, Boulder) to talk about some of the bigger issues at work in the relationships between painters, authors, engravers and publishers during the period (which she explores in more depth in her forthcoming book from Cambridge UP, Romantic Art in Practice: Cultural Work and the Sister Arts, 1760–1820). We hope you enjoy it!

Before heading over to check out the interview, you can read the letter where it was first published, The Athenaeum in May 1904. The letter, which is now in the British Library, appears to have taken a different path than many of the other letters to Haydon (which Haydon tipped in to his diary, and which were eventually acquired as a unit by Arthur Houghton and then bequeathed to Harvard). Harry Buxton Forman learned of this letter from the Henry Sotheran bookshop (still in existence today), although where they acquired it remains unknown to us at the moment. In any case, you can read the letter and Forman’s thoughts on it via this link or the image below.

Harry Buxton Forman on the (then) new Keats-Haydon letter, in the May 21, 1904 issue of the Athenaeum. Click for full size.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *