Letter #21: To John Taylor and James Augustus Hessey, 10 June 1817

Today we encounter another letter focused on money issues. And just as we saw a month back with Keats’s 16 May letter to Taylor and Hessey, Keats again broaches the topic with some awkward attempts at humor. Really, this 10 June letter is a weird one. The main weirdness springs from Keats’s odd conceit of being a “Maiden” on the topic of money matters, anxious about losing his “virginity” by requesting money from his new publishers. As David Sigler points out in his virtuosic, rollicking response to the letter, it’s perhaps not the most effective way of asking for a loan in these circumstances. If you don’t laugh out loud while following along as Sigler ponders what Keats was thinking in crafting his financial request, then you might just hate laughter. And as is befitting of the author of Sexual Enjoyment in British Romanticism, Sigler examines the structure of Keats’s desire in the letter, and in so doing, he suggests it offers a tantalizing (though disappointing) first draft of The Eve of St. Agnes (with Keats himself in the place of the virginal Madeline). From a short letter concerning anxieties over scarce resources, Sigler creates a wealth of delightful insights for us to enjoy as we read.

In the spirit of commemoration, we thought we should also point out some intriguing details about this letter’s provenance. As remarked upon before, the majority of the letters between Keats and his publishers were sold at auction by Sotheby’s in 1903, and thereafter purchased by Amy Lowell, who bequeathed her Keats collection to Harvard in 1925. Well, since we’re talking about money, you might be interested to know that the Keats letters in Taylor’s possession (29 of them) were sold in one lot, to Bernard Quaritch, for the sum of £1070. Not too shabby! Using the MeasuringWorth calculator (thanks to David Sigler for bringing this tool to our attention in his post), that amount in 1903 would correspond to anywhere between £100,000 and £1,100,000 today (depending on what sort of estimate one uses). Come to think of it, I’d say that lot was a steal! The KLP would gladly pay that much for just one letter, let alone 29…

But what was that about commemoration, you ask? Well, today’s letter was sold on 8 or 9 June 1903, so almost exactly 86 years after it was first written. Another Keats treat did sell through Sotheby’s on 10 June: copies of all three of Keats’s books published in his lifetime. According to the advertisement in the Athenaeum of 6 June 1903, the “valuable Library of a Gentleman living in Yorkshire” went up for auction on 10 June, and it included Poems (1817), Endymion (1818), and Lamia, Isabella, and the Eve of St. Agnes (1820). We’ll forgive the Yorkshire gentleman for Poems and Lamia being still uncut when sold in 1903–even if he never read them, at least the books we’re effectively preserved. The books sold for £38, £30, and £60 respectively. Again, what a deal! Ah, to have been alive and moderately wealthy in 1903.

While the KLP pines away for Keatsiana sold long ago, we encourage you to forget any such troubles by reading Dr. Sigler’s response to cure whatever might ail you. The MS images, once again, come to us from Houghton Library at Harvard. And Forman’s 1883 edition once again supplies a decent public domain printed edition. Careful readers will note, however, that Forman excises the opening line for fear of his reader’s delicate sensibilities. And technically, since Forman didn’t have the MS, it’s really Milnes’s fault, since he made the excision in 1848, and Forman was just following Milnes’s text. No delicate sensibilities here! Keats begins with this opening: “I must endeavor to lose my Maidenhead with respect to money Matters as soon as possible–and I will to–So here goes.”


And one quick programming note before we go: there will be a bit of a letter hiatus after today. No more letters for summer until August! In the interim period, however, be on the lookout for other features, including a report on the Keats conference recently held at the Keats House in Hampstead, more pedagogy features, and another episode of This Week in Keats!


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