Monday, March 03, 2008

Scholars Urge Caution on Coleridge Attribution

In last weekend's links and reviews post I noted the TLS review of a new Oxford University Press edition of an 1821 translation of Goethe's Faustus, which has been attributed by Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick to Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Not so fast, say Roger Paulin, William St Clair and Elinor Shaffer, who have rushed a 35-page review essay [PDF] into publication via the Institute of English Studies at the University of London's School of Advanced Study.

Paulin, St Clair and Shaffer take strong exception to the presentation of the volume as "containing a work of Coleridge not previously accepted as such. ... The attribution of Faustus to Coleridge is presented ... not as a hypothesis but as established fact. Nowhere in this volume is any indication given that the question is an open one, a decision that raises the scholarly stakes. If the attribution of the translation can be validated, the republication of Faustus would indeed be a major event. On the other hand, if Faustus is not a translation made by Coleridge, or is not likely to have been made by Coleridge, in whole or in part, then it is not only the reputation of the volume's editors that is hazarded but those of the managers, the academic advisers, and the Delegates of Oxford University Press who decided that it deserved to be published in the uncompromising form in which it has now appeared."

The team walks us through the entire "contemporaneous biographical documentary record" using transcriptions of letters between Coleridge and the publishers Boosey and Sons, the firm by which the Faustus edition in question was first published. From the correspondence they conclude, as they note previous scholars have also done: "The sequence seems clear. Booseys, who had heard that Coleridge had once intended to translate of Faust [sic] ... approached him with a proposal; Coleridge declined the invitation; Booseys thanked him and turned elsewhere, picking up some of Coleridge's suggestions. ... The conjecture [made by Burwick and McKusick] requires that, after the completed exchanges with Booseys in May 1820, there was another exchange, or series of exchanges, that are unrecorded. The conjecture requires that Coleridge changed his mind, took an initiative, decided to break an agreement that he had made in 1814 with the publisher Murray, went back to Booseys, and despite his earlier indignant protests that he would never accept anonymous subliterary jobbing work, and that he would never bargain, he nevertheless negotiated a publishing agreement. ... The conjecture also requires that Coleridge, a writer well known for his table talk and loose tongue, acted so far out of character that he never permitted a hint of his involvement with Faustus to pass his lips. Indeed it requires that he misled his closest friends over the remainder of his life." Well when you put it like that ...

The review essay includes several items of correspondence which appear rather damaging to the editors' claims if taken at face value. A letter from Maria Gisborne recording a 25 June 1820 visit with Coleridge reads in part "He should like to translate the Faust, but he thinks that there are parts which could not be endured in english and by the English, and he does not like to attempt it with the necessity of the smallest mutilation." And, the team notes, "For their conjecture to be sustained, Burwick and McKusick have to disregard or overturn explicit denials made by Coleridge near the end of his life" ("I need not tell you, that I never put pen to paper as translator of Faust," he said on 16 February 1833). A series of correspondence from Boosey and Sons to Goethe (through an intermediary) regarding the translation and publication of his works and some accompanying engravings fails entirely to mention Coleridge.

Another section of the review essay takes up the question of the engravings which appeared in the Boosey and Sons volume, reproductions of those done by Henry Moses in 1820. They take issue with the way the images have been portrayed by Burwick and McKusick - arguing, and fairly so in my view, that rather than seeing the engravings as simple illustrations to a printed text, it was the text which "presented itself as a piece of subliterary work that was a useful ancillary to the engravings." Burwick and McKusick have, they argue, "forced a modest text that was commissioned, designed, and manufactured to accompany an art publication into the conventions of a literary text with inserted illustrations."

But that's not all. Paulin, St Clair and Shaffer also claim that Burwick and McKusick have cherry-picked evidence from contemporary reviews to support their hypothesis - and the evidence for this is remarkably clear (see pp. 24-27).

The authors conclude their essay by suggesting several possible sources for the translation, including George Soane (who has been the accepted translator for quite some time), and by noting flatly "The case that Faustus is a work by Coleridge has not been made. The conclusion of the predecessors of Burwick and McKusick, who went over the ground with the information available in 1947 and decided that the piece was not written by him, has not been overturned. Indeed, the large amount of more recent research, and the new archival, unnoticed and other information that we ourselves have added, makes the attribution even less plausible." They suggest that the volume "could have been presented as a matter on which questions of attribution are more open - entitled, for example, 'Goethe's Faust: Translations, prefaces, engravings, analyses, and other writings associated with the early reception of Goethe's Faust into English.' ... As it is, with Faustus, From the German of Goethe, Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, potential purchasers and readers should be warned. This volume is not what it appears to be. Nor is it consistent with the normal standards of Oxford University Press. We suggest that [OUP] should consider amending their website or including a reference to this review article."

The current OUP web-catalog text certainly doesn't leave any room for the reasonable doubt which I think has been inserted into the debate: "The major work of German literature, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's Faust (1808), was translated into English by one of Britain's most capable mediators of German literature and philosophy, Samuel Taylor Coleridge." Not being by any stretch a Coleridge scholar, I don't have a dog in this fight - but I think the review essay does raise extremely serious questions about the attribution that I hope Burwick and McKusick (as well as OUP) will see fit to answer.

[Update: Please see Frederick's Burwick's reponse to this post in the comments]


Frederick Burwick said...

To those interested in the arguments put forward in “A Gentleman of Literary Eminence,” by Roger Paulin, William St Clair, and Elinor Shaffer.

Please consider the following points:

1) The letters from Bohte stating that Coleridge is translating Faust cannot be dismissed as literary gossip. Bohte intended to publish his own dual-language edition with a translation by George Soane, and he was keenly aware of the rivalry with Boosey.
2) The argument that Boosey claimed that Faust was being translated by a “Gentleman of literary eminence,” and that Coleridge wasn’t really a gentleman, is specious wordplay.
3) in my annotations to the text, I cite over 800 verbal echoes from Coleridge’s other poetry, some of passages of several lines; some with characteristic phrasing often repeated in Coleridge’s poetry. The reviewers do not acknowledge these.
4) All the evidence, circumstantial and textual, points to Coleridge; no evidence points elsewhere. And “gentlemen” like Soane and Mellish aren’t viable candidates for the edition published by Boosey in 1821. Our edition includes all of the translation that Soane was able to complete. There is no similarity in style to Coleridge’s translation.
5) Mellish, another “gentleman” proposed as possible translator, might well have been considered a rival when Coleridge translated Schiller’s Wallenstein (1800), a play that Mellish wanted to translate, but then translated Schiller’s Maria Stuart (1801) instead. By 1820 Mellish was no longer engaging in any literary translation.
6) The reviewers overlook the fact that Bohte published another edition of Faust after Soane let him down and abandoned the project.
7) The reviewers fail to mention that, in addition to twice referring to Coleridge as translator of Faust, Goethe also translated from Coleridge, and appropriated to himself, the lines on ‘an orphic tale’ originally entitled “To a Gentleman” (later “To William Wordsworth”). Of course, according to the criteria of the reviewers, Wordsworth would not properly be considered a “gentlemen” either.
8) the reviewers challenge the attribution of Boileau as author of the prose translation (Boosey 1820), but fail to notice that in his review of Hayward’s translation, Boileau cited this work as his own.

Rather than extending this list of oversights, misstatements, and misrepresentations in the review article, let me encourage readers to look at the work being reviewed: Faustus: From the German of Goethe Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (Oxford, 2007)

Frederick Burwick

Paul Cheshire said...

If you are interested in following the debate over this attribution claim, we have set up a page at with postings
and links to relevant material.

curator said...

Can this response really be by Prof Burwick? It's so ludicrously inept that I wondered if it could be a hoax, perhaps by a mischievous collegue. If it really is Prof. Burwick's work then I hope he can be persuaded to withdraw it, in his own interests, before it ruins the credibility of his edition.

JBD said...

Curator - the response posted here by Burwick is the same as that which has been mounted on the "Friends of Coleridge site (here) - see "Response by Frederick Burwick ...", the third item under the "Reviews and responses" heading.

Frankie said...

I agree completely with curator. That response has me more convinced than ever that the attribution is false. "All the evidence, circumstantial and textual, points to Coleridge; no evidence points elsewhere." This is a ludicrously absolute claim. Burwick's harping on the "gentleman" business--a point the reviewers put forward in a clearly qualified way--also suggests a poorly tempered mind. And then there's the studious avoidance of all the most damning evidence, which they put forward at the beginning of their essay.
I hope further scrutiny is brought to bear on this edition--as Burwick and McKusick should as well.

Hartley T. Comberbache said...
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Hartley T. Comberbache said...
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Dr. Anthony J. Lomenzo said...

As I stated on Amazon-com where the Burwick/McKusick book is being sold and at the Harvard University Houghton Library blog, the case for Coleridge as the translator of the Goethe "Faust" material has NOT been definitively established.

It still remains within the realm of conjectured opinion versus purported definitive fact and I would suggest that the global controversy itself on the matter duly attests to that fact.

At the 2006 International Coleridge Conference and prior to the book's 2007 publication, it was clear that the premise of the authors with regard to Coleridge as the alleged translator of Goethe's Faust was not accepted by all the attendees as definitive fact [versus as an otherwise conjectured hypothesis] prompting Professor McKusick to muse in a subsequent interview, "My colleague, Fred Burwick, had a wonderful comeback, it's from the German composer Carl Orff: 'Where no one has sought, until now, no one has found anything' ."

My rebuttal to that would be to borrow from Coleridge who himself borrowed from Burnet in the preface to his "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner", to wit, "Sed veritati interea invigilandum est, modusque servandus, ut certa ab incertis, diem a nocte, distinguamus." [** "But at the same time we must be vigilant for truth, and maintain proportion, that we may distinguish certain from uncertain, day from night."]

In short, the international jury, as it were, is still out on this issue.

Dr. Anthony J. Lomenzo