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]