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‘Faust’ - translated by Coleridge?

Wednesday, January 24th, 2007 at 09:27 by Sue Stewart

There‚??s something about Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. People see him in a certain light, the dreamy half-light of opium dreams and fertile imaginings. Unfortunately, I can‚??t think of him without giggling.

It‚??s John Mortimer‚??s fault. If he hadn‚??t passed on his father‚??s words: “Have you ever seen the pictures of the wretched poet Coleridge? He smoked opium. Take a look at Coleridge, he was green about the gills and a stranger to the lavatory”*, I might still have an unsullied image of the literary genius. But he did, so I don‚??t. So much for Romanticism.

Actually, it‚??s the fact that Coleridge is so very sullied that gives an American academic the basis for his contention. Coleridge got himself into debt while at Jesus College, Cambridge and never did take his degree. He joined the Dragoons (gosh, how dashing) only to get himself discharged for repeatedly falling off his horse. He even wanted to set up his own political system, pantisocracy (just don‚??t go there), long before he became an opium addict and prey to all the troubles that addiction brings (lavatorial estrangement being the least of them, I suspect).

He was a stranger to the idea of honouring an obligation, too, since in 1814 he apparently accepted a ¬£100 advance from the publisher John Murray to translate Goethe‚??s play ‚??Faust‚??, but never completed the translation. In fact, after two months he gave up on it. Or so everyone - especially John Murray - thought. Until now.

Professor James McKusick, dean of the University of Montana’s Davidson Honors College, contends that not only did Coleridge complete the translation, but around 1820 he sold it - to a rival of Murray‚??s. Thomas Boosey had some engravings illustrating ‚??Faust‚?? and wanted a translation to run alongside them. The engravings, with verses by ‚??Anonymous‚?? were published in 1821 and again in 1824. Everyone knows that Boosey wanted Coleridge to do the verses (allegedly). So he must have. He had a habit to support, after all.

McCusick says Coleridge would have insisted that the verse was published anonymously because Murray would have wanted back his advance, plus interest, plus damages for breach of contract if he‚??d known the work had gone to his rival. He says, ‚??We don’t have Coleridge’s direct response, but I speculate it went something like [that].‚?? Well, of course. As long as they get paid, poets don‚??t really care about getting credit for their work, do they?

On the plus side, McCusick‚??s argument is supported by stylometric analysis, a new computer-based tool which indicates there‚??s a ‚??high probability‚?? that ‚??Anonymous‚?? and Coleridge in this case are the same writer. In other words, ‚??Computer says yes‚??.

Actually, I hope that it‚??s right. I love the idea of long-lost masterpieces being found in dusty old boxes in University store-rooms. But I can‚??t help remembering the programmers‚?? mantra, too: ‚??Garbage in, garbage out.‚?? That doesn‚??t just apply to computing.


*John Mortimer, “Clinging to the Wreckage”

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