Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period

Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period

Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period

Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period


In a series of articles published in Tait's Magazine in 1834, Thomas DeQuincey catalogued four potential instances of plagiarism in the work of his friend and literary competitor Samuel Taylor Coleridge. DeQuincey's charges and the controversy they ignited have shaped readers' responses to the work of such writers as Coleridge, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and John Clare ever since. But what did plagiarism mean some two hundred years ago in Britain? What was at stake when early nineteenth-century authors levied such charges against each other? How would matters change if we were to evaluate these writers by the standards of their own national moment? And what does our moral investment in plagiarism tell us about ourselves and about our relationship to the Romantic myth of authorship?

In Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period, Tilar Mazzeo historicizes the discussion of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century plagiarism and demonstrates that it had little in common with our current understanding of the term. The book offers a major reassessment of the role of borrowing, textual appropriation, and narrative mastery in British Romantic literature and provides a new picture of the period and its central aesthetic contests. Above all, Mazzeo challenges the almost exclusive modern association of Romanticism with originality and takes a fresh look at some of the most familiar writings of the period and the controversies surrounding them.


This book reconsiders allegations that the Romantic poets were plagiarists. in many ways, the subject is a treacherous one. Even after some two hundred years, more or less, these charges of plagiarism evoke strong responses. My objective here, however, is not to reignite a familiar controversy, and it is not to defend or to indict either an individual poet or a literary movement. This is not a book about guilt or innocence, although those have been the terms of the plagiarism debate almost since its inception.

Rather, this study sets out to answer what turns out to be a deceptively simple question: What constituted plagiarism in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? From this central historical question, a series of other questions inevitably develop, and these become the topics that give shape to the chapters that constitute this book. For if plagiarism did, indeed, mean something different in Georgian Britain—and how could it not, in a period where the relationship to literary property was legally, culturally, and historically distinctive—then what was at stake when Romantic-period writers levied these charges against each other? How was the articulation of acceptable literary appropriation framed within British culture? To what extent did the rhetoric of plagiarism intersect with the other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses of inheritance, legitimacy, miscegenation, colonialism, consciousness, gender, class, improvement, and enclosure? Was the relationship between commercial print culture and literary culture, between reviewer and poet, constitutive? Perhaps most importantly, has Romanticism’s almost exclusive critical association with the values of self-legislating originality helped to obscure the degree to which these writers were concerned with issues of borrowing, textual assimilation, and narrative mastery over another?

The first chapter of this book begins by considering the critical tradition that has privileged Romantic ideas of the autogenous author to the exclusion of models of coterie or collaborative authorship, and it explains why this tradition has focused so intently on the plagiarisms of a single . . .

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