Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Faustus on the Table at Highgate

Academic journal article Wordsworth Circle

Faustus on the Table at Highgate

Article excerpt

Faustus from the German of Goethe. Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge (OUP, 2007) by Fred Burwick and James McKusick raised important questions. Was Coleridge, the able translator of two plays by Schiller, capable of making a translation that lacks character and contains such simple errors? (1) Does the stylometric analysis rest on sound methodology, and are the results conclusive as is claimed? Why did the small coincidences of phrase and rhyme, of which the editors make much, riot encourage Coleridge's contemporaries to find his hand in the translation? Most important, would Coleridge--who was so intrigued by the intricacies of Goethe's text and so fundamentally challenged by its intellectual content--have paused to give time and attention to compress his response into a physically insignificant handbook, published to accompany, or bound up with, a series of engravings? Would he have resorted to the complicated shifts and repeated downright lies necessary to disguise his participation from the people he lived and moved among for such a negligible reward? He might possibly have done, although whether the answers to these questions are likely to connect in the way the editors' argument requires is another matter, and the questions continue to revolve.

Coleridge's English contemporaries were content for the translator to remain anonymous, although the European Magazine reviewer reports a rumour circulating in October, 1821, that it was George Soane, who afterwards reworked Goethe's text as Faustus: A Romantic Drama, performed at Drury Lane in 1825. The first Englishman to cite Coleridge as author, and then tentatively ("said to be by Coleridge"), was William Barnard Clarke (1865), an Ipswich medical doctor with wide-ranging interests, particularly in natural history. (2) The qualified attribution, in a brief paragraph devoted to fragmentary arid imperfect specimens of translation in a lengthy review of Clarke's predecessors, was set on one side by subsequent Coleridge editors who followed, as well as by everybody else. William Speck, who amassed an enormous collection of Goethiana which he donated to the Beinecke Library at Yale, and enlarged three-fold by the time he died in 1928, was aware of the rumour recorded by Clarke but judged it to be without foundation. Carl F. Schreiber, Speck's successor as curator of the German collection and also a teaching professor at Yale, revisited the background to Coleridge's possible involvement in 1947. He established that Coleridge had offered advice on translating Faust to the publisher Boosey in 1820, while declining the opportunity to undertake, himself, a replacement to an "Analysis" Boosey had previously commissioned, although the advice was not much different from what lie previously offered the publisher Murray in 1814 (and had been paid for). There the matter rested--despite Coleridge's continuing references to Faust and the questions attendant on translating it throughout the remainder of his life.

In 1971, Paul Zall, while preparing a checklist of Coleridge holdings at the Huntington Library, came across Boosey's replacement (1821) Faustus text, and, for the next twenty years, accumulated evidence that would connect it with Coleridge. His sight failing, he passed the materials along to Jim McKusick, who was then doing research for Green Romanticism at the Huntington. (3) After fifteen more years, in 2003, Fred Burwick joined McKusick in completing the project Oxford University Press published as Faustus from the German of Goethe. Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge in 2007. The two pieces of evidence they added to clinch Zall's speculations--the Weimarer Ausgabe letters that show Goethe believed a report that Coleridge was the translator, arid McKusick's stylometric comparative analysis of the text in relation to surrounding contemporary translations--have not altered the fundamental situation. Whether Goethe's supposition derived from an authoritative source, or from a misunderstanding and a rumour, is now impossible to determine. …

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