Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Poems So Materially Different": Eighteenth-Century Literary Property and Wordsworth's Mechanisms of Proprietary Authorship in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads

Academic journal article Studies in Romanticism

"Poems So Materially Different": Eighteenth-Century Literary Property and Wordsworth's Mechanisms of Proprietary Authorship in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads

Article excerpt

WHILE WORDSWORTH OFT HAS BEEN QUOTED AS "CREATING THE TASTE by which he is to be enjoyed," the path that he took was hardly one entirely of his own making, for just as poets do not have their meanings alone, neither do they have their modes of operating alone. (1) The conditions for the approbation of the seemingly self-created were created for him, not simply by the general rise of originality as a literary value in the middle of the eighteenth century, but by the legal battles over copyright and literary property that came to a climax around the time Wordsworth was born, in the Millar vs. Taylor case of 1769 and the Donaldson vs. Becket case of 1774, both of which were fought over Thomson's Seasons. (2) These cases dramatically shaped the literary-economic and aesthetic climate that Wordsworth would later benefit from and in some ways come to stand for. (3) Although Wordsworth seems to disinherit himself in the Preface by deliberately cutting himself off from "a large portion of phrases and figures of speech which from father to son have long been regarded as the common inheritance of Poets" and turning rather toward "the incidents of common life" for his subjects, (4) this kind of self-deracination is actually another kind of inheritance, one that became an attractive poetic possibility only after the literary property debates of the late 1760's and early 70's. They directed and shaped that space of aesthetic possibility and were crucial in steering Wordsworth's practice in Lyrical Ballads, especially the second edition of 1800, as he tried to stake a poetic claim of his own with "Poems so materially different from those, upon which general approbation is at present bestowed" (Preface 742).

There is no question that the older Wordsworth was a staunch defender of literary property, as he threw himself energetically into a campaign to extend copyright in 1836, helping to initiate what eventually became the Copyright Act of 1842. (5) In his impassioned defense of authors' rights to their works and his call for extended copyright, he echoed the arguments of the Thomson cases and the literary property tracts that followed them. Literary property, he held, was "a fundamental right," one that had "the highest claim to protection." (6) As it was part of "the common law of England," Wordsworth asked "why that original right should not be restored," as it was a right "more deeply inherent in that species of property than in any other." (7) But while Wordsworth's agitation for copyright reform in the 1830's has been well documented, what has not been examined is how the concept of literary property that emerged from the great legal battles over copyright after the mid eighteenth century impacted his poetic practice in the most important work that launched his literary career, the Lyrical Ballads. Wordsworth's model of poetic appropriation of direct experiences and reflections on nature could not have thrived without the sea change in the aesthetic of originality and improvement that was driven forward by the earlier legal debates over Thomson's Seasons and the flurry of tracts on literary property that followed immediately in their wake. Thus, in the move from the anonymous Lyrical Ballads of 1798 to the second edition of 1800 "by W. Wordsworth," the poet was not simply self-fashioning but also responding to the key tests of literary property as he sought to establish and secure literary properties of his own. (8)

Several key features of the Lyrical Ballads that we have long tended to credit plainly as invention on Wordsworth's part are actually reflections of his attempts to meet these tests. The twin emphases on original possession and improvement by labor that were advanced by the copyright and literary property debates provided the grounds for some of Wordsworth's signature poetic practices. They can help us to see why, in trying to promote poems of his own, he took such great pains to police intertextuality in 1800 through mechanisms of allusion, arrangement, and annotation. …

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