Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period

By Tilar J. Mazzeo | Go to book overview

Chapter 6
Poaching on the Literary Estate: Class,
Improvement, and Enclosure

In an 1817 letter, William Wordsworth wrote to his correspondent Henry Crabb Robinson that Lord Byron “ha[d] been poaching on my Manor” in Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage (LWDW 3: 394), and Wordsworth’s metaphor merits further consideration for what it implies about the relationship among literary property, professional authorship, and social class. The class inversion Wordsworth’s statement performs is striking: here the professional Wordsworth casts himself as the lord of the literary estate and charges the aristocratic Byron with crass appropriations that are figuratively beyond the pale. While Wordsworth intended his remark dismissively and even sardonically, it nevertheless encapsulates significant elements of Romantic-period attitudes toward plagiarism and the metaphorical nexus that defined its relationship to class privilege. As I have argued throughout this study, the rhetoric of plagiarism during the Romantic period frequently mirrored broader social and legal contexts, and Wordsworth’s characterization of his poetical productions as a simultaneously landed and literary “estate” evokes a more general set of associations that operated in the early nineteenth century to connect intellectual property and real property.

It is not surprising that literary plagiarism during the Romantic period drew some of its characteristic metaphors from the cultural discourse surrounding real estate and, particularly, the enclosures of the late eighteenth century. Throughout the eighteenth century, associations between land ownership and literary production had been part of the public controversy regarding copyright, and intellectual property had been compared to real estate at least since Locke’s second Treatise on Government at the end of the seventeenth century.1 This controversy and many of its central metaphors had been recalled to public attention in 1814 with the passage of the Copyright Act, which confirmed Donaldson v. Beckett. At the same time, the status of real property and public rights of access to it were in transition

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