Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period

By Tilar J. Mazzeo | Go to book overview

Afterword

[O]riginal expression was consecrated by the Romantic cult of the individ-
ual genius
.

Paul K. Saint-Amour, The Copywrights

For years now, I have been planning to write a book titled Romantic Be-
trayal. This will not be an autobiography, but an expose in the true sense:
an attempt to reveal the ways in which
. … we still contend with the
legacy of the Romantics’ efforts to codify the past
. … This self-centered
literary history leads not only to anachronistic errors
but also to blind-
ness
.

—David A. Boruchoff, “The Poetry of History”

Throughout the course of this study, I have argued that writers of the British Romantic period were invested deeply in models of appropriation, assimilation, and narrative or lyric mastery over the text of another, despite their conventional critical association with the values of autogenous originality and with what Paul K. Saint-Amour calls, in a typical formulation, “the Romantic cult of the individual genius” (6). My approach has been to read the history of plagiarism in the late eighteenth and, especially, early nineteenth centuries for what it tells us about how these authors engaged with the processes of literary borrowing and how they described the particular elements that constituted illegitimate appropriation and, by extension, aesthetic failure. As we have seen, those elements are historically distinct. Plagiarism in the Romantic period focused on questions of style, tone, voice, and improvement and involved a series of complex negotiations that centered on the processes of interpretive judgment. The contemporary controversies surrounding the subject often were motivated by competitive claims among writers who were vying to articulate the standards of the “new” poetics of the early nineteenth century, standards that did not define “originality” as an exclusive function of the solitary genius working in isolation from other writers or from print culture.

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