Faust and the furious
James Woodall on the scholarly row over claims that Coleridge translated Goethe's landmark poem
A row has broken out between scholars over Germany's most famous literary work and one of England's greatest Romantic poets.
Last November, Oxford University Press published a new English edition of Goethe's Faust, an enormous dramatic poem in two parts written between the early 1800s and Goethe's death in 1832. It portrays a thinking man who sells his soul to the Devil.
The volume, edited by two American scholars, Frederick Burwick and James C McKusick, would probably have gone unnoticed - except for the fact that they say this translation is by none other than the poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge (right), author of Kubla Khan and The Rime of the Ancient Mariner.
The translation itself appeared, anonymously, in 1821. Coleridge, a passionate Germanophile, had often expressed to friends and publishers a desire to translate Faust. In 1814, it seems he was paid £100 by John Murray - Lord Byron's publisher - to do so.
It had been thought that Coleridge dropped the project. But after years of toil, Professors Burwick and McKusick are in no doubt that the translation is his. "I have spent an entire literary career studying Coleridge," Burwick has said, responding to recent, perhaps inevitable criticism of the claims. "I am not wrong."
The two men have undertaken painstaking cross-referencing within Coleridge's oeuvre, making use of stylometrics, a computer programme which analyses an author's use of language, and which tickles out, as it were, his or her stylistic DNA.
But in recent weeks the OUP publication has been attacked by three heavyweight British academics. Through a densely argued 35-page dossier, they contest that the Americans' attribution to Coleridge is wild, concluding: "This volume is not what it appears to be."
The attackers' principal objection is that there is too little forensic or, indeed, literary evidence to pin the work to Coleridge.
One of them, William St Clair - author of books about the 1820s Greek war of independence and the slave trade in the 17th and 18th centuries - on hearing that the US editors are hurt by the onslaught, has added: "This is what scholarship is supposed to be, isn't it? Somebody writes a book with big claims, others take issue with it, and it gets tested in the forum of scholarly and public opinion."
Though the likely impact of the storm on the general reader is questionable - the book costs £85 - in academia the stakes are high.
Goethe's poem is one of the benchmarks of European culture. Though not widely read in English - or understood - in the 19th century, today it ranks alongside Dante's Divine Comedy or Joyce's Ulysses as one of the texts key to the evolution of European literature.
Claiming that Coleridge was its first English translator is akin to an art historian saying an unattributed seascape was by Turner, or to a musicologist putting Beethoven's name to an anonymous 200-year-old musical score.
OUP remain tightlipped and, though aware of the attack by St Clair et al, have not changed the web page trailing the book. Moreover, the editors and their opponents all know each other: St Clair, somewhat "hot-headed" according to one insider, might be nursing a grudge.
Hell, as both Goethe and Coleridge surely knew, hath no fury like a piqued academic. ·
Comments are now closed on this article