Just to prove myself a true son of the South (or perhaps to reassure myself), this week’s post concerns I Am One Of You Forever, by educator and premier North Carolina poet Fred Chappell. First, I met Chappell in ’03 while I was polishing my writing skills with Doris Betts and over a few lunches in Raleigh, I discovered he’d much rather talk baseball than poetry. This, of course, endeared him to me, since it has become my opinion that writing—the doing, the teaching of it, the talking about it—is something a writer MUST do, and chewing one’s cud while talking other things—like baseball—is something a writer more often WANTS to do. All this to say that it’s easy to get lost in the ozone if all one has for an interest is writing and books (blush).
This book of Chappell’s, which seems more a set of connected short stories than a novel, showed me that he and I have another connection, i.e., a closeness to Southern rural roots and culture. Much of his language in these probably autobiographical stories is the same as the colloquial collection I first mouthed growing up in Louisiana. And what strikes me culturally about his writing here is that Chappell understands, as I do, that that language is poetic in its sensibilities, and is constructed about the stuff of story: superstition, lies, exaggerations, and imagination.
Just when you think the book a collection of good ol’ boy stories set in the South, Chappell slips in a bit of magical realism on you. Imagine, as in his story, “The Beard,” uncovering the beard of an odd duck of an uncle one night—a beard he keeps tucked inside his bib overalls—to discover the beard is without end, that it fills a room as it reveals itself.
In the stories, a young boy experiences a collection of eccentric uncles, a braggart orphan, Johnson Gibbs, who can out-pitch Dizzy Dean (baseball, see?), and the boy’s father, often a partner in son Jess’ mischief. Johnson Gibbs’ death wrings grief from all concerned, and as the boy grows in stature and wisdom, the stories begin to slip from the delight of fantasy to an austere, almost mean-spirited realism.
In the end, as I read Chappell’s rather poetic ending, the ghost of Gibbs asks, “Well, Jess, are you one of us or not?” and the boy answers with the books title, so saying that yes, he will resist so dad-blamed much of this real adult life and surrender to innocence and imagination.
To my taste, the stories are a bit uneven in tone and style—probably written over a number of years—but there’s so much else here to like that I can’t hold a few technical quibbles against Chappell. Actually, I'm more nearly concerned with what he thinks of the Braves’ starting rotation this year.
I had intended to again critique a book this week, but something else is on my mind, and I beg your indulgence. I have tried from my digital address to present the written word in its many forms as art. But—I have consciously allowed this to seep into my posts these past three years—the spoken word is enjoying a revival. So it’s worth some seven hundred words to begin writing of it again as the art form it is.
For years I’ve been ambivalent about politics, especially national politics. Even the mantra, “all politics is local” failed to heat up my insides. This year’s presidential election (U.S.A., for those who think I might mean otherwise), strikes me as perhaps the most pivotal since 1932, carried out in the aftermath of the Great Depression. We may eventually understand 2008 as equal to the elections of 1860 and 1864, which brought Lincoln twice to the White House. Then, as now, the nation was mired in a difficult war of its own making, and our forefathers sat hunkered on the cusp of changes that would set the country’s tone for the next eighty years.
All this to introduce a political epiphany meant for us all: one Barack Hussein Obama, a Democratic candidate for the presidency, has just made a speech meant (some thought) to perform damage control caused by the former pastor of Obama’s church in Chicago. For those who haven’t heard the speech (and you should), here’s a link to it on YouTube.
My purpose here isn’t to advocate for the presidency – instead I want to draw attention to the speech, its nature, its power. Pre-billed as Obama’s take on race relations (which it was) the speech accomplished much more. But first, let’s look at the nature of oratory, as handed down from Athens and Rome.
Oratory was, in its heyday, an art form much as we now think of poetry, the novel, even cinema. The Latin form was an exercise in style. It made appeals to the listeners’ emotions, much as Obama’s pastor’s speech did. In a subtle sense, it connoted the speakers intellectual distance from the listeners, i.e., the orator’s message, because it was cloaked in emotional appeal as it revealed the speaker’s “great vision,” implied his intellectual superiority.
If this sounds familiar, well, it is. The U.S. has been the house of such oratory since its beginning. Think Lincoln versus Douglas, or in the legal arena, Bryan versus Darrow. In the 1900s, populist speakers, Southern preachers and evangelists, as well as legal sharks, used this method of oratory to great gain. How much different from that of the Greeks!
Greek Oratory demanded much more in terms of content, an extraordinary blend of philosophy built on logic and based in ethics. It appealed to common sense instead of emotion. It made use of gentle argumentation in its attempts to persuade. In this sense, the Greek form of oratory was inherently more democratic than the Latin.
Obama made use of this Greek form in his speech, laying out a case in which he portrayed his former pastor as a complicated but flawed man attempting to cope with the complexities of America’s melting pot. He loved the man, Obama declared, but he could not support the pastor’s words that day. Obama drew on the flaws and complexities of his own family—a white grandmother raised young Barack and loved him dearly, but was known to throw off an occasional racial slur.
As the thirty-six minute speech passed, Obama stated in an undeniably factual manner the history of race relations in the U.S., how it affected—and affects—blacks, whites, the poor, and other minor racial and social groupings in these somewhat United States. He calmly explained how each group now see the other—and why.
In his summary, Obama simply asked us to keep this complex picture in our minds while we find a way to reach beyond race, to solve problems that threaten to taint us all. In stating his case in this way, he demonstrated not only intelligence but a humility based in his clearly apparent belief that we understand. And, more importantly, that we have the faith and courage to change our nation’s course.
Obama may never be president, but he has demonstrated the power to make us think, and that is something we all desperately need in this challenging time. And I may never be politically active, but Obama has begun to make me proud of the process again. This speech of his demonstrates the power, not only of this man, but of oratory in general, properly presented. And this is, of course, the power of art.
As promised, one more from Times Literary Supplement on several new volumes on Joseph Conrad, this review by Michael Gorra. For those teetering at the edge of their Mastercard regarding whether to buy just one of these books, know this: Conrad was born Józef Teodor Konrad Korzeniowski, in the Ukraine. Despite these beginnings, he was a bit of a literary rebel, and an early Modernist. His more famous work took European colonialism to task. The rest of his story can be found in these publications.
After this week, back to shorter, more personal posts on books recently read. This post’s a bit long, so skim, if you wish:
Laurence Davies et al, editors THE COLLECTED LETTERS OF JOSEPH CONRAD, VOLS 6–9
Joseph Conrad; edited by J. H. Stape NOTES ON LIFE AND LETTERS
John Stape THE SEVERAL LIVES OF JOSEPH CONRAD
Carola M. Kaplan et al CONRAD IN THE TWENTY-FIRST CENTURY
You don’t hear very much about gout any more. None of the meat-eating drinkers I know seems to suffer from it, you don’t read about it in the papers, and, unlike consumption or the pox, it doesn’t now appear under another name. You might almost think it vanished along with the rubicund gentleman in knee-breeches whom we imagine as its principal victims, and it therefore comes as a shock, in reading The Collected Letters of Joseph Conrad, to learn of the degree to which it afflicted that lean and grizzled figure. His attacks were frequent and severe, and though he didn’t have a diagnosis until 1898, when “gout or some other devil” so inflated his wrist that he was unable to write, his legs first began to swell soon after his return from the Congo in 1890. It punctuated book after book, it broke his rhythm and kept him in bed, incapable – or so it seemed to him – of writing anything but one letter of complaint after another. There were other illnesses too. He never fully shook off the malaria he caught in Africa; its recurrent fevers would leave him shouting in Polish. There was dysentery, influenza, angina eventually, and some form of depression almost always, with a full breakdown in 1910 after the completion of Under Western Eyes (published in 1911).
Both his children were desperately sick during the writing of The Secret Agent (1907), when Conrad – a critical but not yet a commercial success – was without enough ready cash to pay the doctor’s bills. His wife, Jessie, lived in constant pain that both necessitated and was exacerbated by a twenty-year series of operations on her knees. Their oldest son, Borys, would know the effects of gas and shell shock. The difficulties Conrad faced were real; however detailed his account of his symptoms, the novelist was no hypochondriac. In some way, though, he almost always managed to conquer them. In 1899, he wrote of lacking “the belief . . . to make me put pen to paper”, as though a year that included both “Heart of Darkness” and Lord Jim (1900) were somehow unproductive. In 1917 he described himself, in a letter to Edward Garnett, as feeling “broken up – or broken in two – disconnected. Impossible to start myself going impossible to concentrate to any good purpose. Is it the war – perhaps? Or the end of Conrad simply?”. He had written almost nothing in the previous year, and yet was soon productive once more; it hardly matters that his next novel, The Arrow of Gold (1919), would be his worst.
Last year was the 150th anniversary of Conrad’s birth, an occasion marked by John Stape’s new biography, The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad, a Penguin repackaging of Conrad’s major works, and the completion of the Cambridge University Press edition of all his surviving letters. Still, anyone reading the later volumes of his correspondence will have on their minds not his birth, but his death, in 1924. The seven years covered by Volumes Six to Eight are like a long slow fading of the light. From his last decade, only The Shadow-Line (1917) can stand with his best books, and by Volume Eight Conrad has reached a point at which he can merely hope to work; he mutters about the distractions of journalism, but remains too worn out for anything more sustained. In another sense, however, these are years of triumph, the years when Conrad found his largest audience and became in some measure a public figure. His 1913 novel, Chance, had become an unlikely bestseller. Marketed as “a sea story that appeals to women”, its narration was as maddeningly indirect as anything in his oeuvre. But it did at least tell a familiar story of romantic rescue, in which an upright sailor saves a troubled young woman from the tangles of her past. Ten thousand copies of the American edition went in the first week alone, and, once those readers had arrived, they stayed.
Later books did even better. In Britain, his last novel, The Rover (1924), sold 30,000 copies in not much more than a month, and the boom was accompanied by a growing demand for his earlier work. There were movie deals and theatrical adaptations; there was a collected edition for which Conrad wrote a set of gruff avuncular prefaces. His only visit to America was in 1923 for a publicity tour, a trip made just fifteen months before his death. He gave just one reading, at a private house in New York, but there were reporters on the dock when he arrived; he enjoyed being lionized, but took to his bed as soon as he was back home in Kent. Ramsay MacDonald offered a knighthood; Oxford and Cambridge honorary degrees; all were refused. Yet Conrad in his last years worked hard at tending his posterity, paying close attention to translations and doing his best to massage what his critics might say; he even revised an overview of his career written for the TLS in 1923 by his disciple Richard Curle. By then Conrad rejected, sometimes angrily, any identification as a “spinner of sea-yarns”, arguing that “the nature of my writing runs the risk of being obscured by the nature of my material”. The sea was a “biographical matter, not literary”. It would be some time before his readers took the point.
The CUP edition of Conrad’s letters now stands at the centre of any account of his working life as a writer. Its first volume appeared twenty-five years ago, and collects the correspondence of his first forty years, including his early life in Poland and his whole career at sea. Inevitably there are gaps. Later volumes, in contrast, cover just three or four years, and allow for a minute, almost day-by-day reconstruction of his activities. When the volumes under review here begin, Conrad was living in a modest farmhouse just north of Romney Marsh; he had moved his family there in 1910, before his years of success, and remained until 1919, then settling outside Canterbury.
His most frequent correspondent was, as always, his agent, J. B. Pinker. Pinker was a help to many writers – his clients included both H. G. Wells and Henry James – but to Conrad he was something more. He managed the family’s accounts, supplied Jessie Conrad with a regular cheque for housekeeping, and did his best to keep the novelist on an allowance. Conrad in turn would write to him for small sums and sometimes even for office supplies, fountain pens and particular marks of writing paper. For most of his career he regularly outspent his earnings. By the time of Under Western Eyes he owed Pinker £2,700 and had accused the agent of treating him “as a journeyman joiner”; their resulting quarrel undoubtedly contributed to Conrad’s breakdown. But Conrad knew what he owed him, in every sense, and repaying his confidence was one of the pleasures of success.
Conrad wrote to Pinker almost every week, and often sent him two notes in a day. But the most interesting correspondence here is that with the American collector John Quinn. A New York lawyer, Quinn began to buy Conrad’s papers in 1911 and eventually acquired the manuscripts of almost all his important work; some of it in fragments only, for in the early years Conrad did not always keep close track of his things. The two never met, but the novelist did write a series of confidential letters to Quinn, many of them on public affairs. A letter from 1918, for example, not only looks sceptically at Ezra Pound, but also describes the Russian Revolution in terms of the opportunity and danger it presents for Conrad’s native Poland, a nation in which “the Western world took no interest. Fine words have been given to it before. And the finer the words the greater was always the deception”. Possibly Conrad was aware of giving good value, of keeping a customer interested – he had, after all, received $10,000 from the New Yorker. In another sense, however, the worldly Quinn was an ideal audience for the writer of Nostromo (1904). Still, Conrad couldn’t resist the temptation to sell a few manuscripts elsewhere, and when Quinn learned of it their relationship cooled. He was not Quinn’s only interest. The lawyer also bought pictures, as well as manuscripts from Joyce and Eliot among others, and he put his Conrad materials up for auction in 1923. The sale price topped $100,000, and Conrad received a few notes of commiseration – if only he had held a few things back! Yet he took it all with a certain mordant pleasure. It was one more sign of his new popularity, and the figure was enough to ensure that “People who never heard of me before will now know my name”.
That late success has, however, always presented Conrad scholarship with some difficulties, and his critics must all come to terms with Thomas Moser’s 1957 analysis of the novelist’s “achievement and decline”. Nothing from Chance onwards can match his earlier work, and yet those were the books that sold. Why? What happened? Moser suggests that Conrad could not handle a “sexual subject”, could not reconcile a romantic theme to his sense of moral isolation. In his analysis, the very thing that made Conrad’s late work popular is also what made it go off, and probably he’s right that the novelist would always have had difficulty with such material. It may be impossible to forget characters like Emilia Gould in Nostromo or Natalia Haldin in Under Western Eyes, but such idealized figures are not what we read him for. Still, one can accept Moser’s estimation of Conrad’s later work and yet disagree with his sense of the reason why. I would instead join with Conrad’s best biographer, Zdislaw Najder, in seeing his turn to that material “rather as a symptom of his weariness than as the cause of his decline”. He was fifty-two when he finished Under Western Eyes, and he never again attempted a “political” novel. Instead he began to pluck old manuscripts from his drawer, to go back to the fragments he had once put aside. Even The Shadow-Line dates, at least in conception, from the earliest years of his career. From Chance on, his backlist had a new value, and so Conrad made sure that there was more of it, knowing that “all I can leave to my people will be my copyrights”.
One minor part of that backlist was the volume of essays called Notes on Life and Letters (1921). Conrad did not produce a substantial body of occasional writing. His success in a language he learned only as an adult may, in this postcolonial age, seem slightly less remarkable than it did to his English contemporaries, but he never developed the easy prolix fluency on which the magazines of his period relied. His non-fiction has the defects of his virtues as a novelist: he cannot stick to the point and backs his way into the most elliptically defined of subjects. His “Author’s Note” to the collection starts with a kind of apology, presenting it as “a process of tidying up which from the nature of things can not be regarded as premature”, and in his own editorial introduction to a new edition of the book, J. H. Stape quotes Ian Watt’s observation that “Conrad was a good literary critic who was bad at writing literary criticism”. That statement has the truth of paradox. The collection’s dozen-odd “notes” on writers from Turgenev to Stephen Crane seem merely dutiful in comparison to what Conrad says about books in his letters. Certainly nothing here matches his extraordinarily observant 1922 correspondence with the translator C. K. Scott Moncrieff on Proust’s creative method and temperament. Of more interest are the book’s political pieces: the flashes of memory in “Poland Revisited”, the two essays on the loss of the Titanic, or the Russophobic meditation on the course of European history in “Autocracy and War”.
The editing in this volume, as in the Cambridge edition as a whole, is both meticulous and exhaustive. Variants have been tracked and the house styles of Conrad’s various publishers allowed for, while Stape’s introduction provides not only a history of the book’s genesis and reception, but a detailed account of the role that such fugitive pieces played in Conrad’s career. The notes follow Conrad’s every allusion, and the back alleys of his period too; as do the notes to Conrad’s letters themselves, in two volumes of which Stape has also had a hand. Stape’s editorial work includes as well a fine volume in the Cambridge Companion series, and it has made him an inescapable presence in Conrad scholarship: authoritative as to fact, and generous in sharing his knowledge with other students. He would seem the perfect choice to write the Conrad biography for this generation, as Najder’s 1981 volume was for the last one.
The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad is nevertheless a curious and in some ways unsatisfying production. The title speaks to Conrad’s own division of his life into three parts, “as Pole, as seaman, and as writer”, a division that has provided an important interpretative model (for example, in Frederick R. Karl’s 1979 biography). To Stape, a reliance on that division serves, however, “to neglect unduly other, more intimate sides of him, other ‘lives’, as husband, father, and friend, roles that undoubtedly enriched and variously influenced his fiction”. He offers an account of those other lives “to the extent that documents . . . allow”, but his version of Conrad is also “deliberately constrained”. This is not a critical biography, and Stape says little either about the works themselves or about the way they draw on Conrad’s own experiences; those wanting an account of his reading, or of just how much he did and didn’t know about the anarchist world of The Secret Agent, will have to look elsewhere. Stape does, however, give a fine portrait of the shabby London milieu in which Conrad lived between his periods of employment at sea, in streets such as Pimlico’s Bessborough Gardens that were then split between boarding houses and brothels. He also provides the fullest account yet of Conrad as a parent, describing him playing with his children, concerned about their schooling, and proud of Borys’s military service. (Though Borys would give him trouble, marrying a woman whom both parents thought unsuitable, living beyond his means, and in later life imprisoned for fraud.) Stape is especially good on Conrad’s different illnesses, and in showing just how little peace the writer’s new prosperity gave him.
Biography calls for different skills than editing. The fact-driven positivism that makes Stape’s work on Conrad’s essays so successful here gives his narrative a headlong quality. He rarely lingers over an incident or a relationship, but instead moves quickly on to whatever is next, and then next again. We get dates and names, but not texture. Najder shares Stape’s commitment to chronology, and to fact; both writers avoid the Freudian accounts to which Conrad has been too frequently subjected, by the post-war generation of American critics in particular. But Najder’s biography – especially valuable in its understanding of Conrad’s Polish world – remains the one to read. Still, Stape’s emphasis makes me question the possibility of anyone writing a genuinely great biography of Conrad. Both his childhood and his marriage remain under-documented, inviting a psychoanalytic reading of the kind that tries to make speculation seem definitive. It would take a Dostoevsky – whom he hated – to render the emotional disturbances, the privation, of Conrad’s boyhood. His part of Poland lay under Tsarist rule, and when his father was condemned for his rather minor role in a failed patriotic uprising, both the child and his mother went with him into an exile far to the north-east of Moscow. Conrad’s mother died of tuberculosis when he was five, his father when he was twelve; and the intervening years were spent in a house of mourning.
Testimony of any kind is scarce here, and Conrad’s marriage presents a different set of lacunae. Nobody supposes his 1896 union with the cheerful but stolid Jessie George to have been very satisfying, though she always maintained that an intellectual equal would not have suited his nerves as she did. Yet the most assiduous research has not been able to make him into anything other than a faithful husband, and the novelist left no written record of the marriage itself. There are no diaries, and on this issue his correspondence with such friends as Pinker or Garnett is as reticent as if the couple were one person in fact as well as law. The Conrads were rarely apart, and exchanged few letters until near the very end of his life, when their different troubles left him bedridden at home while she was in hospital for another knee operation. Those letters are moving in their statement of his love and need.
The Several Lives of Joseph Conrad adds some nuance to our picture of Conrad’s life, but does not change the broad outlines of our understanding. What does continue to change our sense of him is the development in Conrad criticism for which Chinua Achebe’s 1975 lecture “An Image of Africa: Racism in Conrad’s ‘Heart of Darkness’” provides a convenient shorthand. That attack on Conrad’s depiction of Africa and Africans, its view of Conrad as a “bloody racist”, has been attacked in turn, its overstatements discounted, its argument sifted for error. Achebe’s target, however, wasn’t so much Conrad as a European habit of rhetoric to which, and despite his explicit criticism of imperialism, the novelist himself was not immune. The essay remains a founding document in postcolonial criticism, and in Conrad studies marked a shift in the interpretative paradigm: a move away from the old mix of Freud and the New Criticism and into a series of more fully historicized and political readings. Of course, in recent decades almost all critical practice has moved in that direction; but, given his material, such a change has had with Conrad an extra degree of relevance and success. It has served to link what had once seemed the two halves of his career, making “Heart of Darkness” into a kind of hinge that connects the eastern, seagoing books to the political novels that followed them. It has brought to light the degree to which, for all its variations of subject and setting, Conrad’s work remains all manifold and one; an oeuvre in which he consistently presents, as Nostromo puts it, “the working of the usual public institutions . . . as a series of calamities overtaking private individuals”.
Conrad in the Twenty-First Century demonstrates some of the attractions of that contextualized approach. The title plays on that of Ian Watt’s summa and synthesis of postwar scholarship, Conrad in the Nineteenth Century (1979), and the seventeen contributors provide an essential snapshot of Conrad criticism today. Benita Parry offers a provocative look at the way “Heart of Darkness” comes to us “already glossed”; Mark Wollaeger reads the tale in a way that allows him to explore the interrelations of Modernism and propaganda. Padmini Mongan defines Conrad’s presence in anglophone South Asian fiction today, Peter Mallios provides a shrewd analysis of The Secret Agent in the period immediately after the destruction of the World Trade Center, and Carola Kaplan gives us an account of Conrad’s construction of masculinity in Under Western Eyes among other works. In general, the volume is strong in its treatment of gender, a growth area in recent years and one that among older critics only Moser anticipated.
The jewel is Mallios’s interview with Edward Said, conducted shortly before his death in 2003, an account of all that Conrad has meant to him. Said describes reading “Youth” as a schoolboy in Egypt, and of getting nothing from it – “the context was completely missing”. He speaks with special fondness of Victory (1915), seeing it as an example of what he calls “late style”, a book about “withdrawal . . . a novel full of reminiscences . . . of self-quotation”. The island is full of noises, and for Said the book is made memorable by its “infernal trio” of villains, a cast that turns it into “one of the most unsettling and disturbing novels I’ve ever read”. This is a strong collection, and most of its contributors are deft enough not to lose their author in the discourses that surround him. It is strong enough, in fact, to admit a note of dissent. In a brief foreword, J. Hillis Miller notes that the essays agree that “placing Conrad’s fiction within some external cultural, historical, biographical, or intellectual context” is the best way to explain it, and that they are in consequence “unanimous in not taking seriously any ‘metaphysical’ dimension of Conrad’s work”. Perhaps as a corollary, “there is little detailed attention to narrative technique”. I share the interests of this book’s contributors, those to the section on “Global Conrad” in particular. But Miller is right about its limits, and any new directions in Conrad studies must involve some fusion of “extrinsic criticism . . . [and] what used to be called . . . ‘close reading’”. Only then can we do justice Conrad’s imaginative grandeur: to the “metaphysical” or to those aspects of his work that Said continued to find unsettling; to a sense of the world in which, as Nostromo’s Dr Monygham says, “there is no peace and no rest”. Only then can we say why, 150 years after his birth, so many of us find it necessary, not to read Conrad, but to reread him.
With all the semi-porn flapdoodle involving Jimmy Kimmel, Matt Damon and Ben Affleck, maybe something of a return to class and classics might seem like a breath of fresh air. So before I leave the subject of literary theory (okay, you’re welcome) I thought I’d present a bewitching review of the below referenced book from London’s Times Literary Supplement – a translation of Goethe by Samuel Taylor Coleridge. Next week (I’m nothing if not predictable) another review from TLS on Joseph Conrad.
But this week, and in its entirety, and written by one Kelly Grovier:
Samuel Taylor Coleridge Faustus From the German of Goethe Edited by Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick 360pp. Oxford University Press. £85. 978 0 19 922968 0
When Charles Lamb heard, in the summer of 1814, that his old friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been asked to translate Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dark masterwork Faust into English, he could hardly contain his horror. “I counsel thee”, Lamb wrote to Coleridge on August 23, “to let it alone . . . how canst thou translate the language of cat-monkeys? Fie on such fantasies!” To Lamb, the surreal banter between Faust and the mob of half-human meerkats he meets in the “Witch’s Kitchen” was a metaphor for the meaninglessness of Goethe’s work. For nearly two centuries, the literary world has believed that Lamb’s intervention was decisive, or at least that it coincided with Coleridge’s own resolution not to pursue the project. “I need not tell you”, Coleridge wrote twenty years later in his Table Talk, “that I never put pen to paper as a translator of Faust.”
Romantic scholars have long puzzled over the contradiction between Coleridge’s insistence that he “never put pen to paper” and Goethe’s own conviction that the troubled author of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was in fact hard at work on the project. In September 1820, Goethe wrote to his son, August, confidently stating that Coleridge was well under way with a translation. Six years later, in his diary, he hints that he has seen a finished version. The discrepancy between Coleridge’s and Goethe’s assertions has quietly continued to niggle as one of the great riddles in Coleridge scholarship. Among the many questions is why a poet, whose reputation and psyche had suffered for decades from a failure to complete promised and promising literary projects, should disown an achievement of such scale and significance? A further question is: if such a translation had indeed ever been produced, what happened to it?
The solution to the mystery, according to Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick, the editors of this provocative new edition Faustus: From the German of Goethe, translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “was there in plain sight all along”. Their book represents the climax of a scholarly journey that began in 1971, when the American scholar Paul M. Zall stumbled across a neglected translation of Goethe’s verse drama, anonymously published in 1821 by the bookseller Thomas Boosey. Zall was startled by what he felt were inimitable Coleridgean rhythms in the translation, and he advanced a thesis that the lost work was perhaps never missing at all, but merely disguised under a cloak of anonymity. At the time, Zall had little more to go on than instinct, and he knew it would be difficult to convince his peers. In addition to Coleridge’s emphatic claim that he never undertook the work, the poet left a long trail of disparaging remarks about Faust: “there is neither caus-ation nor progression” in the writing, he insisted; “Faust himself is dull and meaningless”; “there is no whole in the poem”; “a large part of the work is to me very flat”. But for Zall, the stylistic similarities between the so-called “Boosey” translation and Coleridge’s earlier tragedies Remorse (1813) and Zapolya (1817), were too striking to ignore. “’If it is not by Coleridge”, Zall concluded, “then there was an imitator at large who deserves better of posterity than unsung anonymity.”
After decades of examining the evidence, Burwick and McKusick have returned to Zall’s contention, presenting for the first time an authoritative and compelling case for Coleridge as the author of the anonymous 1821 translation. Their argument, laid out in an elegant introduction to the volume and followed through in enlightening annotations, and a sophisticated appendix devoted to an electronic analysis of the text, relies on a comprehensive knowledge of and sensitivity to Coleridge’s creative habits, reinforced by a formidable apparatus of literary forensics. The result is a work of great scholarship which promises to reconfigure our understanding not only of the life and works of a major English writer, but of that writer’s complex role in European cultural commerce.
On a local level, the edition brings into focus a few of the gaps in Coleridge’s own chronology, during the crucial years between the composition of Biographia Literaria (1814) and Aids to Reflection (1823), while at the same time shedding light on how Goethe’s work was received in England. If the editors are right, the story would go something like this. In August 1814, Lord Byron’s publisher, John Murray, approached Coleridge, whose reputation as a poet of the demonic was by then well established, and invited him to translate Goethe’s infamous drama in exchange for £100. Though regarded by Coleridge as “humiliatingly low”, the fee was nevertheless agreed by the end of summer, with payment to be sent by Murray immediately on “delivery of the last Mss Sheet”, either to the poet’s wife, or, intriguingly, to Coleridge’s former partner in the “pantisocratic” scheme to establish a utopia on the banks of the Susquehanna River in Pennsylvania, the newly appointed Poet Laureate, Robert Southey.
Committed to what he convinced himself was, despite its many flaws, a work of “genuine and original Genius”, Coleridge sequestered himself in a “Cottage 5 miles from Bath, in order to be perfectly out of Reach of Interruption”. There, in his suitably Faustian exile, he established a daily regimen of writing and revision, working from 9am to 8pm. After little over a month his spirit was crushed, and, by October 16, he had abandoned the project altogether as being, as he would later tell Byron, “highly obnoxious to the taste and Principles of the present righteous English public”. And there the enterprise rested until 1820, when two rival publishers, Johann Heinrich Bohte and Thomas Boosey and Sons, each released translated extracts from Faust to accompany a set of drawings by the celebrated German artist Morris Retzsch. So unexpectedly successful were these competing volumes of English fragments, that Boosey determined to produce a fresh translation of Goethe’s entire work, and for that task there was only one man.
Why would Coleridge take on the commission in 1821, having failed to complete it in 1814; and if he did, why did he not acknowledge the work, instead of publishing it anonymously? To meet these and other questions, Burwick’s introduction offers intriguing theories. Boosey’s proposition to Coleridge in 1820, Burwick points out, would have coincided with the publication in Blackwood’s Magazine that year of some 1,600 lines of translation from Faust by John Anster, a twenty-seven-year-old Irish barrister. A symbiotic soul by nature, Coleridge might have regarded the prospect of collaborating with Anster, whom he later met on several occasions, as the psychological incentive he needed to help complete the project, thus reinscribing an artistic pattern of dependence established first with William Wordsworth twenty-three years earlier.
The question why Coleridge should have wished to conceal his role in the enterprise is less easily answered. McKusick has recently proposed that Coleridge may have dishonestly taken two advances, accepting first a fee from John Murray in 1814 and then one from Thomas Boosey in 1821, and would therefore have needed to hide his involvement in the Boosey edition. But the evidence, including a search of Murray’s account, doesn’t support any deception of this sort. The terms of Coleridge’s unfulfilled agreement with Murray were clear: that payment would come only after the delivery of the manuscript. Coleridge’s continued connection with Murray, who went on to publish Christabel in 1816, suggests there was no ill will between them, and no attempt by Coleridge to avoid the publisher.
A more compelling reason for Coleridge not to put his name on the volume is that he did not want Goethe’s reputation as the voice of unorthodox religious and moral opinions to tarnish his own, or to influence the reception of his recently published Lay Sermons, or that of the forthcoming Aids to Reflection. But the runaway success of Bohte’s and Boosey’s selections of 1820 must have gone some way to consoling Coleridge that the cultural climate had sufficiently changed since Murray’s original overture, and that Goethe’s name was no longer dangerous. The fact that Goethe knew that Coleridge was engaged in translating his work, while many of Coleridge’s contemporaries seem to have been left in the dark, reminds one of Friedrich Wilhelm Joseph von Schelling’s response to the allegations that swirled around Coleridge in the days after his death, that he had plagiarized from Schelling in writing Biographia Literaria. “I gladly offer to him”, Schelling wrote of Coleridge’s incorporation of his work, “those things which he has borrowed from my works and been sharply, far too sharply, reprimanded by his countrymen for having neglected to mention my name.” One wonders whether the caricature of Coleridge as a plagiarizing procrastinator is one that he countenanced, if not cultivated, at home, while at the same time he was cultivating among his European counterparts a more competent and serious identity.
Whatever the translator’s motivation for concealing his hand in preparing the volume, the resemblance between the texture of the anonymous 1821 work and the contours of Coleridge’s poetic voice is remarkable. What distinguishes the Boosey edition from previous efforts in English is its overwhelming dependence on dramatic blank verse. We know that Coleridge himself had wished to see Faust transposed “poetically as for the stage”, and it wasn’t long before reviewers openly suspected that Coleridge was behind the effort. The translation in question is approximately half the length of Goethe’s original and is comprised of compressed plot summaries in prose, interrupted by verse vignettes. There is an agility to the translation which reminds one of the difference between the stodgy urbanity of Alexander Pope’s translation of Homer and the organic intensity of George Chapman’s. Compare, for instance, Anster’s stiff rendering of lines from Faust’s meditation in the “Forest and Cave” scene:
And when before my eye the pure moon walks High over-head, diffusing a soft light, Then from the rocks, and over the damp wood, The pale bright shadows of the ancient times Before me seem to love, and mitigate The too severe delight of earnest thought!
with the more soulful, sinewy cadence of those being credited to Coleridge:
There may I gaze upon The still moon wandering through the pathless heaven; While on the rocky ramparts, from the damp Moist bushes, rise the forms of ages past In silvery majesty, and moderate The too wild luxury of silent thought.
For ease of cross-reference, the editors have brought together all the necessary texts, including Anster’s contribution to Blackwood’s Magazine, both sets of extracts published in 1820 by the publishers Bohte and Boosey (translated by Daniel Boileau and George Soane, respectively), as well as all twenty-six of Retzsch’s drawings. A palimpsest of translation, the edition allows readers to assess the strength of the text that is being attributed to Coleridge, measured against a range of forgotten voices.
Burwick’s comprehensive identification of Coleridgean echoes, not only from works published before Faust first appeared in 1808 but from works to which another translator would not have had access, is astonishing and persuasive. Not every comparison is equally convincing, however; the link, for instance, of “Oh, thou great Spirit”, from the 1821 translation to Coleridge’s concluding couplet in the early sonnet “To William Lisle Bowles”, which begins with the invocation “Like that great Spirit”, hinges on a phrase that is arguably too familiar to carry the case. Similarly, there will be some readers who will regard McKusick’s confidence that his stylometric analysis of the work, which is limited to analysing the “relative frequency of word-lengths and functional keywords”, is comparable to “fingerprinting or DNA analysis”, as a much exaggerated claim. But there is little doubt that the preponderance of evidence assembled in this magisterial edition falls heavily in favour of naming Coleridge as the anonymous translator of the Boosey volume. If T. S. Eliot was right, that every time a new work of literature is introduced into the canon, all previous works must adjust themselves to accommodate the new arrival, the recovery of Coleridge’s time-concealed masterpiece promises to trigger a ripple of realignments right across both English and European Romanticism.