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Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period

Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period

by Tilar J. Mazzeo

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In a series of articles published in Tait's Magazine in 1834, Thomas DeQuincey catalogued four potential instances of plagiarism in the work of his friend and literary competitor Samuel Taylor Coleridge. DeQuincey's charges and the controversy they ignited have shaped readers' responses to the work of such writers as Coleridge, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth


In a series of articles published in Tait's Magazine in 1834, Thomas DeQuincey catalogued four potential instances of plagiarism in the work of his friend and literary competitor Samuel Taylor Coleridge. DeQuincey's charges and the controversy they ignited have shaped readers' responses to the work of such writers as Coleridge, Lord Byron, William Wordsworth, and John Clare ever since. But what did plagiarism mean some two hundred years ago in Britain? What was at stake when early nineteenth-century authors levied such charges against each other? How would matters change if we were to evaluate these writers by the standards of their own national moment? And what does our moral investment in plagiarism tell us about ourselves and about our relationship to the Romantic myth of authorship?

In Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period, Tilar Mazzeo historicizes the discussion of late eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century plagiarism and demonstrates that it had little in common with our current understanding of the term. The book offers a major reassessment of the role of borrowing, textual appropriation, and narrative mastery in British Romantic literature and provides a new picture of the period and its central aesthetic contests. Above all, Mazzeo challenges the almost exclusive modern association of Romanticism with originality and takes a fresh look at some of the most familiar writings of the period and the controversies surrounding them.

Editorial Reviews

From the Publisher
"Mazzeo's new book is . . . smart and insightful, and points out that eighteenth-century writers took a certain amount of borrowing for granted. What mattered was whether you were sneaky about it and, even more important, whether you improved upon what you took, by weaving it seamlessly into your own text and adding some new context or insight."—New York Times

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University of Pennsylvania Press, Inc.
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Material Texts Series
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6.00(w) x 9.00(h) x 1.10(d)

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This book reconsiders allegations that the Romantic poets were plagiarists. In many ways, the subject is a treacherous one. Even after some two hundred years, more or less, these charges of plagiarism evoke strong responses. My objective here, however, is not to reignite a familiar controversy, and it is not to defend or to indict either an individual poet or a literary movement. This is not a book about guilt or innocence, although those have been the terms of the plagiarism debate almost since its inception.

Rather, this study sets out to answer what turns out to be a deceptively simple question: What constituted plagiarism in Britain during the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries? From this central historical question, a series of other questions inevitably develop, and these become the topics that give shape to the chapters that constitute this book. For if plagiarism did, indeed, mean something different in Georgian Britain—and how could it not, in a period where the relationship to literary property was legally, culturally, and historically distinctive—then what was at stake when Romantic-period writers levied these charges against each other? How was the articulation of acceptable literary appropriation framed within British culture? To what extent did the rhetoric of plagiarism intersect with the other eighteenth- and nineteenth-century discourses of inheritance, legitimacy, miscegenation, colonialism, consciousness, gender, class, improvement, and enclosure? Was the relationship between commercial print culture and literary culture, between reviewer and poet, constitutive? Perhaps most importantly, has Romanticism's almost exclusive critical association with the values of self-legislating originality helped to obscure the degree to which these writers were concerned with issues of borrowing, textual assimilation, and narrative mastery over another?

The first chapter of this book begins by considering the critical tradition that has privileged Romantic ideas of the autogenous author to the exclusion of models of coterie or collaborative authorship, and it explains why this tradition has focused so intently on the plagiarisms of a single poet, Samuel Taylor Coleridge, as ideologically and culturally aberrant. Within this context, I historicize Romantic plagiarism and its immediate eighteenth-century precursors by distinguishing these borrowings from familiar textual strategies such as imitation and satire. The following chapters take up the alleged plagiarisms of a range of Romantic-period authors, beginning in Chapter 2 with Coleridge's literary obligations and with the conventions of plagiarism outlined by his first accuser, Thomas DeQuincey. My particular interest here is in the critical description of Coleridge's borrowings as psychologically motivated, and, by rereading Romantic-period models of the unconscious, I consider how plagiarism was linked to habit and inhabitation for the poet. Chapter 3 examines the problem of coterie and oral circulation and issues of plagiarism as they emerged primarily in the Wordsworth and Shelley households, and the argument addresses the ways in which private ownership was complicated by both gender and genre, especially for cultural materials located at the margins of literary print culture. Chapter 4 focuses on charges of aesthetic plagiarism levied against Lord Byron, particularly by William Wordsworth and his supporter Henry Taylor, while Chapter 5 rereads Percy Bysshe Shelley's "A Defence of Poetry" and Alastor in light of the poet's anxieties about his literary obligations. Finally, Chapter 6 explores Wordsworth's concern regarding the appropriation of his style and voice and examines the charges of plagiarism brought against him in The Excursion in relation to the larger legal discourse of enclosure. Wordsworth's rhetorical investment in class metaphors is contrasted with the accusations of plagiarism brought against "peasant" poets such as Ann Yearsley and John Clare in the periodical press.

This study is an avowedly historicist project, and part of my larger objective here has been to interrogate the limits of historical imagination. Put another way, the theoretical ground that this book attempts to negotiate is this: What would it mean to attempt to judge the literary obligations of Romantic-era writers by the standards of their own national moment? In the most obvious sense, of course, this is an impossible project, but the effort has shaped my critical methodology. For me, in this work, that project began with an effort to forestall interpretation and to listen intently to what Romantic-period writers and critics said about the problem of plagiarism, even when that evidence had nothing to recommend it as obviously momentous or contentious. These initially unpromising researches led to unexpectedly interesting places. For, through an accretive process, I came to realize that these writers were in agreement about something that I could not claim to understand: they knew what constituted plagiarism in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, when the term applied, and what the stakes were. In some respects, it was a matter of getting out of the way and letting the historical evidence speak, and my goal as literary interpreter has been to position these voices in relation to the critical tradition of "Romantic" studies and to literary texts from the period, in order to provide a new way of understanding both the perennial question of plagiarism and the specific aesthetic contests that it masks.

Any historicist methodology is, of course, indebted to theoretical paradigms that are broadly familiar to scholars of the Romantic period. In some important respects, this book is a belated response to Jerome McGann's succinct observation in The Romantic Ideology: A Critical Investigation that we have tended to accept the self-representations of Romantic-period writers. Insofar as the most familiar of those self-representations have emphasized the "Romantic" ideologies of the solitary genius, originality, and invention to the exclusion collaboration, assimilation, and narrative dominance, this project is an extension of McGann's thesis. However, there are ways in which it represents a revision: one of the central premises of my argument is the contention that there are other equally motivated self-representations that have been overlooked by the critical tradition and which are necessarily integral to any historical understanding of the period. This study demonstrates that early nineteenth-century British writers consistently privileged strategies of textual appropriation even as they emphasized the value of originality. The almost exclusive association of Romanticism with self-origination is largely a belated critical invention.

Moreover, although this project is informed by and sympathetic to the objectives of New Historicism and other recent scholarship deconstructing Romanticism as a disciplinary category and "self-perpetuating model," there is also at least one important respect in which this study does not participate in that critical endeavor: I have not been particularly focused on reading at the margins of Romantic-period culture and have not engaged consciously in "recovery" research, except in relation to the specific category of plagiarism. The early nineteenth-century discourse surrounding plagiarism, however much in need of being historicized at present, was very much part of the mainstream and dominant culture of the period. In many ways it is part of the history that produced the inheritance that we designate the Romantic period. While this book considers several "non-canonical" figures and argues for their relationship to both plagiarism and more familiar literary texts of the early nineteenth century, this is essentially a study of the Romantic "canon" and of the ways in which its formation was connected to the critical debate surrounding plagiarism, influence, and the tradition. I focus primarily on the textual appropriations of Wordsworth, Byron, and Coleridge for no other reason than that these writers were the ones who were accused of plagiarism both in the early nineteenth century and in the subsequent scholarly tradition.

I have used the term historical imagination to describe what I consider to be the central methodological goal of this project, and what I mean by that term is perhaps best articulated by Charles Altieri, whose essay "Can We Be Historical Ever? Some Hopes for a Dialectical Model of Historical Self-Consciousness," engages directly the problem of historical impossibility in criticism. In the face of our inevitable failure to view the past as the past viewed itself, Altieri proposes that we might be able to

account for the historical process out of which one finds oneself locating the terms for one's own historical work . . . .[by casting] [h]istorical interpretation . . . as responding to a call from the past-not some mystical appeal but a concrete sense of what is incomplete within it that has claims on the present . . . .This makes historical analysis the work of self-consciously taking on the burden of completing or resisting what we show we inherit. (229-32)
This book is an effort at just such an historical relation. In concrete ways, Romanticism and its ideological effects on poetry are the inheritance this study takes up, and plagiarism is one of the claims that early nineteenth-century history makes upon the present. In the course of this study, I use the terms Romanticism and Romantic deliberately, understanding that these are not neutral categories and that both words invoke a particular critical and aesthetic tradition that has privileged certain values, authors, and forms of subjectivity. The intention in allowing these terms to operate as unmarked signs is not to reify the Romantic ideology but only to reflect the critical inheritance that "Romanticism" necessarily represents for a literary scholar trained as a specialist and professional in that field. If the use of the term Romantic is a way of denoting what we inherit in all its complexity and with all its limitations, then I propose that Romanticism's relationship to plagiarism represents one of the claims for incompleteness that this particular history makes on the present. Early nineteenth-century British writers and readers talked about plagiarism. They debated particular instances and its aesthetic implications in both private correspondence and public print media. The critical tradition, however, has analyzed the topic without considering how the historical deployment of the term has evolved. One of the specific ways in which the picture of British Romanticism remains incomplete is in respect to the question of plagiarism—a question that shaped not only how these writers responded to each other but also how the critical tradition of scholarship, from the nineteenth century until the present, has constructed its literary past.

This study challenges that assumption that we know what "Romanticism" was. The characterization of the period and its ideological effects as centered on autogenous originality and models of solitary genius does not square with how early nineteenth-century British writers described or enacted their relationship to appropriation, borrowing, or plagiarism. However, while this book is primarily about Romantic-period literature and its related historical and critical contexts, readers interested in other historical periods and disciplinary approaches will recognize the ways in which the "inheritance" of Romantic authorship continues to shape contemporary analyses of intellectual property. Roland Barthes's famous observations in "The Death of the Author" locate the origins of authorship as an ideological function in the Romantic period, and, of course, many of the "myths" of authorship that he identifies can be located as emergent in late eighteenth-century British culture. In The Death and Return of the Author: Criticism and Subjectivity in Barthes, Foucault, and Derrida, Séan Burke demonstrates how persistent the connection between Romanticism and the rise of the author has been in poststructuralism, while the legal historian Fiona Macmillan argues for the "inherent" connection "between the romantic figure of the author, literary theory, and copyright law." However, Romanticism's own commitment to models of autogenous originality and solitary genius is largely rhetorical, as engagement with plagiarism in the period reveals.

Most recently, the mythology of Romantic authorship has been at the heart of critical investigations into the rise of plagiarism in the academy. It is a contemporary truism that plagiarism has reached epidemic proportions in classrooms across America and that this crisis is connected to Internet technologies and to the disruption in print-culture ownership that they represent. In recent years, composition specialists have focused with particular intensity on deconstructing the myth of the singular, autonomous author, and the foundational works in this criticism have identified this myth as an authentically Romantic one. In an important early essay, for example, James Porter argued for two "poles" of authorship, one intertextual and collaborative and the other autonomous and "Romantic," and advocated for the displacement of Romantic models in pedagogical theory. Rebecca Moore Howard advances a similar argument in her influential study Standing in the Shadow of Giants: Plagiarists, Authors, Collaborators, proposing that "by the dawn of the Romantic era, it was no longer acceptable to stand on the shoulders of predecessors" and that, "in the nineteenth century, originality gains the textual prominence that we know today, and with its emergence comes the notion of morality as an attribute of true authorship." While this is a conventional view of Romanticism, historical evidence does not support this characterization of plagiarism in the early nineteenth century. During the Romantic period, plagiarism was primarily concerned neither with textual parallels nor with moral failure. In fact, writers of the period were as concerned with strategies of collaboration and assimilation as they were with the category of originality—values that were not seen as mutually exclusive in the nineteenth century.

This book considers, then, the disjunction between how Romantic-period writers engaged with issues of literary borrowing and how history has come to mythologize them. My thesis proposes that early nineteenth-century British writers understood plagiarism according to criteria that were distinct from twenty-first-century constructions of the charge. Indeed, while modern plagiarism is increasingly critiqued for the "Romantic" values that it privileges, this Romanticism has little in common with the actual ways in which writers in Georgian Britain defined their own relationship to either authorship or appropriation. This history of Romantic-period plagiarism and the aesthetic contests that were central to the contemporary debate are the topics of the chapters that follow.

Meet the Author

Tilar J. Mazzeo teaches English at Colby College.

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