Sex and drugs and English literature: Coleridge and a Faustian pact

A translation of Goethe's 'Faustus' by one of the greatest names in literary history is to be published in September. Arifa Akbar traces an extraordinary 200-year-old story that began with a £100 advance and a broken promise
Click to follow
The Independent Online

The year was 1814 and Samuel Taylor Coleridge had not only confirmed his reputation as a literary genius but also as a chaotic figurehead of the Romantic movement who disappeared on opium-fuelled sojourns across the Somerset valleys for days.

So it may have come as little surprise to his publishers, who had paid Coleridge an advance of £100 that year to translate Johann Wolfgang von Goethe's seminal poem, Faust, from its original German into English, when nothing was produced by the mercurial, and infamously unreliable poet.

It had been at least a decade since Coleridge's most fruitful years when he had risen to literary fame, and infamy, with groundbreaking poems such as The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Kubla Khan - composed as a result of an opium dream.

By the early part of the 19th century, Coleridge was beset by marital problems, increased opium dependency and a dampening of confidence in his creative powers. So the publishers shelved the Goethe project and the translation work has been long forgotten since Coleridge's death in 1834.

But now, nearly 200 years later, an American academic claims to have discovered that astonishingly, the poet may well have fulfilled his promise to complete a meticulous translation of the classical German tale - but could not put his name to it due to his dubious financial dealings.

The story of the manuscript translated by Coleridge, which for decades lay unrecognised by Coleridge experts and ascribed to an "anonymous" author, has as much romance and mystique as the figurehead of the Romantics could have wished.

After computer analysis of the "anonymous" writer's "literary fingerprint" in the 1821 English translation of Faust, which tells the tale about a man who makes a pact with the devil, Professor James McKusick, from the University of Montana, said he is confident the work was penned by the Romantic poet.

The Oxford University Press is set to publish Faustus: From the German of Goethe translated by Coleridge and edited by Professor McKusick and Frederick Burwick, in September.

According to Professor McKusick's theory, Coleridge did not put his name on the work because he had previously failed to deliver on a contract for a Faust translation with another publisher for which he had also been paid an advance. Professor McKusick and Professor Burwick believe the find is of such great value because the translation reveals revisions and re-workings of Coleridge's earlier works, and so impacts significantly to the understanding of his entire oeuvre.

Professor McKusick, who had spent 36 years pouring over the project, said the authentic voice of Coleridge "was hidden in plain sight". "Who knew that Coleridge had published a translation of the greatest dramatic work of the age? It changes our whole understanding of this towering literary figure," he added.

Professor McKusick said Coleridge had originally agreed with a London publisher, his friend John Murray, to translate Faust in 1814 and that he was given a £100 advance. But the writer never produced the translation.

Then, some six years later, a collection of engravings to illustrate the figure of Faust arrived in England from Germany and the publisher Thomas Boosey, a rival of Murray's, began searching for a writer to compose the text to run alongside the precious engravings, and his sights were set on Coleridge.

The poet decided to accept the project, but knew he could not allow his name to go on the published piece, given his earlier abandoned translation, according to Professor McKusick.

"We don't have Coleridge's direct response," he said. "But I speculate it went something like this: Coleridge said: 'Yes, if you pay me, I can produce a verse translation quickly - because it's almost done - but you must swear never to reveal my name as the translator. It must go to the grave. Otherwise, Murray will come after me for his £100, plus interest, plus breach of contract.'"

Another theory suggests Coleridge may not have wanted his name associated with Faust because of its controversial themes.

Boosey eventually produced a book with verses written by "Anonymous" in 1821, which received a second printing in 1824. Later in the century it was attributed to another translator of the period, George Soane.

Scholars have always known Coleridge started a translation but had not previously believed he finished it. It was Professor McKusick's Pulitzer Prize-winning mentor, Paul Zall, who in 1971 began toying with the theory that the "anonymous" translation was the Devon-born poet's work.

When Zall, a scholar of English Romanticism and American literature, who started work on a bibliography of Coleridge works at California's Huntington Library, first came across the verse in the Boosey translation, he was convinced only Coleridge could have been capable of writing it.

He found echoes of the poet's style resonating throughout the work, and was possessed by the idea of discovering an undiscovered "Coleridge" text over the next two decades.

Professor Zall was well acquainted with Coleridge's distinctive style and vehemently believed that the translation's verbiage, expression, cadence and flair echoed the poet. Passages such as "The still moon wandering through the pathless heaven", were, he insisted, quintessential Coleridge, and some lines were lifted out of his own original work and used in the Goethe translation. Yet his theory was dismissed by the greater body of scholars of English Romanticism, who wanted unequivocal proof.

In 1989, Professor Zall presented Professor McKusick with a foot-high stack of manuscripts and apparently said: "I give you this as my legacy. This is Coleridge's translation of Faust. Good luck and Godspeed."

Professor McKusick used a computer analysis called "stylometrics", a system that suggests every writer uses a characteristic vocabulary, to compare the anonymous translation with Coleridge's body of works, as well as writings of other leading contenders for its authorship, including Soane.

With the help of the mathematics department at his university, he examined the use of functional keywords in the Faust translation and Coleridge's play Remorse, and found they showed a nearly exact match. Results from other authors whom academics believe may have been responsible for the translation did not even come close on the stylometrics system, he said.

Like a fingerprint, every writer has a different, wholly unique style that cannot be duplicated, Professor McKusick said. "Writers use certain words and place them in certain ways which happens on an unconscious level and can't be faked."

He set out to find Coleridge's fingerprint in the text, which helped him fine-tune his analysis, and the results, he insists, were definitive. "This showed the author of the 1821 Faust is the same as the author of Remorse, whom we know to be Coleridge, and now we had found objective evidence for this claim.

"Faust is generally agreed to be the greatest dramatic work of its time in any language, and the fact that it is translated in English by one of the leading poets and German translators is intrinsically important because it means this work came into English culture at an important point in the retelling of this legend clothed in the most beautiful language imagined," he said, saying the Coleridge's translation "crackles and pops" with a vitality unknown to other translations.

Other "smoking guns" apparently support Professor McKusick's theory, such as a letter by Goethe himself asserting that Coleridge was translating Faust.

It is undisputed that Coleridge had an expert knowledge of the German language. In the autumn of 1798, Coleridge and Wordsworth left for a visit to Germany and Coleridge spent much of his time in university towns, becoming interested in German philosophy, especially the transcendental idealism of Immanuel Kant. He studied German and, after his return to England, translated the dramatic trilogy Wallenstein by the German poet Friedrich Schiller into English.

In March, the Coleridge discovery will make its formal debut at a conference in California, followed by the OUP publication of the translation, findings and supporting documentation, a few months later. But in spite of the endorsement from an established publishing house, many Coleridge purists remain unconvinced by the findings.

According to the poet's nephew, Coleridge himself admitted: "I never set pen to paper as translator of Faust." (Prof McKusick contends that "he lied. He was covering his own tail".) And at a Coleridge Conference in the UK last summer, many Romantic enthusiasts found the revelation a difficult one to accept.

While Professor McKusick may be convinced that the Faust translation "shouts Coleridge on every line", he concedes he still has a lot of work to do to win the hearts and minds of the world's Coleridgeans. "Believing it", he said, "and proving it are two different things."

A literary life

* Born 21 October 1772 in Ottery St Mary, east Devon, youngest of 14 children.

* After father's death, sent to Christ's Hospital school at eight.

* To Jesus College, Cambridge, in 1791. Ran up debts and fled to London in 1793 where he joined Dragoons. Discharged for repeatedly falling off horse. Returned to Jesus, but failed to take degree in 1794.

* Met the poet Robert Southey and the pair planned to set up a utopian community in Susquehanna, Pennsylvania, with Robert Lovell and George Burnett. There they would marry and live according to their own political system: "pantisocracy".

* Married Sara Fricker, Southey's sister-in-law, in 1795 when he began earning a living by writing. His first volume of poetry published in 1796. First son, Hartley, born 19 September 1796. Family moved to Nether Stowey, Somerset.

* In 1797, he and William Wordsworth, who had moved nearby with his sister Dorothy, became friends when they co-produced a volume of poetry called Lyrical Ballads. Coleridge contributed "The Ancient Mariner". He also wrote "Kubla Khan", influenced by opium, but it was not published for 18 years. Lyrical Ballads was starting point for English Romanticism.

* After being offered an annuity, moved to Germany until 1799 to study idealism.

* Moved with family to Greta Hall in Lake District in 1800, to be near Wordsworth. In 1803, Southey joined him. When he became estranged from his wife, he moved to Grasmere to live with the Wordsworths. Fell in love with Sara Hutchinson, but it was unrequited and led to distress. During this period his marital problems, illnesses and increased use of opium led to his composition "Dejection: An Ode" and a focus on his philosophical studies.

* Suffering from rheumatism and head pains, following his increased dependency on opium, he was advised to move to "an even and dry climate". In 1804, he moved to Malta where for some months he became secretary of the British administration of the island.

* On his return, he gave lectures at the Royal Institution. In 1808-19, he lectured on Shakespeare and Milton. Public interest and demand for his conversation reflected in Lord Byron's writing that Coleridge "is a kind of rage at present".

* Attendance at lectures became more unpredictable as opium addiction took hold. In 1816, he moved to the home of a doctor, James Gillman, in Highgate. There he finished his first major work of prose, Biographia Literaria.

* Died at Highgate of heart failure on 25 July 1834.

Elisa Bray

Comments