Monday, June 9, 2008

Coleridge, Plagiarism, and Authorship

"A mixture of lies doth ever add pleasure." -Coleridge, "The Friend" essay 1

I have been reading a great deal lately about Samuel Taylor Coleridge, English Romantic poet a philosopher. Coleridge was a remarkably interesting man and not only changed the course of English poetry but had an important influence on literary theory and indirectly on philosophy. There is a great deal of controversy concerning Coleridge’s alleged plagiarism, particularly of various passages of German idealist philosophy. In the 1970s Norman Furman wrote an exhaustive text on this subject entitled Coleridge: Damaged Archangel, a phrase that he took from the great essayist Charles Lamb who was a friend of Coleridge. Personally, despite all the work that Furman put into his book which runs to some 500 pages, I believe that the majority of Coleridge’s plagiarism can be put down to a combination of his opium use, a rather disorganized and muddled mind, and simple scholarly carelessness. I say this because Coleridge’s brilliance is something agreed upon by supporters and detractors alike, and his direct plagiarism is often surrounded by sophisticated and ground-breaking analysis and summery that, if it were just properly foot-noted would, on its own, constitute important and original work. He had, therefore, little to gain by lucid and conscious plagiarism of the work of German philosophers that he had a more thorough knowledge of than any other thinker in England at the time.

Another interesting issue in the literary biography of Coleridge is his habit of changing the dates of certain poems or even fabricating stories surrounding the writing of certain work. The most famous example of this is the story he told about the creation of his renowned poem Kubla Khan, which he claimed was revealed to him all at once in a opium induced sleep. Upon being interrupted by a mysterious person from Porlock, Coleridge claims that he lost his connection to this nether world and was unable to complete the poem which ever remained a fragment.
What I find most interesting about both these issues is not the hard facts about the degree to which Coleridge’s plagiarism was conscious or not, nor whether or not some of Coleridge’s greatest poems were really written under the influence or drugs or not. In the end these are issues that probably cannot be settled anyway and what matters more than the facts is the way you choose to look at the life and work of this remarkable man. What all of these issues really point to is the degree to which the facts of ‘authorship’ are really slippery and shadowy issues that seem, at first glance, clear and orderable, but on closer examination are not clear at all.

This idea got me thinking about the concept in literary theory referred to as the ‘intentional fallacy.’ This concept, first used in the forties by Wimsatt and Beardsley, can basically be summed up in the idea that the intention of the author doesn’t really matter when it comes to analysing and understanding a work of art or literature. Over the years this idea gained ever-increasing currency and today, in the atmosphere of post-modernism and deconstruction it is taken as read that an author’s intent is largely irrelevant to a work of literature. Putting together the idea slippery status of authorship as raised by the issues surrounding Coleridge’s work with the notion off the intentional fallacy, I began to think about the creation of a new, more radical concept which we could refer to as the ‘Authorial Fallacy.’ This idea would help to remind us that originality and authorship is never really a clear cut issue and that, despite the current obsession of academic authorities with plagiarism, the lines of authorship constantly blur.

This blurry world of authorship is in large part what makes Samuel Coleridge such an interesting and challenging writer; he created not only stories and ideas but stories about stories and ideas about ideas. Where reality fiction begins and reality ends is never clear and the lines of ‘truth’ are constantly shifting. This is also what might make Coleridge one of the great precursors to post-modern thought.

The great French writer, Lautremont (himself a precursor to the Surrealists) once said; “Plagiarism is necessary; the world demands it!” I wonder when we will catch up to this strange and enigmatic 19th century thinker?


Anonymous said...


Compelling questions of ownership and authorship. I'll check your wiki post.


Chris said...

I know this is a rather old post, but I thought you might want to know that you are the top Google hit for "Coleridge Plagiarism."

Also, and more importantly, I was wondering if you ever did any additional work on Coleridge. I've been fascinated by the man for a couple years now and have been working on his theology and philosophy. Have you done any more work on him, or was this just a one time deal?