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On Coleridge, Faust and the Love of Books

Some time ago (I’m talking July here) the lovely Lauren Cerand pointed out that Carrie Frye at About Last Night was yearning for a copy of Faustus: From the German of Goethe Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge edited by Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick.  So I ordered a copy with the intent of sending Ms. Frye a surprise package.  Alas, the book did not arrive until November! So with my deepest apologies I am putting the book in the mail today, with the hopes that it will still brighten Ms. Frye’s day.  Better late than never right?  Sadly, I can not send you all a copy so I have excerpted the introduction from the book which gives us some background on Coleridge. Enjoy!

Samuel Taylor Coleridge (1772-1834), the youngest of the ten children of Reverend John and Ann Bowden Coleridge, was born at Ottery St Mary in Devon. He attended the local grammar school until the year following his father’s death in 1781, when he was sent to the charity school at Christ’s Hospital in London. In 1791 he entered Jesus College, Cambridge. In 1794, he met with Robert Southey and became engaged to Sara Fricker, the sister of Southey’s fiancee. With Southey, he planned to establish a commune, a pantisocracy, on the banks of the Susqehanna in America. In their political zeal they also jointly wrote The Fall of Robespierre, published September of that year.

This play was the first of several that Coleridge wrote throughout his subsequent career. In addition to his work as a dramatist, his career is noteworthy for his great achievement as a poet, especially his poetic tales of supernatural influence: The Rime of the Ancient Mariner and Christabel; of dream visions: ‘Kubla Khan’; and his blank-verse ‘conversation poems’: ‘The Eolian Harp’, ‘The Lime-Tree Bower my Prison’, ‘Frost at Midnight’, and ‘The Nightingale’. It was the capacity of ‘the rich mystical numbers’ in these poems to ‘affect the heart and ear like a spell’ that prompted John Auster to declare that Coleridge, more than any other poet in the English language, could exercise a ‘charm’ as powerful as Goethe’s Faust.

In addition to his achievement as poet and playwright, Coleridge also gained enduring reputation as a literary critic. His lectures on literature, including lectures on Shakespeare’s plays, commenced in 1808, and were continued almost annually throughout the next decade. In 1811, he began adapting critical concepts from lectures on dramatic art by August Wilhelm Schlegel. In 1814, at the very time that he had accepted the task of translating Faust for John Murray, Coleridge brought out his Essays on the Principles of Genial Criticism, in which he developed ideas adapted from the philosophy of Immanuel Kant. One year later, a more extensive appropriation of ideas from Friedrich Schelling informed chapter 12 of Biographia Literaria. In his writings on religion, too, Coleridge drew ideas from contemporary German thinkers. In his Aids to Reflection, for example, Coleridge adapted Schleiermacher’s exegesis of the Gospel of Luke. Throughout his career, Coleridge translated and adapted shorter and longer pieces of German poetry and prose, from Schiller and Goethe, from Holty and Hoffman, and transformed Friedericke Brun’s Chamounix beym Sonnenaufgange into his own Hymn before the Sun-rise in the Vale of Chamouny.

It is not possible to separate Coleridge’s endeavors as mediator of German literature and philosophy from his activities as a playwright. In 1797, when he first commenced his collaboration with William Wordsworth, he was still, as he had been in his collaboration with Southey, very much involved in the drama. Wordsworth was composing his play The Borderers at the same time that Coleridge was at work on Osorio, the play that was later revised as Remorse (1813). Both Wordsworth and Coleridge were responding to the influence of Schiller’s The Robbers, which had gained considerable popularity in England. A year later, after having submitted their collaborative collection, Lyrical Ballads, to the press, Wordsworth and Coleridge travelled to Germany. Wordsworth and his sister Dorothy settled in Goslar; Coleridge enrolled at the University of Gottingen. During his stay in Gottingen, Coleridge began translating the dramatic trilogy that Schiller had just written, and he rapidly completed the two major sections: The Piccolomini and The Death of Wallenstein (1800). These were published promptly on Coleridge’s return to England.

In revising Osorio as Remorse in 1813, Coleridge was very attentive to the acting and staging, readily altering lines to enhance the performance Because Remorse was a lucrative box-office success, Coleridge was eager to write another play. Zapolya, his ‘Winter’s Tale’, was rejected for performance in 1816. Coleridge nevertheless held out hope that his translation of Faustus would be produced on stage. This was a major factor in his choosing to translate Goethe’s work into dramatic blank verse. In his agreement with John Murray, Coleridge explicitly requested that he retain exclusive rights for the stage. The same consideration is repeated in his negotiations with Thomas Boosey.

In the passages in which Faustus ponders pantheism and theism, the meaning of the logos, the contrary impulses of the self, Coleridge cold recognize elements in Geothe’s throught that were similar to his own. Goethe, too, had felt the nfluence of Spinoza, of Kant, and of Schelling. As radically different as the authors were, in representing hte tribulations of Fautus, they shared a common ground. Indeed there were many dimensions of the Faustian dilemma which would have eluded other English translators. Coleridge’s translation of Faustus thus stands as a far more central accomplishment in his literary career than his earlier translation of Schiller’s Wallenstein and Piccolomini.

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