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Coleridge's literary DNA found on Faust translation

NEWS RELEASE UNIVERSITY OF MONTANA ************************* Administrator helps reveal lost work of famous poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the greatest poets, critics and philosophers of the 1800s.


Administrator helps reveal lost work of famous poet

Samuel Taylor Coleridge was one of the greatest poets, critics and philosophers of the 1800s.

Best known for "The Rime of the Ancient Mariner," he was a prolific author who helped found England's Romantic Movement.

University of Montana administrator Jim McKusick and his research partners believe they have uncovered a previously unknown Coleridge work - an 1821 English translation of "Faust," the classic German tale about a man selling his soul to the devil, which previously had been attributed to "Anonymous."

"It was hidden in plain sight," McKusick said. "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."

McKusick, dean of UM’s Davidson Honors College and an English professor, is a self-described "Coleridgean" who has read everything the Englishman ever wrote - enough to fill 50 volumes.

To someone like him, the "Faust" translation shouts Coleridge on every line.

"But believing that and proving that are two different things," he said.

Researchers started building the case that Coleridge [shown] actually wrote the translation a quarter century ago.

It all started when McKusick's mentor, Paul Zall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar of English Romanticism and American literature, started work on a bibliography of all Coleridge works at California's Huntington Library.

Zall knew Coleridge had contracted with London publisher John Murray to do a "Faust" translation in 1814.

The poet even was given an advance of 100 pounds, but he never produced the project for Murray - though scholars suspect he started work on the translation. (McKusick said Coleridge was a well-known procrastinator who also was plagued by opium addiction.)

Murray was friends with Coleridge and likely wrote the advance off as a bad debt.

Then in 1820 a collection of engravings to illustrate "Faust" came to England from Germany.

Another English publisher, Thomas Boosey, a rival of Murray's, wanted text to illustrate the engravings.

A letter shows Boosey knew Coleridge had worked on a translation and contacted the poet.

"We don't have Coleridge's direct response," McKusick 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 pounds, plus interest, plus breach of contract.'"

McKusick also believes Coleridge may not have wanted his name associated with "Faust" because of its controversial, devilish themes.

At any rate, Boosey produced a beautiful coffee-table book with wonderful verse by "Anonymous" in 1821.

It was popular enough to receive a second printing in 1824.

When Zall came across the well-crafted verse in the Boosey translation in 1971, he was convinced there was only one person in England at that time capable of writing so well - Coleridge.

He found many echoes of Coleridge's style in the work, and for the next 20 years he made his case that the literary great was the author.

But in the end, most scholars told Zall it was a fine theory, but you can't really prove it.

That's where McKusick comes in.

In 1989 he was working at the Huntington Library, and Zall came to his desk and whacked down a foot-high stack of manuscript.

"Jim," he said, "I give you this as my legacy. This is Coleridge's translation of 'Faust.' Good luck and Godspeed."

McKusick said reading that manuscript was a "Eureka!" moment for him.

He, too, thought only Coleridge could have written it.

But there is some evidence against the theory.

For one thing, according to the poet's nephew, Coleridge said: "I never set pen to paper as translator of 'Faust.'" ("He lied," McKusick contends. "He was covering his own tail.")

Also, some unknown librarian from the late 1800s catalogued the translation under George Soane, a translator of the Coleridge period, "on the basis of no evidence we are aware of," McKusick said. "I think it was just a hunch, but it has colored the conversation to this day."

The "Faust" manuscript gathered dust until 2003, when McKusick got a call from his good friend Fred Burwick, an English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles.

Investigating Coleridge's activities as a translator, Burwick recalled Zall's claims in 1971 and looked again at the anonymous translation.

Convinced that Zall (now in his 90s) had been right, he asked McKusick for the collection of Zall's notes.

After McKusick sent him a copy of the 12-inch stack, Burwick says, "Jim, this is certainly by Coleridge, and I think we can prove it."

During thousands of hours over the next few years, McKusick ventured into the world of mathematics to make his case.

He used statistics to compare the "Anonymous" translation to Coleridge works, as well as writings of other leading contenders from that era, such as Soane.

Specifically, McKusick used stylometrics software to compare the various writings.

Stylometrics is a field that suggests every writer uses a characteristic vocabulary -- a "literary fingerprint," so to speak.

The features of this vocabulary tend to recur with a consistent relative frequency.

"One way to do stylometric analysis is to just crunch every word in the text and find their distribution by word length," McKusick said. "It generates a bell-shaped curve to compare authors. This is generally not considered vastly reliable, but it's fun to do."

When he used this method to compare the "Faust" translation to an 1813 Coleridge play called "Remorse," it matched up almost perfectly. "Again, that wasn’t proof," McKusick said, "but it's suggestive. I ran that test and said, 'Boy, I like to see that.'"

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