In an 1820 letter to his son, Johann Wolfgang von Goethe stated that English poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge was hard at work translating Goethe’s closet drama Faust. Coleridge and his friends, however, openly expressed dislike for the German poet, and in 1834, Coleridge wrote, “I need not tell you that I never put pen to paper as a translator of Faust.” No contemporary translation of the work contains Coleridge’s name, and many scholars have puzzled over the possible existence of this translation.
A recent critical edition of Faustus, reviewed in February in the Times Literary Supplement, claims to have solved the mystery. In 1814, Coleridge was approached by Byron’s publisher, John Murray, to translate Faust. He worked at the translation for a little over a month, and then abandoned the project out of frustration. Following the publication of two very successful editions of the work in 1820, the editors surmise, Coleridge must have been inspired to take up the project again. The 1821 edition matches his poetic style very closely, however, it was published anonymously.
Soon after this review appeared in TLS, various reactions appeared from scholars arguing against the attribution, claiming it to be based too much on conjecture. (For more on the arguments of both sides, the “Friends of Coleridge” website has collected a list of reviews and responses to the new translation.) Dr. James Engell, Gurney Professor of English and Professor of Comparative Literature at Harvard, believes the following: “My opinion is that the verse in it–most of it though not perhaps all of it–is very likely [Coleridge's], a strong attribution by Burwick and McKusick. The prose summaries of the untranslated parts are probably not by [Coleridge], nor the prose introduction, though he may have directed the prose introduction’s sense of delicate subjects, tastes of the two countries, etc.”
In the midst of this scholarly fervor, we acquired a copy of the contested 1821 translation. The edition includes twenty-six plates engraved by Henry Moses after Friedrich August Moritz Retzsch’s well-known ‘outlines’. (The idea for this edition in the first place came from the successful 1820 publication of the plates by themselves.)
f*EC8.C6795.821f. Purchased with the Norton Perkins Memorial Fund and the Amy Lowell Trust. Images may not be reproduced without permission.
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