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When considering the works of poets as the works of plagiarists, have we been judging them on their own terms? In Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period, Tilar J. Mazzeo historicizes discussions of Romantic-period plagiarism and demonstrates that critics have long overlooked the differences associated with the term today. Mazzeo challenges the misleading modern conjunction of Romanticism with originality and offers new readings of some of the most familiar works and the controversies surrounding them. This book will prove insightful not just to scholars of the major Romantics represented here but also those interested in constructions of authorship, how reputations are formed, and recent trends in reception history and the like.

At the same time, this book is presented as a belated response to Jerome McGann’s 1980s polemic The Romantic Ideology. And so this book affords us an opportunity to reflect on the broader direction of current historicist thinking in Romantic studies. For instance, Mazzeo ostensibly focuses on the traditional “big 6” – or rather an updated version that incorporates Clare, Yearsley, and other “recovered” poets. She is steadfast in her assertion that “I have not been particularly focused on reading at the margins of Romantic-period culture” (xi). “While this book considers several “non-canonical” figures and argues for their relationship to both plagiarism and more familiar literary texts of the early nineteenth century,” she adds, “this is essentially a study of the Romantic ‘canon’” (ibid.).

But the question remains: does not a historicist project of this kind necessitate an explicit disavowal of “Romanticism”? By focusing on the charges of plagiarism made against poets considered canonical only after the fact, is there not a danger of misrepresenting the fuller literary-historical picture? At issue here is the historicist debate about the claims made for completeness: where one critic will seek to overcome the alterity of the past, another will point to the futility of the attempt. While this remains a divisive methodological issue, Mazzeo’s assertion that “Romanticism’s relationship to plagiarism represents one of the claims for incompleteness that this particular history makes on the present” is strongly and consistently adhered to throughout the book (xii). But the premise is not universally adhered to by critics.

Also open to question is the demarcation between “eighteenth-century precursors” – such as Edward Young and Richard Hurd – and Romantic-period authors. Again, how can we reconcile this with a truer historical focus? Despite the wide range of new and familiar material offered, Mazzeo’s attempts at “getting out of the way and letting the historical evidence speak” (xi) is no straightforward task. Mazzeo’s methods rely on some critical construction, and this often proves successful in its aims. For instance, an important distinction is made between “culpable” plagiarism and “poetical” plagiarism, a distinction that remains central to the arguments advanced throughout the book (2). Culpable plagiarism refers to “borrowings that were simultaneously unacknowledged, unimportant, unfamiliar, and conscious.” If any of those components were missing, no charge of culpable plagiarism could be plausibly made. Poetical plagiarism was in existence if “borrowings were simply unacknowledged and unimproved.” This did not have the same moral implications as culpable plagiarism, but the propagator of such transgression was subject to the more damaging charge of bad writing.

After establishing this broad distinction, Mazzeo shows that the concepts were historically muddled, and therefore led to misinterpretation. A significant problem is the avowal of acknowledgement. Where the redeployment of material or straightforward mimicry could be termed plagiaristic in rigid models of authorial property, the case of satire – which relies on a cannibalistic treatment of other texts – suggests that another author’s text need only be implicitly acknowledged. Another troublesome category considered by Mazzeo is improvement. Often “discussions of improvement rested upon this matter of “seamlessness””, Mazzeo observes, “and unimproved texts were frequently described as monstrous, patchwork, or unassimilated” (3). This leads us to the assumption that, in terms of aesthetic propriety, it is better for a text to hide its borrowings than to exhibit them too honestly. Familiarity is a third problematic area outlined by Mazzeo. Under this heading she makes a logical if perhaps undervalued observation: historical and scientific texts were texts of learning rather than creativity and so were ripe for guiltless redeployment. Where critics – contemporary and modern alike – draw the line between mock-learned works and more outwardly “poetic” works is unclear. Questions of what defines “the literary” come intoxicatingly to the fore. Not only is the picture of Romantic plagiarism incomplete, it disappears at the point at which we try to define it.

In large part this elusiveness revolves around the profound and foundational distinction between Georgian and modern definitions of plagiarisms, specifically in terms of the proprietary connotations of language. Whereas modern court decisions in such cases as Napolitano v. Trustees of Princeton University (1982) focus on verbatim repetition of discrete phrases, Romantic-period accusers focused more on style and on voice. Here Mazzeo makes an appealing case for a Romantic kind of plagiarism, a situation in which an author “infused the borrowed materials with her or her [sic] subjectivity to the extent that it became “new” property even when verbatim parallels persisted” (6). This seems unlikely to catch on again in the litigious society in which we live, but at least we can better understand the history of copyright, as well as a writer’s use of tradition, thanks to Mazzeo’s study. Twentieth-century criticism tended to focus on the accusations made against Coleridge, whereas, as Mazzeo shows, there were bigger and more pervasive controversies levied against the likes of Byron, Wordsworth and Clare by contemporaries.

Weaved throughout the case studies are a number of familiar stories about authorial squabbles over property, and this further enriches the argument and readability of the book. One such example is the case of Mary Robinson, her Lyrical Tales, and the authors of the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth and Coleridge (60). Inserted appropriately and told with concision and verve, the story of Wordsworth’s irritation at the close verbal resemblance between the titles of the collections emphasizes the disjunction between our modern assumptions about property and the more historical case of marketability and voice. This is followed by an account of Wordsworth’s unabashed borrowings from his sister Dorothy’s journals. Since these were “authorless texts” – in terms of Mazzeo’s distinction between scientific and creative texts – the issue was not one of theft but of “poetical” plagiarism.

Mazzeo also offers new readings of canonical works, such as Byron’s Childe Harold’s Pilgrimage, a text in which the poet engages most explicitly with contemporary notions of plagiarism, specifically charges made against him by Wordsworth and his friend Henry Taylor in the widely read serial The London Magazine in 1823. For Taylor, Byron is an aesthetic plagiarist and his crime is bad poetry (97). For Wordsworth, Byron was guilty not of stealing his property but of failing to improve upon it sufficiently. “The consequences are as much aesthetic as moral,” Mazzeo concludes (107). In contrast to Byron, as Mazzeo argues, Shelley “is an example of an early nineteenth-century writer who successfully negotiated contemporary attitudes toward literary property” (122). Mazzeo also looks at Thomas Love Peacock’s “The Four Ages of Poetry” and offers new insights into what seems to us a familiar critical work. She convincingly argues that Peacock mobilizes the language of aesthetic plagiarism in order to attack the disjointed and flawed poetry of his contemporaries (125-132).

These innovative readings aside, a handful of useful contemporaries are conspicuous by their absence. Although sitting outside the scope of Mazzeo’s book, an important figure with much to say on the topic of plagiarism is the literary historian Isaac D’Israeli. In his hugely popular Curiosities of Literature (4th ed., 1794) he discusses the art of “plagianism.” This might not seem to fit with the nodal case studies offered here – such as the face-off between Byron and Wordsworth – but it might offer a scholarly corollary to the canonical Romantics as well as to the critical tradition under investigation. For D’Israeli, plagianists (sic) disguise their material “in such a manner that it becomes impossible even for the author himself to recognize his own work, and his own style, so skilfully shall the whole be disguised” (vol 2, p.164). This lends further credence, should it be desired, to Mazzeo’s convincing argument that definitions of plagiarism in the Romantic-period focused not on semantics but on style.

Vicesimus Knox, too, has something to say about plagiarism in his Liberal Education (1781). In a section on “Writing Exercises,” Knox insists that “Plagiarism must be discouraged” – but not too severely (45). Mazzeo’s interest in (American) pedagogy is well addressed, but it is not entirely clear why prominent eighteenth-century pedagogues do not appear in a work of this kind, even if Knox’s brief comments only warrant a fleeting reference. At the same time, as we might expect, Edward Young, author of Conjectures on Original Composition (1759), features prominently in the pre-history chapters of Plagiarism and Literary Property. Not only does Mazzeo use Young to outline early theorizations of “plagiarism,” she returns to him effectively in order to highlight the disparity between pre-Romantic ideas about plagiaristic practices and the radical espousals of the high Romantics. At the same time, as we see in the case of John Clare and his correspondent C. H. Townsend, Young’s so-called pre-Romantic thinking remained relevant throughout the period. “Townsend’s assertion that Clare must feel empowered to borrow from nature and to still consider his work original reiterates the early and abiding distinction that Young has drawn between appropriate (universal) and inappropriate (particular) borrowings” (178-179).

Mazzeo is too acute a theorist to insist that Romantic plagiarism stands opposed to eighteenth-century plagiarism and the way in which she complicates and revisits what could have been a rigid chronological study is one of the great strengths of her approach. By presenting a series of strong case studies she shows that, first, plagiarism in the period took many forms and, second, it was by no means commonly understood. It is a subject that deserves more attention and, thanks to Mazzeo, no doubt it will receive it.