Tilar J. Mazzeo. Plagiarism and Literary Property in the Romantic Period. Philadelphia: U of Pennsylvania P, 2007. ISBN: 978-0-8122-3967-6. Price: US$55[Notice]

  • Daniel Cook

…plus d’informations

  • Daniel Cook
    University of Cambridge

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 – …

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