By Kelly Grovier in TLS
When Charles Lamb heard, in the summer of 1814, that his old friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been asked to translate Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dark masterwork Faust into English, he could hardly contain his horror. “I counsel thee”, Lamb wrote to Coleridge on August 23, “to let it alone . . . how canst thou translate the language of cat-monkeys? Fie on such fantasies!” To Lamb, the surreal banter between Faust and the mob of half-human meerkats he meets in the “Witch’s Kitchen” was a metaphor for the meaninglessness of Goethe’s work. For nearly two centuries, the literary world has believed that Lamb’s intervention was decisive, or at least that it coincided with Coleridge’s own resolution not to pursue the project. “I need not tell you”, Coleridge wrote twenty years later in his Table Talk, “that I never put pen to paper as a translator of Faust.”
Romantic scholars have long puzzled over the contradiction between Coleridge’s insistence that he “never put pen to paper” and Goethe’s own conviction that the troubled author of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was in fact hard at work on the project. In September 1820, Goethe wrote to his son, August, confidently stating that Coleridge was well under way with a translation. Six years later, in his diary, he hints that he has seen a finished version. The discrepancy between Coleridge’s and Goethe’s assertions has quietly continued to niggle as one of the great riddles in Coleridge scholarship. Among the many questions is why a poet, whose reputation and psyche had suffered for decades from a failure to complete promised and promising literary projects, should disown an achievement of such scale and significance? A further question is: if such a translation had indeed ever been produced, what happened to it?
The solution to the mystery, according to Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick, the editors of this provocative new edition Faustus: From the German of Goethe, translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge, “was there in plain sight all along”. Their book represents the climax of a scholarly journey that began in 1971, when the American scholar Paul M. Zall stumbled across a neglected translation of Goethe’s verse drama, anonymously published in 1821 by the bookseller Thomas Boosey. Zall was startled by what he felt were inimitable Coleridgean rhythms in the translation, and he advanced a thesis that the lost work was perhaps never missing at all, but merely disguised under a cloak of anonymity. At the time, Zall had little more to go on than instinct, and he knew it would be difficult to convince his peers. In addition to Coleridge’s emphatic claim that he never undertook the work, the poet left a long trail of disparaging remarks about Faust: “there is neither caus-ation nor progression” in the writing, he insisted; “Faust himself is dull and meaningless”; “there is no whole in the poem”; “a large part of the work is to me very flat”. But for Zall, the stylistic similarities between the so-called “Boosey” translation and Coleridge’s earlier tragedies Remorse (1813) and Zapolya (1817), were too striking to ignore. “’If it is not by Coleridge”, Zall concluded, “then there was an imitator at large who deserves better of posterity than unsung anonymity.”