Brain Pickings

Coleridge, Plagiarist

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How to walk the fine line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft.

In his indispensable essay on memory, plagiarism, and the necessary forgettings of creativity, neurologist Oliver Sacks points to English poet and philosopher Samuel Taylor Coleridge (October 21, 1772–July 25, 1834) as one of creative history’s most notorious perpetrators of plagiarism. In the altogether fascinating chronicle Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834 (public library), biographer Richard Holmes unravels the psychological propensities of the poet’s mind that made his plagiarism possible — and, arguably, pleasurable — for him.

Coleridge’s plagiarisms began innocently enough: In his youth, he found himself enthralled by an obscure German book of spiritual meditations by Jean-Paul Richter, given to him by his friend Crabb Robinson, and began integrating Richter’s ideas into his own reflections as he was translating the German text. Holmes writes:

He drew comfort from Jean-Paul’s aphorisms and meditations in a particular way. He did not merely read and reflect on them, but incorporated them into his own Notebooks in various forms of translation, imitation, and reworked versions. … This method of privately translating and anthologizing Jean-Paul throws some light on the psychology of Coleridge’s later plagiarism. He had consciously used adapted translations in some of his earlier poetry. . . . But his prose translations from Jean-Paul suggest a less deliberate, more internalized process at work in his private Notebooks. It was almost as if, in “the long, long nights” of his study-bedroom at Hammersmith, he was holding a silent conversation with his confrère or brother-spirit in Leipzig.

In fact, this silent conversation — much akin to the marginalia that bond reader and writer — was for Coleridge a throbbing dialogue, which did include heavy borrowing, but also intellectual discourse and even dissent. In one instance, he called into question Jean-Paul’s overly sentimental analogies, writing to Robinson: “You admire, not the things combined, but the act of combination.” With this in mind, Holmes posits a caveat:

It would be absurd to describe Coleridge’s [private notebook] entries as any kind of plagiarism. But at the same time it is easy to see how, in other circumstances, use of such “adapted” material could open him up to such a charge. Coleridge was soon to find other German authors — notably A. W. Schlegel and Schelling — with whom he developed the same brotherly or symbiotic relationship. He read, translated, refined and expanded in his own way. But when he left the privacy of his study and published or lectured on the resulting text (without acknowledging his source) he inevitably opened himself up to the charge of plagiarism.

And open him up it did: This early practice of fusing his influences into his own private work — to the extent that any of our ideas are “our own” at all — congealed into a habit of mind that would render Coleridge chronically susceptible to plagiarism, whether conscious or not, in his public work. He was especially heavily influenced by Schelling, whose ideas permeated Coleridge’s magnum opus, his Biographia Literaria — at times with verbatim translations which Coleridge left unappropriated. Curiously, it was Crabb Robinson, a German scholar himself, who both acquainted Coleridge with his sources and first recognized the problem of plagiarism. And yet, rather than casting Coleridge’s borrowing in a black-and-white framework of morality, Robinson was able to see the grayscale of its psychological mechanisms. Holmes writes:

Significantly, [Robinson] did not consider it plagiarism, being fully aware of Coleridge’s vast background reading in German and British philosophy and criticism, and the originality of his particular interpretations. Moreover Coleridge was almost never dominated by his sources. Except in the particular case of Schelling, he never stole slavishly. His disagreements with German thought … produced his great originality of emphasis, those sudden developments of psychological insight, and vivid metaphorical explanation. He was always inspired to outdo his originals, to speculate further, to enquire more closely.

And yet the charges of plagiarism would become both more urgent and more inescapable by the time his Biographia was published in 1817. In it, Coleridge lifted entire passages from Schelling, word for word, without a sliver of attribution. But Holmes argues this was less a deliberate exercise in creative deception than a byproduct of Coleridge’s deteriorating mental health and weakening psychoemotional capacities. He had become addicted to opium, his addiction not only painfully blocking his bowels but also instilling in him crippling guilt and shame, and he had a falling out with William Wordsworth, his closest professional peer and likemind, as well as a dear friend and confidante. Holmes writes:

It cannot be a coincidence that this period corresponds to the worst time of his opium addiction, the extreme sense of his loss of Wordsworth, and the severest lack of professional self-confidence and feelings of almost paralyzing failure. At one level, then, plagiarism was a response to the profound, almost disabling anxiety and intellectual self-doubts. His German authors gave him support and comfort: in a metaphor he often used himself, he twined round them like ivy round an oak.

This, perhaps, is the moral of Coleridge’s questionable relationship with originality — while creativity is all about connecting things, and we are, as Austin Kleon put it, a mashup of what we let into our lives, and all ideas are, as Mark Twain observed, substantially second-hand, the line between unconscious borrowing and deliberate theft is often fine, but learning to walk it both consciously and conscientiously is where true creative integrity lies.

The rest of Coleridge: Darker Reflections, 1804–1834 is equally revelatory of one of modern history’s greatest lives and the extraordinary, complicated mind that inhabited it. Complement it with Coleridge on what a poem is.

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