Buzz on Bees
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Perhaps he was more prolific than anyone knew. UM administrator Jim McKusick and his research partners believe they have uncovered a previously unknown Coleridge work — an 1821 English translation of “Faust,” the classic German tale about a man selling his soul to the devil, which previously had been attributed to “Anonymous.”
“It was hidden in plain sight,” McKusick says. “Who knew that Coleridge had published a translation of the greatest dramatic work of the age? It changes our whole understanding of this towering literary figure.”
McKusick, dean of UM’s Davidson Honors College and an English professor, is a self-described “Coleridgean” who has read everything the Englishman ever wrote — enough to fill 50 volumes. To someone like him, the “Faust” translation shouts Coleridge on every line.
“But believing that and proving that are two different things,” he says.
started building the case that Coleridge actually wrote the translation
a quarter century ago. It all started when McKusick’s mentor, Paul
Zall, a Pulitzer Prize-winning scholar of English Romanticism and American
literature, started work on a bibliography of all Coleridge works at California’s
Huntington Library. Huntington is one of the major scholarly libraries
in North America, with especially strong holdings in British
Zall knew Coleridge had contracted with London publisher John Murray to do a “Faust” translation in 1814. The poet even was given an advance of 100 pounds, but he never produced the project for Murray — though scholars suspect he started work on the translation. (McKusick said Coleridge was a well-known procrastinator who also was plagued by opium addiction.) Murray was friends with Coleridge and likely wrote off the advance as a bad debt.
Then in 1820 a collection of engravings to illustrate “Faust” came to England from Germany. Another English publisher, Thomas Boosey, a rival of Murray’s, wanted text to illustrate the engravings. A letter shows Boosey knew Coleridge had worked on a translation and contacted the poet.
“We don’t have Coleridge’s direct response,” McKusick says, “but I speculate it went something like this: Coleridge said, ‘Yes, if you pay me, I can produce a verse translation quickly — because it’s almost done — but you must swear never to reveal my name as the translator. It must go to the grave. Otherwise, Murray will come after me for his 100 pounds, plus interest, plus breach of contract.’”
McKusick also believes Coleridge may not have wanted his name associated with “Faust” because of its controversial, devilish themes. Written by Johann Wolfgang von Goethe, “Faust” is considered by some to be the single greatest work of German literature. It’s a story of the archetypal conflict of good versus evil, and what Goethe brings to the table is a deep metaphysical concern about the origin of evil and human nature. It asks, what is it about our nature that tempts us to evil deeds and thoughts?
At any rate, Boosey produced a beautiful coffee-table book with wonderful verse by “Anonymous” in 1821. It was popular enough to receive a second printing in 1824.
When Zall came across the well-crafted verse in the Boosey translation in 1971, he was convinced there was only one person in England at that time capable of writing so well — Coleridge. He found many echoes of Coleridge’s style in the work, and for the next 20 years he made his case that the literary great was the author. But in the end, most scholars told Zall it was a fine theory, but you can’t really prove it.
That’s where McKusick comes in. In 1989 he was working at the Huntington Library, and Zall came to his desk and whacked down a foot-high stack of manuscript. “Jim,” he said, “I give you this as my legacy. This is Coleridge’s translation of ‘Faust.’ Good luck and Godspeed.”
McKusick said reading that manuscript was a “Eureka!” moment for him. He, too, thought only Coleridge could have written it. But there is some evidence against the theory.
For one thing, according to the poet’s nephew, Coleridge said, “I never set pen to paper as translator of ‘Faust.’” (“He lied,” McKusick contends. “He was covering his own tail.”) Also, some unknown librarian from the late 1800s catalogued the translation under George Soane, a translator of the Coleridge period, “on the basis of no evidence we are aware of,” McKusick says. “I think it was just a hunch, but it has colored the conversation to this day.”
The “Faust” manuscript gathered dust until 2003, when McKusick got a call from his good friend Fred Burwick, an English professor at the University of California, Los Angeles. Investigating Coleridge’s activities as a translator, Burwick recalled Zall’s claims in 1971 and looked again at the “Anonymous” translation. Convinced that Zall had been right, he asked McKusick for the collection of Zall’s notes. After McKusick sent him a copy of the 12-inch stack, Burwick said “Jim, this is certainly by Coleridge, and I think we can prove it.”
During thousands of hours over the next few years, McKusick ventured into the world of mathematics to make his case. He used statistics to compare the “Anonymous” translation to Coleridge works, as well as writings of other leading contenders from that era, such as Soane.
McKusick used “stylometrics” software to compare the various writings. Stylometrics is an area of study that suggests every writer uses a characteristic vocabulary — a “literary fingerprint,” so to speak. The features of this vocabulary tend to recur with a consistent relative frequency.
He says the software he used for the study, “Signature Stylometric System,” is free and downloadable by everyone courtesy of the University of Leeds.
“One way to do stylometric analysis is to just crunch every word in the text and find their distribution by word length,” McKusick says. “It generates a bell-shaped curve to compare authors. This is generally not considered vastly reliable, but it’s fun to do.”
When he used this method to compare the “Faust” translation to an 1813 Coleridge play called “Remorse,” it matched up almost perfectly. “Again, that wasn’t proof,” McKusick says, “but it’s suggestive. I ran that test and said, ‘Boy, I like to see that.’”
The next approach, which is considered much more reliable, is to use stylometrics to analyze the texts’ functional keywords — words authors tend to use with reliable frequency. They don’t have to be large, distinctive words. In fact, the words he found Coleridge used with the same relative frequency from his early to his late plays were: he, in, now, of, shall, then, this, to, which and your.
McKusick studied the chi-square value of the different texts, which is a standard test of statistical significance. It shows a pattern of resemblance or difference between the two scientific samples.
“To have a good chi-square analysis you need a good sample size,” he says, “which is why you don’t pick out the fancy 10-syllable words. There aren’t enough of them in the text, so you would never get a significant sample. But with short keywords, you get what you need.”
In the end, the computer analysis of the keywords between the “Faust” translation and Coleridge’s play “Remorse,” showed a nearly exact match. Results from the other contending authors weren’t even close.
“This showed the author of the 1821 ‘Faust’ is the same as the author of ‘Remorse,’ whom we know to be Coleridge,” McKusick says, “and now we had found objective evidence for this claim.”
McKusick says Dave Patterson, chair of the UM mathematics department, has been a valuable consultant, helping fix some initial errors in the mathematical argument and reviewing his subsequent work on the topic.
He says this same stylometric method was used in the 1960s to prove the authorship of the Federalist Papers — essays written by Alexander Hamilton and James Madison to defend the Constitution. Madison, it turns out, wrote the pieces where an author wasn’t specified. McKusick says other lines of evidence came from his partner, Burwick, who has near-native fluency in German. He went to the original sources of “Faust” and found some “smoking guns,” including a letter by “Faust” author Goethe himself that says, “Coleridge is translating ‘Faust.’”
All this was enough proof for Oxford University Press to green-light a book titled “Faustus: From the German of Goethe, Translated by Samuel Taylor Coleridge.” Edited by Burwick and McKusick, the book is slated for a September release.
“We are so excited because there is a remarkable beauty in this verse,” McKusick says. “This is some of the best writing Coleridge ever did, and we are talking about a major poet here.”
McKusick says their results remain controversial. At the international Coleridge Conference last summer in England, many attendees found their argument compelling, while others basically said, “This could not possibly be by Coleridge, because if he had written such a text, we would surely know about it.”
“My colleague, Fred Burwick, had a wonderful comeback,” McKusick says. “It’s from the German composer Carl Orff: ‘Where no one has sought, until now, no one has found anything.’”
– By Cary Shimek