“Let the Credit Go”:

Coleridge, Edward FitzGerald, and Literary Custody


Erik Gray


(Coleridge Bulletin New Series 14, Autumn 1999, pp.47-52)



EDWARD FITZGERALD seems to have been thinking of Coleridge while translating the Rubáiyát.  In a letter of May, 1857, about a year after he had been introduced to the poem, FitzGerald gives the first evidence that he has been translating it into verse.  Only a single quatrain is translated, and that not into English, but into Latin; FitzGerald writes, “I could not help running into such bad Latin,” which, he says, “is to be read as Monkish Latin.”[1]  If the deprecating phrase “Monkish Latin” sounds familiar, that is because it is an echo, whether conscious or not, of Coleridge’s Preface to Christabel, in which Coleridge addresses Scott and Byron in a “doggerel version of two monkish Latin hexameters,” which ask that he be acknowledged as sole author of the poem, and which he translates:


‘Tis mine and it is likewise yours;

But an if this will not do;

Let it be mine, good friend! for I

Am the poorer of the two.’[2]


       I find it fascinating that FitzGerald should thus recall Coleridge’s great moment of plagiarism-anxiety, because these two poets seem, superficially at least, to be polar opposites.  If Coleridge is famous, or infamous, for claiming as wholly his own work that in fact belongs partly to others, FitzGerald is almost as well known for attributing to another work that is largely his own.  Yet their methods are essentially identical: they translate or adapt the words of other authors, and mingle in their own words and images to create a new English poem.  The difference lies almost entirely in the title-page.  Throughout his lifetime, FitzGerald’s title-page referred to the work as “The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, the Astronomer-Poet of Persia.” If FitzGerald had put his own name to the poem and given it a Coleridgean title (“Reverie in a Persian Garden,” perhaps), then without any other changes, FitzGerald would be guilty of exactly the same “plagiarism” as Coleridge commits in poems like the “Hymn Before Sunrise.” By the same token, if The Ancient Mariner had been called simply “An Incident from Shelvocke, newly Versify’d,” the gesture would have been eminently FitzGeraldian, and no one would have been surprised when John Livingston Lowes revealed that Coleridge’s most




visionary verse imitated literary sources so closely.

       Thus it seems to me that the nineteenth century’s most famous translator and its most famous plagiarist differ more in appearance than in essence.  For both poets the issue of literary custody—and the custody of literary issue—was a sensitive matter.  I do not mean to erase the difference between attributing a co-authored work to oneself and attributing it to another; but the impulse is the same.  It seems to be based upon what we might call the “exclusivity principle.” I can write a poem, and you can write a poem—indeed, you plural, since FitzGerald’s poem includes numerous quotations from English authors, and is thus admittedly a collaborative effort.[3]  But both poets are reluctant to admit that we can have written a poem.  They are willing to collaborate, but embarrassed to reveal the fact of their collaboration, which seems to have threatened their sense both of identity and of decorum.

       I would suggest that the principle of exclusivity, the desire to keep themselves distinct from their collaborators, was always operative for FitzGerald and Coleridge—not only in the attribution of their poems on title pages, but in the poems themselves and in all aspects of their work.  In the case of Coleridge we might begin by recalling De Quincey’s memoir of the poet, which was published shortly after Coleridge’s death and which contained the first public charge of plagiarism against him.  De Quincey claims to be exposing the plagiarism so as to forestall any possible exposure from a less sympathetic source—a claim that seems disingenuous when one considers the virulence of some of De Quincey’s language.  But De Quincey’s true sympathy becomes evident a few pages later, when he gives an account of Coleridge’s father.  The brief history of the elder Coleridge is dominated by an anecdote in which John Coleridge, seated at a dinner table, is horrified to find his shirt-tail emerging from his trousers, and furtively tries to stow it away again.


The stray portion of his supposed tunic was admonished of its errors by a forcible thrust back into its proper home; but still another limbus persisted to emerge, or seemed to persist, and still another, until the learned gentleman absolutely perspired with the labour of re-establishing order.  And, after all, he saw with anguish, that some arrears of snowy indecorum still remained to reduce into obedience.  To this remnant of rebellion he was proceeding to apply himself—strangely confounded, however, at the obstinacy of the insurrection—when the mistress of the house, rising to lead away the ladies from the table, and all parties naturally rising with her, it became suddenly apparent to every eye, that the worthy Orientalist had been most laboriously stowing away, into the capacious receptacles of his own habiliments, the snowy folds of a lady’s gown, belonging to his next




neighbour; and so voluminously, that a very small portion of it, indeed, remained for the lady’s own use; the natural consequence of which was, of course, that the lady appeared almost inextricably yoked to the learned theologian, and could not in any way effect her release, until after certain operations upon the Vicar’s dress, and a continued refunding and rolling out of snowy mazes upon snowy mazes, in quantities which, at length, proved too much for the gravity of the company.[4]


Besides the humor of this anecdote in its own right, there is no conceivable reason for De Quincey to have included this as the sole piece of information about John Coleridge, were it not intended (though perhaps only half-consciously) to show that the urge towards appropriation ran in Coleridge’s family; but that it could be based, quite innocently, on a desire for “re-establishing order” and propriety—sole propriety—and not at all on ambition or deception.  A similar sense of social decorum seems to have participated in Samuel Coleridge’s desire for poetic exclusivity.  Take for instance the lines from the Preface to Christabel quoted above: “Tis mine and it is likewise yours; / But an if this will not do…”—where “this will not do” suggests all the moral prissiness of Francis Jeffrey’s “This will never do.”  Coleridge admits the possibility of collaboration, that something can be “mine and . . . yours,” but like his father, he wishes to tuck in all stray ends and maintain a public appearance of self-containment.

       Coleridge’s anxiety over the desire for exclusivity is apparent not only in the Preface but in Christabel itself.  If the Preface worries about the custody of Christabel, the poem itself is concerned with the custody of Christabel.  Geraldine, not content with exerting her power over Christabel’s speech and sleep, constantly snatches her away from communing with anyone who has a claim on her: first her “betrothéd knight,” then her mother, then Sir Leoline.  Geraldine, like Coleridge, wants Christabel all to herself.  The poem is thus a prime example of what Susan Eilenberg, playing on the double meaning, calls Coleridge’s “poetry of possession”: poetry which not only stakes a claim, but takes possession with demonic fury.[5]  The same is true of The Ancient Mariner, where once again the dispute over rights to the poem is reflected in the dispute over custody of the title character.  Coleridge allowed the poem to appear in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads, which bore only Wordsworth’s name as author.  But when Coleridge finally published the poem under his own name in 1817, he not only reclaimed it but claimed it as his exclusive signature-piece, with scarcely any acknowledgment of the role played in its composition by




Wordsworth, not to mention Shelvocke, Hackluyt, and others.[6]  Similarly, the Ancient Mariner himself is subject to a custody battle between Death and Life-in-Death; yet in the end he belongs to neither, but is claimed all at once by the unnamed but authoritative force which compels him to speak his tale.  Coleridge’s reputation for always taking the credit is thus partly undeserved; it is more accurate to say that when he did lay claim to something, then like the various spirits in his great poem, he took full possession.

       FitzGerald by contrast never publicly took credit for what we consider to be his signature piece; yet the Rubáiyát is certainly in large part FitzGerald’s own creation.  The translation itself is, as he admitted, very loose and inexact: the more than 500 quatrains of the Calcutta manuscript with which he was working are reduced to 75 in the first edition of his so-called translation, and the quatrains are entirely rearranged and often mashed together.  Yet the poem appeared in 1859 as the work of Omar Khayyám alone.  This process of composing a largely original work and then relinquishing custody of it was standard for FitzGerald.  All of his translations from Persian, Greek, and Spanish are similarly free; yet in almost all he shirked the translator’s prerogative, or in his case perhaps the duty, of acknowledgment.  And the same tendency to “let the Credit go” [7] characterizes all his literary activity.  While preparing the poems of his friend Barton for posthumous publication, for instance, FitzGerald pruned, conflated, and occasionally rephrased them, then attributed the editorship of the volume to somebody else.  Such deep anonymity reveals a stronger force at work than mere gentlemanly modesty; it is the principle of exclusivity taken to a defensive extreme.

       FitzGerald’s denial of poetic accountability, this willingness of his to embrace his own secondariness, even to the point of self-effacement, is everywhere apparent in the Rubáiyát.[8]  The poem’s leading motif involves the cycle of death, decay, and new life; but FitzGerald treats life less as a cycle than as a matter of recycling.  The poem constantly reminds us that the landscape we see, the vessels we drink from, even our own bodies once belonged to somebody else.  And the recycling of bodies leads by a natural transition to the recycling of words; thus he writes


With Earth’s first Clay They did the Last Man knead,

And there of the Last Harvest sow’d the Seed:

    And the first Morning of Creation wrote

What the Last Dawn of Reckoning shall read.  (LXXIII)


FitzGerald insists that every life and every poem is always already written and




has been since the dawn of creation.  Given such a situation, he seems to ask, how can he be credited with even mere collaboration in the production of his poem?

       The first edition therefore seeks to attribute sole authorship of the poem to Omar.  Yet although the speaker thrice refers to himself as “old Khayyám,” this assurance is insufficient.  Although we may grant that Khayyám is speaking the poem, he steadfastly refuses to take responsibility for his own words.  The speaker, that is, claims not to have written his own script; the only act of writing actually mentioned in the poem is performed not by Khayyám but, famously, by “The Moving Finger”: “The Moving Finger writes; and, having writ, / Moves on” (LXXI).  The Moving Finger is one of many names used in the poem to designate the deity who controls our fate; he is also figured as a Potter (making one vessel unto honor, another unto dishonor), as a chess-player, a polo-player, a showman, a wine-steward, or simply as God.  In every case, it is he who has ultimate responsibility and authority, to which the speaker is subject.  And the result of all this finger-pointing is that it becomes very difficult to accept “Old Khayyám” as the sole author of anything.

       Perhaps realizing this, FitzGerald made certain changes as he revised and expanded his poem for a second edition.  He removed all three references to “old Khayyám,” and he arranged the quatrains, as he later explained to his publisher, so as to give an idea of time passing and of the speaker growing more and more inebriated. (Letters III, 339) For already in the first edition, Khayyám and God had shared responsibility with a third entity, namely Wine.  Since he could not ascribe everything to Omar, FitzGerald wished at least to make it clear that it was the drink talking, not himself; as he writes, “Indeed, indeed, Repentance oft before / I swore—but was I sober when I swore?” (XCIV).  And yet all manipulation by FitzGerald was necessarily counter-effective, since every time he ascribed authority to someone else, the ascription itself implied an authority of his own.  The very fact that a supposed translation had expanded from 75 quatrains in the first edition to 110 in the second would by itself have informed even a reader ignorant of Persian that someone besides Omar, God, and the Grape was involved in the production of the poem.  The multiform nature of the text continually implicated FitzGerald as author, in spite of his efforts to defer attribution.

       Coleridge, like FitzGerald, was a compulsive reviser of his own work, and his revision had a very similar (though apparently opposite) effect.  In 1817, at the same time that he at last publicly claimed authorship of The Ancient Mariner, Coleridge also added the marginal glosses, thus establishing a fictional co-author of the text more powerful than any of the actual co-authors.  And not only the nature but even the very fact of such extensive alterations to a poem that was already well known undermined the claim to primacy and authority that Coleridge sought to establish for the 1817 version.  Thus if FitzGerald’s revisions had the effect of “outing” him as author of his own text, Coleridge’s revisions had the effect of ousting him from his position as sole author.  In both cases, however, revision itself, with its implications of second thoughts




and self-collaboration, blurred the line between self and collaborator that the poets had striven to keep distinct.  Both poets had, like John Coleridge, striven to re-establish order and to keep the self contained, but both were, like him, eventually exposed.

       Any form of textual instability can threaten an author’s sense of integrity, as Coleridge had already discovered.  In the 1816 Preface to Christabel, Coleridge confusingly explains that the dates 1797 and 1800 have been assigned to Parts I and II “for the exclusive purpose of precluding charges of plagiarism or servile imitation from myself.” What Coleridge clearly meant to say was “precluding from myself charges of servile imitation.”  But as it stands, the phrase (“precluding charges of . . . imitation from myself”) suggests that Coleridge was anxious to assign the composition of the poem to the same period as the composition of The Ancient Mariner, lest he should be guilty of imitating his own supernatural poetry, and so have to share credit between his older and his younger self.  Even a delay in publication could thus undermine the propriety he sought to maintain.

       Although I have been describing the anxiety of exclusivity as a textual phenomenon, I wish to suggest in conclusion that it can be a matter of broader and also more personal concern.  I do not intend to offer a full-blown biographical interpretation of the poems I have been discussing; but it is a notable coincidence that they were written by men who were both recently married but were already at least partially estranged from their wives.  All three poems contain striking images of marriages that are set up only to be immediately effaced: Christabel has a fiancé, but he is quickly forgotten; the wedding-guest is prevented from witnessing the espousal that forms the background to The Ancient Mariner; and in the Rubáiyát comes this revealing quatrain:


     You know, my Friends, with what a brave Carouse

     I made a Second Marriage in my house;

        Divorced old barren Reason from my Bed,

     And took the Daughter of the Vine to Spouse.  (LIV)


In every case, the necessity for partnership is taken for granted; thus in the Rubáiyát, Reason is not “divorced” until a second spouse is ready.  But this necessary relationship is then inevitably hidden away.  These images of romantic partnership, appearing as they do within works that are textually inscribed with the principle of exclusivity, suggest that that principle is of wide application, and that it is not only in the realm of authorship that collaboration can be at the same time a necessity and an embarrassment.


[1]    The Letters of Edward FitzGerald, ed. A. B. and A. M. Terhune (Princeton: Princeton UP, 1980), II, 273.

[2]    All citations from Coleridge refer to Samuel Taylor Coleridge, Poetical Works, ed. Ernest Hartley Coleridge (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1969).

[3]    In this sense the “exclusivity principle” I describe differs from the phenomenon discussed by Jack Stillinger in Multiple Authorship and the Myth of Solitary Genius (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1991).  Coleridge and FitzGerald were not dedicated to the myth of a single author so much as to the notion that they themselves could not have participated in creating a multi-authored work.

[4]    Thomas De Quincey, Recollections of the Lakes and the Lake Poets, ed. David Wright (Harmondsworth: Penguin, 1970), pp. 58-9.  The young FitzGerald, who read De Quincey’s essays on Coleridge as they appeared in Tait’s Edinburgh Magazine in 1834-5, found them disappointing (Letters I, 159).

[5]    Strange Power of Speech: Wordsworth, Coleridge, and Literary Possession (Oxford and New York: Oxford UP, 1992), chs. 2 and 4, and passim.

[6]    On Wordsworth’s contribution to the poem, see Norman Fruman, Coleridge, the Damaged Archangel (New York: Braziller, 1971), pp. 269-281.

[7]    Quatrain XIII.  All references are to the fourth edition (1879), as reprinted in Edward FitzGerald, The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám, ed. Christopher Decker (Charlottesville and London: UP of Virginia, 1997).

[8]    On this self-effacement see my essay “Forgetting FitzGerald’s Rubáiyát,” Studies in English Literature, forthcoming (Autumn 2001).