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James Frederick Ferrier
Chapter 7 - The Coleridge Plagiarism, Miscellaneous Literary Work


THE story of the so-called Coleridge plagiarism is an old one now, but it is one which roused much feeling at the time, and likewise one on which there is considerable division of opinion even in the present day. Into this controversy Ferrier plunged by writing a formidable indictment of Coleridge's position in Black- wood's Magazine for March of 1840.

When Ferrier took up the cudgels the matter stood thus. In the earlier quarter of the century German Philosophy was coming, or rather had already come, more or less into vogue in England; and as the German language was not largely read, and yet people were vaguely interested, though in what they hardly knew, they welcomed an appreciative interpreter of that philosophy, and an original writer on similar lines, in one whose reputation was esteemed so highly as that of Coleridge. Coleridge in this matter, indeed, occupied a position which was unique; for the treasures of German poetry and prose had not as yet been fully opened up, and he was held to possess the means of doing this in a quite exceptional degree. The works of Schiller, Goethe, and the other poets came to the world—and to Coleridge with the rest—as a sort of revelation. But the poet in his own mind was nothing if not a I)hilosopher - a kind of seer amongst men, speculating, somewhat vaguely it might be, on matters of transcendental import—and in Schelling he thought he had discovered a kindred spirit; in his writings he believed he had found the Idealism for which he had so long been seeking in Bohme, Fox, and the other mystics a creed which, though pantheistic in its essence, yet fulfilled the condition of being both orthodox and Trinitarian in its form. This, for many reasons, was a creed presenting many attractions to the younger men of the day, especially when set forth with a certain literary flavour. We have Carlyle's immortal picture of how it influenced John Sterling and his friends.

Coleridge's Biographia Literaria, in which the principal so-called Schelling plagiarisms are contained, was published in 1817, but it was not for a considerable time after that that the plagiarisms were discovered, or at least taken notice of. The first serious indictment came from no less an authority than De Quincey, whose interest in philosophical matters was as great as Cole- ridge's, and who published his views in an appreciative but gossipy article in Tail's Magazine of September 1834. To commence with, he took up the question of the 'Hymn to Chamouni'; but since, in this matter, Coleridge afterwards admitted his indebtedness to a German poetess, Frederica Brun, it does not seem an important one. Nor, indeed, does De Quincey pretend to take exception to certain expressions in Coleridge's 'France' which are evidently borrowed from Milton, or to regard them as indicating more than a peculiar omission of quotation marks. But the really serious matter, one for which De Quincey cannot by any means account, is that in the Biographia Literaria there occurs a dissertation on the doctrine of Knowing and Being which is an exact translation from an essay written by Schelling. De Quincey cannot indeed explain away the mystery, but he makes the best of it, pleading excuses such as we often hear adduced in cases of 'kleptomania' when they occur amongst the well-to-do, or so-called higher classes—e.g., the evident fact that there was no necessity so to steal, no motive for stealing, even though the theft had evidently been committed. Still, though the defence may be ingenious, and though we may go so far as to acknowledge that Coleridge had sufficient originality of mind to weave out theories of his own without borrowing from others, it must be confessed that under the aggravated circumstances the argument falls somewhat flat; and this was the impression made on many minds even at the time. The ball once set rolling, the dispute went on, and the next important incident was an article by Julius Hare in the British Magazine of January 1835. This is a hot defence of the so-called 'Christian' philosopher, who is said to be influencing the best and most promising young men of the day, as against the assault of the 'English Opium-Eater' -'that ill-boding alias of evil record.' As to De Quincey's somewhat unkind but entertaining stories, there is some reason in Hare's objections, seeing that they were told of one to whom the writer owned himself indebted. But when Hare tackles the plagiarisms themselves, and endeavours to defend them, his task is harder. Coleridge had indeed stated that his ideas were thought out and matured before he had seen a page of Schelling; but at the same time, in an earlier portion of his work, he made a somewhat ambiguous reference to his indebtedness to the German philosopher, and deprecated his being accused of intentioned plagiarism from his writings. Of course it may be said that a thief does not draw attention to the goods from which he has stolen, but yet even Hare acknowledges that it is hard to understand how half a dozen pages (we now know that it really exceeded thirty) should have been bodily transferred from one work to another, and suggests that the most probable solution is that Coleridge had a practice of keeping notebooks for his thoughts, mingled with extracts from what he had been reading at the time, and that he thus became confused between the two.

At this point Ferrier steps in and takes the whole matter under review—a matter which he looked upon as serious (perhaps more serious than we should now consider it) from a national as well as an individual point of view. He held that the reputation of his country was at stake, as well as that of a single philosophic thinker, and that neither De Quince)' nor Hare had gone into the matter with sufficient care or knowledge, or ascertained how large it really was. It was undoubtedly the case that Coleridge's reputation in philosophic matters—and in these days that reputation was not small—was derived from what he had purloined from the writings of a German youth, and whatever the poet's claim on our regard on other scores may be, it was certainly due to Schelling that the debt should be acknowledged. As far as the Biographia Literaria is concerned, the facts are plain. Coleridge makes certain general acknowledgments of indebtedness to Schelling to begin with. He acknowledges that there may be found in his works an identity of thought or phrase with Schelling's, and allows him to be the founder of the philosophy of nature; but he claims at the same time the honour of making that philosophy intelligible to his fellow- countrymen, and even of thinking it out beforehand. Having said so much, there follow pages together—sometimes as many as six or eight on end—which are virtually copied verbatim from Schelling, though with occasional interpolations of the so-called author here and there. Ferrier has examined the whole matter most minutely, and made a long list of the more flagrant cases of copying: thirty-one pages, he points out, are faithfully transcribed, partially or wholly, from Schelling's works alone, without allowing for what the author admits to be translated in part from a 'contemporary writer of the Continent.' And Schelling was not the only sufferer, nor was it only in the region of metaphysics that the thefts were made. The substratum of a whole chapter of the Biographia Li/era na is, Ferrier discovered, taken from another author named Maasz, and Coleridge's lecture 'On Poesy or Art' is closely copied and largely translated from Schelling's ' Discourse upon the Relations in which the Plastic Arts stand to Nature.' This was a blow indeed to those who had boasted of the profundity of Coleridge's views on art; but his poetry surely remained intact. But no, 'Verses exemplifying the Homeric Metre' are found to be-unacknowledged—a translation from Schiller; and yet worse, because less likely to be discovered, the lines written 'To a Cataract' have the same metre, language, and thought as certain verses by Count von Stolberg, which were shown to Ferrier by a friend.

The whole matter is a very strange one and not easy to explain. Of course the references to Schelling's labours in similar lines are there, and may in a sense disarm our criticism. But then, unfortunately, there also are the statements that the ideas had been matured in Coleridge's mind before he had seen a single line of Sehelling's work, and he clearly gives us to understand that he had toiled out the system for himself, and that it was the 'offspring of his own spirit.' It is this overmuch protesting that makes us, like Ferrier, disposed to take the darkest view of the affair: anything that can be said in Coleridge's defence is found in the manner in which it was taken by the one who had most right to feel aggrieved. In the life of Jowett,I recently published, there is an interesting account of Schelling's views on Coleridge, taken from a conversation, notes of which were made by the late Sir Alexander Grant, Ferrier's son-in-law, when still an undergraduate. Jowett, while at Berlin, had, it appears, seen Schelling, and talked to him of the plagiarisms. He took the matter, Jowett states, good- naturedly, thought Coleridge to have been attacked unfairly, and even went so far as to assert that he had expressed many things better than he could have done himself— certainly a very generous acknowledgment. Probably the most charitable construction we can put on Coleridge's act is that which Jowett himself advances in saying that the poet is not to be looked upon or judged as an ordinary man would be, seeing that often enough he hardly could be said to have been responsible for his actions; while his egotism, which was extreme, may have likewise led him—it may be almost unconsciously—into acts of doubtful honesty. But evidently, in spite of Ferrier's work, Jowett, and possibly even Schelling himself, had no idea of the extent to which the plagiarisms extended. There would, of course, have been comparatively little harm in Coleridge's action had he been content to borrow materials which he was about to work up in his own way, or to do what his biographer Gillman says is done by the 'bee which flies from flower to flower in quest of food,' but which 'digests and elaborates' that food by its native power. Unfortunately, the more we read Coleridge's philosophic writings, the more we feel constrained to agree with Ferrier that the matter is not digested as Gillman suggests, but taken possession of in its ready-made condition. The parts which he adds do not assist in throwing light on what precedes, but are evidently padding of a somewhat commonplace and superficial kind. We can only say, like Jowett, that the manner of his life may have injured Coleridge's moral sense, and that his desire to pose as a philosopher who should yet be a so-called 'Christian may have led him to encroach upon the spheres of others, instead of keeping to those in which he could hold his own unchallenged.

A labour of love with Ferrier, on very different lines than the above, was to bring out in five volumes the works of his father-in-law, John Wilson, ' Christopher North,' including the Noctes Anthrosiance, and his Essays and Papers contributed to Blackwood. This was published in 1856, but must, of course, have meant a considerable amount of work to the editor for some time previously. One of the most interesting parts of the work is Ferrier's preface to the famous 'Chaldee Manuscript,' in vol. iv. The story of the 'Chaldee MS.' is now a matter of history, fully recorded in the recently published records of the famous house of Blackwood. In 1817 the Whigs ruled in matters literary, mainly through the instrumentality of the Edinburgh Review, then in its heyday of fame. A reaction, however, set in, and the change was inaugurated by the publication of the so-called 'Chaldee MS.,' a wild extravaganza, orjeu d'esprit, hitting off the foibles of Whiggism, under the guise of an allegory describing the origin and rise of Biackwood's Magazine, the rival which had risen up in opposition to the Review, and the discomfiture of another journal carried on under the auspices of Constable. It was in the seventh number of Blackwood that the satire appeared—that is, the first number of Blackwood's Edinburgh Magazine as distinguished from the Edinburgh Monthly Magazine, published from Blackwood's office to begin with, but on comparatively mild and inoffensive lines. One may imagine the effect of this Tory outburst on the society of Edinburgh. All the literati of the town were involved: Sir Walter Scott himself, Mackenzie, Sir David Brewster, Sir William Hamilton, Professor Jamieson, Tytler, Playfair, and many others, some of whom emerged but seldom from the retirement of private life. Nowadays it would be difficult, if not impossible, to identify the different characters, were it not for the assistance of Professor Ferrier's marginal notes; but in those days they were no doubt recognisable enough. Of course the magazine went like wildfire; but the ludicrous description in semi-biblical language of individuals with absurd allegorical appendages, constituted, as Ferrier acknowledges, an offence against propriety which could not be defended, even though no real malevolence might be signified. Whether Ferrier was justified in republishing the Nodes, in so far as they could be identified with Wilson, has been disputed; but, as the publisher, Major Blackwood, points out, the time was past for anyone to be hurt by the personalities which they contained, and the only harm the republication could inflict was upon the lodes themselves. The conception of the 'Chaldee Manuscript,' he tells us, was in the first part due to Hogg; and Wilson and Lockhart were held responsible for the last. There is a tradition, too, though Ferrier does not mention it, that Hamilton was one of the party in Mr. Wilson's house (53 Queen Street) where the skit was said to have been concocted, and that he even contributed to it a verse. This may have been the case, as Wilson and Lockhart were his intimate friends; but it seems strange to think of so thoroughgoing a Whig being found mixed up in such a plot, and with such companions.

Though it is easy to understand that Ferrier felt the editing of his father-in-Jaw and uncle's work was a duty which it was incumbent upon him to perform, one cannot help surmising that it may have been a less congenial task to him than many others. There was little in common between the two men, both distinguished in their way, and Wilson's humour and poetic fancy, however bright and vivid, was not of the sort that would appeal most to Ferrier. A few years before his death Ferrier gave up the project he had in view of writing Wilson's life, partly in despair of setting forth his talents as he felt they should be set forth, and partly from the lack of material to work from. He says, in a letter written at the time, 'It would do no good to talk in general terms of his wonderful powers, of his genius being greater (as in some sense it was) than that of any of his contemporaries—greater, too, than any of his publications show. The public would require other evidences of this beyond one's mere word—something might have been done had some of us Boswellized him judiciously, but this having been omitted, I do not see how it is possible to do him justice.' The book was eventually undertaken, and successfully accomplished, by Wilson's daughter, Mrs. Gordon.

We have spoken of Ferrier's interest in German literature; so early as 1839 he published a translation of Pietro d'Abano by Ludwig Tieck, one of the inner circle of the so-called Romantic School to which the Schlegels and Novalis also belonged—the school which opposed itself to the eighteenth-century enlightenment, making its cry the return to nature, and demanding with Fichte that a work of art should be a 'free product of the inner consciousness.' Another specimen of Ferrier's translating powers is given in a rendering from Deinhardstein's Bud dci- Dana, a love story in which Salvator Rosa figures. This appeared in Black-wood of September 1841, and an extract from it is published in the Remains.

But one of the earliest and most remarkable of Ferrier's literary criticisms in Blackwood's Magazine was an anonymous article on the various translations of Goethe's Faust published in 1840. We have seen that Ferrier had made a special study of the writings of Schiller and Goethe, and that his work had been much appreciated both by Lytton and De Quincey. In this article the writer takes seven different renderings of the drama, carefully analyses them, points out their deficiencies, and even adventures on the difficult task, for a critic, of himself translating one or two pages. Now that German is so widely read in England, we are all too well aware of the insufficiency of any translation of Faust to regard even the best in any other light than as a makeshift. But then things were different, and it was possible that wrong impressions of the original might be conveyed by inadequate translations. Ferrier's point was that Goethe, while writing in rhyme and in exquisitely poetical language, managed at the same time to find words such as might really be used by ordinary mortals; but the translators, in endeavouring rightly enough to keep to the rhyming form, entirely fail in their endeavour after the same end. He considers that though in prose we may deviate from the ordinary proprieties of language, we may not do so in rhyming poetry; for though the poet has to describe the thought and passion of real men in the language of real life, his dialect must at the same time be taken out of the category of ordinary discourse because of the use of rhyme; and he is therefore called upon as far as possible to remove this bar, and reconcile us to the peculiarity of his style by the simplicity of his language; otherwise all illusion will be at an end. Rhymes brought together by force can succeed in giving us no pleasure; the writer should possess the power of mastering his material and compelling it to serve his ends.

Ferrier's speculative instincts naturally led him to discuss the often-discussed motive of the play. Is it so, as Coleridge says, that the love of knowledge for itself could not bring about the evil consequences depicted in the character of Faust, but only the love of knowledge for some base purpose? Ferrier replies, No, the love of knowledge as an end in itself would people the world with Fausts. 'Such a love of knowledge exercises itself in speculation merely, and not in action; and if the experiences of purely speculative men were gathered, we think that most of them would be found to confess, bitterly confess, that indulgence in an abstract reflective thinking (whatever effect it may have ultimately upon their nobler genius, supposing them to have one) in the meantime absolutely kills, or appears to kill, all the minor faculties of the soul—all the lesser genial powers, upon the exercise of which the greater part of human happiness depends. They would own, not without remorse, that pure speculation—that is, knowledge pursued for itself alone—has often been tasted by them to be, as Coleridge elsewhere says, 'the bitterest and rottenest part of the core of the fruit of the forbidden tree.' This seems a strange confession for a thinker reputed so abstract as Ferrier, but of course the truth of what he says is evident. Knowledge regarded as an end in itself might have brought Faust into his troubles, it is true, and he might likewise have found himself ready to rush into what he conceives to be the opposite extreme; but a greater philosopher than Ferrier has said that though 'knowledge brought about the Fall, it also contains the principle of Redemption,' and we take this to signify that we must look at knowledge as a necessary element in the culture and education of an individual or a people, which, though it carries trouble in its wake, does not leave us in our distress, but brings along with it the principle of healing, or is the 'healer of itself.'

Soon after the above, Ferrier contributes to the same journal an article entitled 'The Tittle-Tattle of a Philosopher,' or an account of the 'Journey through Life' of Professor Krug of Leipzig. Krug appears to have been a sort of Admirable Crichton amongst philosophers, to whom no subject came amiss, and who was ready to take his part in every sort of philosophical discussion. By Hegel and the idealist school he is somewhat contemptuously referred to as one of that class of writers of whom it is said 'Ps se soul bathes it's Jiancs pour etre de rands izommes.' Anyhow, his recollections are at least amusing, if not philosophically edifying.

A review of the poems of Coventry Patmore a few years later is a very different production. It carries us back to the old days of Blackwood, when calm judgment was not so much an object as strength of expression, withering criticism, and biting sarcasm. Ferrier no doubt believed it would be well for literature to turn back to the old days of the knout but few, we fancy, will agree with him, even if they suffer for so differing by permitting certain trashy publications to see the light. Too often, unfortunately, the knout, when it is applied, arrives on shoulders that are innocent. Of course Ferrier believed that the worst prognostications of a quarter of a century before were now being realised by the application not being persevered in; but as to this particular piece of criticism, whatever our opinion of Patmore's poetic powers may be, surely the writer was unreasonably severe surely the work does not deserve to be dealt with in such unmeasured terms of opprobrium. It is refreshing to turn to an appreciative, if also somewhat critical review of the poems of Elizabeth Barrett, published in the same year, 1844, part of which has been republished in the Remains. In this article Ferrier urges once more the point on which he continually insists—the adoption of a direct simplicity of style one which goes straight to the point, or, as he puts it, which is felt to 'get through business.' Excepting certain criticism on the score of style and phraseology, however, Ferrier is all praise of the high degree of poetic merit which the writings revealed - merit which he must have been amongst the first to discover and make known.

The last of Ferrier's work for the magazine in which he had so often written, was a series of articles on the New Readings from Shakespeare, published in 1853. These articles were in the main a criticism of Mr. Payne Collier's 'Notes and Emendations' to the Text of Shakespeare's 'Plays' from early MS. corrections which he had discovered in a copy of the folio 1632. Ferrier, who was a thorough Shakespeare student, and whose appreciation of Shakespeare is often spoken of by those who knew him, had no faith in the authenticity of the new readings, though he thinks they have a certain interest as matter of curiosity. He goes through the plays and the alterations made in them seriatim, and comes to the conclusion that in most cases they have little value. In fact, he proceeds so far as to say that they have opened his eyes to 'a depth of purity and correctness in the received text of Shakespeare' of which he had no suspicion—a satisfactory conclusion to the ordinary reader.

Besides his work for Blackwood, Ferrier was in the habit of contributing articles to the Imperial Dictionary of Universal Biography on the various philosophers. Two of these, the biographies of Schelling and Hegel, are printed in the Remains, but besides these he wrote on Adam Smith, Swift, Schiller, etc., and occasionally utilised the articles in his lectures.

On yet another line Ferrier wrote a pamphlet in 1848, entitled Observations on Church and State, suggested by the Duke of Argyll's essay on the Ecclesiastical History of Scotland. This pamphlet aims at proving that the Assembly of the Church is really, as the Duke argues, not merely an ecclesiastical, but a national council, or, as Ferrier terms it, the 'second and junior of the Scottish Houses of Parliament.' Being therefore amenable to no other earthly power, it was justified in opposing the decrees of the Court of Session; though, however, the Free Church ministers were right in defending their constitutional privileges, Ferrier holds that they were wrong in doing so as the 'Church' in opposition to the 'State,' and that this brought upon them their discomfiture. They should not, in his view, have acknowledged that the Church's property could be forfeit to the State, and consequently should not have voluntarily resigned their livings. The pamphlet shows considerable interest in the controversy raging so vehemently at the time.

In St. Andrews there was no social meeting at which Ferrier was not a welcome guest. When popular lectures, then coming into vogue, were instituted in the town, Ferrier was called upon to deliver one of the series, the subject chosen being 'Our Contemporary Poetical Literature.' He says in a letter: 'I am in perfect agony in quest of something to say about "Our Contemporary Poets" in the Town Hall here on Friday. I must pump up something, being committed like an ass to that subject, but devil a thing will come. I wish Aytoun would come over and plead their cause.' However, in spite of fears, the lecture appears to have been a success: it was an eloquent appeal on behalf of poetry as an invaluable educational factor and agent in carrying forward the work of human civilisation, and an appreciation of the work of Tennyson, Macaulay, Aytoun, and Lytton. In the same year, but a few months later, Ferrier was asked to deliver the opening address of the Edinburgh Philosophical Institution. This Institution has for long been the means of bringing celebrities from all parts of the country to lecture before an Edinburgh audience, and its origin and conception was largely due to Professor Wilson, Ferrier's father-in-law, who was in the habit of opening the session with an introductory address. His health no longer permitting this to be done, the directors requested Ferrier to take his place. The address was on purely general topics, dealing mainly with the objects of the Institution, then somewhat of a novelty. He concluded: 'Labour is the lot of man. No pleasure can surpass the satisfaction which a man feels in the efficient discharge of the active duties of his calling. But it is equally true that every professional occupation, from the highest to the lowest, requires to be counterpoised and alleviated by pursuits of a more liberal order than itself. Without these the best faculties of our souls must sink down into an ignoble torpor, and human intercourse be shorn of its highest enjoyments, and its brightest blessings.' This is characteristic of Ferrier's view of life. One-sidedness was his particular abhorrence, and if he could in any measure impress its evil upon those whose daily business was apt to engross their attention, to the detriment of the higher spheres of thinking, he was glad at least to make the attempt.


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