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  • The Cento, Romanticism, and Copyright
  • Mark A. McCutcheon (bio)

Mature poets steal.

T.S. Eliot The Sacred Wood

A composition formed by joining scraps from other authors”: this is how Samuel Johnson defines the cento in his Dictionary, a definition that then joins scraps quoted from other authors like Pope, for particularly fitting illustrations of the word’s usage. This essay examines the genre of the cento in the period when new editions of Johnson’s Dictionary began to outlive him: the Romantic period, a period marked—like ours—by historic change in the regulation of copyright. I will proceed first by sketching the current status and outlining a brief history of copyright, which Jeffrey Galin glosses as a “limited monopoly of rights […] designed to balance the needs of creators to make a reasonable return on their works and inventions for a limited period of time, with the work then turning toward the public domain to serve as fodder for the development of future creative works” (10).

This outline of copyright history will include a discussion of fair dealing, a copyright law exemption for users’ rights that seeks to counterbalance those of copyright holders; fair dealing has important bearing on my argument [End Page 71] as it concerns appropriation in cultural production. The essay then details the cento, in its supplementary relation to Romantic literature and ideology, and its complex relationship to creativity and criticism. In the process, salutary and symptomatic examples of the cento’s use by William Hazlitt and William Wordsworth will be considered, two authors well known as major proponents, in their time, of the Romantic ideology of cultural production as original creation (McGann 91), as opposed to Augustan and postmodern theories of cultural production as imitation and bricolage. Hazlitt’s and Wordsworth’s uses of the cento illustrate the constitutive contradiction between copyright’s rationale and the materialities of cultural production; their uses also suggest prototypical models of fair dealing, avant la lettre, as both a user’s right and a resource for authorship. The essay concludes by considering the implications of the cento under the copyright regime of English Romanticism for appropriative art and scholarship under today’s globalized regime.

As a genre of poetry composed entirely of quotations from other poems, the cento makes an interesting study for Romanticism and copyright: it flies in the face of Romantic tradition, it shows how copyright conditions the possibilities of cultural production, and it points up the contradiction between the cultural-legal hegemony of originality and the material processes of appropriation-based production. The point is not that the cento is popular or pivotal to English literature but, instead, that it poses a Derridean supplement to this literature and its prevailing Romantic ideology, an ideology that, as Robert Macfarlane suggests, “continues to prosper in the literary-cultural consciousness. If anything, indeed, it is more unshiftably ensconced there than two hundred years ago, when it is generally taken to have been devised” (3).

A study of the cento and Romanticism has timely implications for copyright and cultural production today, in the context of a digitized media ecology of content abundance and the ensuing global “copyfight” over regulating this new mediascape. As Swedish Pirate Party founder Rick Falkvinge has argued, and as the worldwide January 2012 protest over the U.S.’s Stop Online Piracy Act (sopa) made clear, this copyfight pits an increasingly draconian copyright regime not against commercial piracy but against civil liberties. Today’s copyfight is a techno-cultural front in the class war, being waged on the 99 percent by the predominantly corporate copyright holders among the 1 percent, who deploy both repressive instruments and ideological strategies drawn from Romanticism. Appealing to the Romantic figure of individual, expressive authorship is a rhetorical weapon of choice for copyright maximalist interests which [End Page 72] are—it is important to stress—not individual creators, for the most part, but corporations (Marshall 2–3). So this essay refers to ideas of Romanticism and authorship that may seem old-fashioned to scholars versed in theoretical and historicist interrogations of them; however, these ideas still hold formidable popular purchase thanks to the culture industry’s “adapted Romanticism” (Adorno para 7...


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pp. 71-101
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