- “Poems So Materially Different”: Eighteenth-Century Literary Property and Wordsworth’s Mechanisms of Proprietary Authorship in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads
- Studies in Romanticism
- Johns Hopkins University Press
- Volume 55, Number 1, Spring 2016
- pp. 3-28
- View Citation
- Additional Information
DEREK LOWE “Poems So Materially Different”: EighteenthCentury Literary Property and Wordsworth’s Mechanisms of Proprietary Authorship in the 1800 Lyrical Ballads HILE WORDSWORTH OFT HAS BEEN QUOTED AS “ CREATING THE TASTE W by which he is to be enjoyed,” the path that he took was hardly one entirely of his own making, for just as poets do not have their meanings alone, neither do they have their modes of operating alone.1 The condi tions for the approbation of the seemingly self-created were created for him, not simply by the general rise of originality as a literary value in the middle of the eighteenth century, but by the legal battles over copyright and literary property that came to a climax around the time Wordsworth was born, in the Millar vs. Taylor case of 1769 and the Donaldson vs. Becket case of 1774, both of which were fought over Thomson’s Seasons.2 These 1. William Wordsworth, “Essay, Supplementary to the Preface,” The Prose Works of Wil liam Wordsworth, 3 vols., eds. W. J. B. Owen andJane Worthington Smyser (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1974), 80; emphasis in original. 2. For the literary-aesthetic origins of Romanticism in the eighteenth century, see Robert Griffin, “The Eighteenth-century Construction of Romanticism,” in Wordsworth’s Pope: A Study in Literary Historiography (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1995), 24—63. On copyright and literary property in the Millar us. Taylor and Donaldson vs. Becket cases, see Mark Rose, “Author as Proprietor: Donaldson v. Becket and the Genealogy of Modern Authorship,” Representations 23 (Summer 1988): 51—85 and Authors and Owners: The Invention of Copyright (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1993); see also Ronan Deazley, “The Myth of Copyright at Common Law,” Cambridge LawJournal 61, no.i (March 2003): 106—33, and Simon Stem, “Author’s Right to Property Right,” University of Toronto Law Journal 62 (2012): 29-91. SiR, 55 (Spring 2016) 3 4 OEKEK LOWE cases dramatically shaped the literary-economic and aesthetic climate that Wordsworth would later benefit from and in some ways come to stand for.3 Although Wordsworth seems to disinherit himself in the Preface by deliberately cutting himself off from “a large portion of phrases and figures of speech which from father to son have long been regarded as the com mon inheritance of Poets” and turning rather toward “the incidents of common life” for his subjects,4 this kind of self-deracination is actually an other kind of inheritance, one that became an attractive poetic possibility only after the literary property debates of the late 1760’s and early 70’s. They directed and shaped that space of aesthetic possibility and were cru cial in steering Wordsworth’s practice in Lyrical Ballads, especially the sec ond edition of 1800, as he tried to stake a poetic claim of his own with “Poems so materially different from those, upon which general approba tion is at present bestowed” (Preface 742). There is no question that the older Wordsworth was a staunch defender of literary property, as he threw himself energetically into a campaign to extend copyright in 1836, helping to initiate what eventually became the Copyright Act of 1842.5 In his impassioned defense of authors’ rights to their works and his call for extended copyright, he echoed the arguments of the Thomson cases and the literary property tracts that followed them. Literary property, he held, was “a fundamental right,” one that had “the highest claim to protection.”6 As it was part of “the common law of Eng land,” Wordsworth asked “why that original right should not be restored,” as it was a right “more deeply inherent in that species of property than in any other.”7 But while Wordsworth’s agitation for copyright reform in the 1830’s has been well documented, what has not been examined is how the concept of literary property that emerged from the great legal battles over copyright after the mid eighteenth century impacted his poetic prac 3. For the broader impact of eighteenth-century ideas of copyright on the Romantic pe riod and for a comprehensive treatment of publishing, printing, and reading practices within the Romantic period, see William St. Clair, The Redding...