A deal with the devil: the 1821 English translation of Goethe’s Faust
The Faust legend was first dramatized by famous Elizabethan playwright and spy Christopher Marlowe in the late sixteenth century in his play Doctor Faustus.
Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s (1749-1832) interpretation of the Faust legend was his life’s work – began in 1772 when he was in his twenties and returned to again and again until he completed Part Two a year before he died. The long play, mostly written in rhyming verse, is divided into Faust, Part One and Faust, Part Two - the first dealing with Faust’s pact with Mephistopheles and the fallout from that and the second being less subjective and about thematically higher issues like history, philosophy and other social concepts.
Goethe is regarded as one of the key figures of German Romanticism with his importance likened to that of Shakespeare and Dante, and his reworking of the Faust legend considered one of the glories of European literature albeit thought now to be “all but unread in the English speaking world.”
Goethe’s Faust has proven popular with illustrators, including famously Eugène Delacroix and translators - Percy Bysshe Shelley and Boris Pasternak amongst others. The images in this blog post are from illustrated copies in the library’s heritage collections.
Part One of Goethe’s play appeared in English for the first time in an anonymous 1821 translation, Faustus, published by Boosey and Sons in London. The translation is partial and links the verses with prose descriptions of the action.
In Faust’s opening soliloquy he laments that after all his studies he is no wiser than when he began and that he has exhausted his desire for knowledge and experience on earth.
“Now I have toil’d thro’ all ; philosophy,
Law, physic, and theology: alas!
All, all I have explor’d; and here I am
A weak blind fool at last : in wisdom risen
No higher than before :” (p.1)
This leads him to make a deal with Mephistopheles:
Could you, by
Flattery or spells, seduce me to the feeling
of one short throb of pleasure ; let the hour
that brings it be my last. Take you my offer?
I do accept it. (p.28)
This first English translation of Part One of the play has been the subject of much recent scholarly debate amid a controversy around attribution.
In 2007 the editors of an Oxford University Press (OUP) edition made the claims that the anonymous translation was by none other than English Romantic poet Samuel Taylor Coleridge. American academics Frederick Burwick and James C. McKusick used computer-based analysis to support their claim as well as citing a letter Coleridge wrote to his son saying that he was translating Faust.
This attribution proved controversial and in a review essay of the 2007 OUP edition three UK based scholars (Roger Paulin, William St. Clair, and Elinor Shaffer) refuted the claims that the translation was by Coleridge. They take issue with the OUP edition as it presents Coleridge as the translator as a fact rather than a hypothesis and quote from more of Coleridge’s letters his own repeated denials that he translated the play.
This literary controversy is a fun example of how knowledge and interest can change during the life of a book and a good reminder that the history of any particular book does not end at publication.
Auckland Council Libraries’ copy of Faustus (1821) was donated, almost a century after publication in 1920, to the Leys Institute Library by its major benefactor T. W. Leys. This Charles F. Goldie portrait of Thomson Leys hung in the Leys Institute Library until its closure due to earthquake concerns in December 2019.
Author: Andrew Henry