coleridge, goethe, and the language of cat-monkeys


When Charles Lamb heard, in the summer of 1814, that his old friend Samuel Taylor Coleridge had been asked to translate Johann Wolfgang von Goethe’s dark masterwork Faust into English, he could hardly contain his horror. “I counsel thee”, Lamb wrote to Coleridge on August 23, “to let it alone . . . how canst thou translate the language of cat-monkeys? Fie on such fantasies!” To Lamb, the surreal banter between Faust and the mob of half-human meerkats he meets in the “Witch’s Kitchen” was a metaphor for the meaninglessness of Goethe’s work. For nearly two centuries, the literary world has believed that Lamb’s intervention was decisive, or at least that it coincided with Coleridge’s own resolution not to pursue the project. “I need not tell you”, Coleridge wrote twenty years later in his Table Talk, “that I never put pen to paper as a translator of Faust.”

Romantic scholars have long puzzled over the contradiction between Coleridge’s insistence that he “never put pen to paper” and Goethe’s own conviction that the troubled author of “Kubla Khan” and “The Rime of the Ancient Mariner” was in fact hard at work on the project.

more from the TLS here.