Byron to Coleridge: Pardon my Plagiarism

The date: September 26, 1815

I must here acknowledge a close, though unintentional, resemblance in these twelve lines to a passage in an unpublished poem of Mr Coleridge, called “Christabel.” It was not till after these lines were written that I heard that wild and singularly original and beautiful poem recited: and the MS. of that production I never saw till very recently, by the kindness of Mr Coleridge himself, who, I hope, is convinced that I have not been a wilful plagiarist. The original idea undoubtedly pertains to Mr Coleridge, whose poem has been composed above fourteen years. Let me conclude by a hope that he will not longer delay the publication of a production, of which I can only add my mite of approbation to the applause of far more competent judges.

– Byron, note to lines 465-476 of Siege of Corinth

In October 1815, Byron writes to Coleridge of his admiration of Christabel which he has heard recited by Scott. Coleridge sends Byron a copy of Christabel; after reading it, Byron realizes that he has unconsciously borrowed from it in Siege of Corinth and offers to omit the lines. When the poem is published, Byron retains the lines but offers the explanatory note that begins this post.

A letter from Byron to Coleridge on 18 October 1815 initiates a discussion of Christabel:

Last spring I saw Wr. Scott. He repeated to me a considerable portion of an unpublished poem of yours – the wildest and finest I ever heard in that kind of composition. The title he did not mention, but I think the heroine’s name was Geraldine. At all events, the ‘toothless mastiff bitch’ and the ‘witch Lady’, the description of the hall, the lamp suspended from the image, and more particularly of the girl herself as she went forth in the evening – all took a hold on my imagination which I never shall wish to shake off. I mention this, not for the sake of boring you with compliments, but as a prelude to the hope that this poem is or is to be in the volumes you are now about to publish. I do not know that even ‘Love’ or the ‘Antient Mariner’ [sic] are so impressive – and to me there are few things in our tongue beyond these two productions.

The exchange between Byron and Coleridge helped establish a relationship between the two men and led, thanks to a face-to-face meeting in April 1816, to the publication of Christabel, which Coleridge had begun composing in 1797 but never completed and never published.

In a later letter, dated October 27, 1815 (Letters, 1899, iii. 228), having realized the debt part of The Siege of Corinth owed to Christabel, Byron explains to Coleridge that

the enclosed extract from an unpublished poem . . . was written before (not seeing your Christabelle [sic], for that you know I never did till this day), but before I heard Mr. S[cott] repeat it, which he did in June last, and this thing was begun in January, and more than half written before the Summer.[ref]Qtd. in Peter Cochran’s online edition of The Siege[/ref]

Byron offers to include an explanatory note, given above and even to “cut out the passage–& do as well as I can without.” Two hundred years hence, however, the two passages in question seem striking, not for their obvious correspondence, but for their lack of overt similaritities. Here they are side by side:

Christabel, 43-60 The Siege of Corinth, 465-476
The night is chill; the forest bare;
Is it the wind that moaneth bleak?
There is not wind enough in the air
To move away the ringlet curl
From the lovely lady’s cheek –
There is not wind enough to twirl
The one red leaf, the last of its clan,
That dances as often as dance it can,
Hanging so light, and hanging so high,
On the topmost twig that looks up at the sky.
Hush, beating heart of Christabel!
Jesu, Maria, shield her well!
She folded her arms beneath her cloak,
And stole to the other side of the oak.
What sees she there?
There she sees a damsel bright,
Dressed in a silken robe of white,
That shadowy in the moonlight shone …
Declining was his attitude;
His head was drooping on his breast,
Fevered, throbbing, and opprest;
And o’er his brow, so downward bent,
Oft his beating fingers went,
Hurriedly, as you may see
Your own run over the ivory key,
Ere the measured tone is taken,
By the chords you would awaken.
There he sate all heavily,
As he heard the night-wind sigh.
Was it the wind, through some hollow stone, …

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