Author > Text > World

Though in one breath Yeats claims the William Blake was an author uniquely concerned with the future, in the next he claimed that the relationship between author, text, and world was not one of obligation. In his preface to the Modern Library edition of Blake’s works he edited, Yeats finds nothing troubling about Fredrick Tatham’s burning of Blake’s manuscripts after his death:

Blake himself would have felt little anger, for he had thought of burning his MS. himself, holding perhaps as Boehme held, and Swedenborg also, that there were many great things best unuttered within earshot of the world. Boehme held himself permitted to speak of much only among his “schoolfellows”; and Blake held there were listeners in other worlds than this. (xl-xli)

Yeats makes a bold move in severing the text from the world, given his corpus of politically activist poems. He holds a different perspective on philosopher/poets such as Percy Shelley. Yeats viewed Shelley as a philosopher who communicated through poetry; citing Mary Shelley’s observation that Shelley’s meanings “elude the ordinary reader by their abstraction and delicacy of distinction, but they are far from vague” (Essays 66). Further appropriating Mary Shelley’s words, Yeats assumes that “It was his [Shelley’s] design to write prose metaphysical essays on the nature of man which would have served to explain much of what is obscure in his poetry” (Essays 66). Indeed, Yeats himself seemed to follow Shelley’s design, providing copious prose to illuminate otherwise obscure poetry. The poet’s duties were not necessarily to the future of this world, but perhaps to some other. But the philosopher has a duty now for the future.

However, it seems implausible to grant a writer autonomy over his own works (including the ability to destroy them) while granting at the same time the obligation to some other world or other time to be perspicuous. The burning of letters or manuscripts to hide the secrets of the writer’s creative process has long been condoned. Is there a “natural right” that knowledge be freely available to the world (as suggested since Martin Luther)? If God (or world) is the source of knowledge and the author only a channel for it, then what right does an author have to destroy it? The answer, as Martha Woodmansee suggests, might be that the text is not only the embodiment of knowledge, but also the embodiment of the author itself. The right of the author to destroy his texts, then, is somewhat analogous to the right to end one’s own life. This is a right not taken to be “natural” by many people. To grant this right is to sever the connection between individual and society (one death diminishes us all) or to sever the connection between text and world.

As I think of deleting this post, I realize how de minimus the issue is in most circumstances. But it seems to me that the chain of author—text—world is fragile and subject to breakage at each extreme. Shelley and Keats operated these extremes.

What is life? Thoughts and feelings arise, with or without our will, and we employ words to express them. We are born, and our birth is unremembered, and our infancy remembered but in fragments; we live on and in living lose our apprehension of life. How vain it is to think that words can penetrate the mystery of our being! Rightly used they may make evident our ignorance to ourselves, and this is much. (Shelley, On Life)

Taken at face value, the emphasis on how we use words suggests a type of ownership of these feeble attempts to make sense. However, for Shelley, past present and future melded together along with the mass of humanity in “the one mind”— an eternity which we are all composed by and compose for:

The words I, you, they, are not signs of any actual difference subsisting between the assemblage of thoughts thus indicated, but are merely marks employed to denote the different modifications of the one mind.

Let it not be supposed that this doctrine conducts to the monstrous presumption that I, the person who now write and think, am that one mind. I am but a portion of it. The words I, you, and they are grammatical devices invented simply for arrangement, and totally devoid of the intense and exclusive sense usually attached to them. (Shelley, On Life)

The construction of the author as solitary, originary, and proprietary is a concept foreign to the majority of the Romantic poets except Wordsworth. I think this is a profound mistake of most scholarship on authorship. However, Woodmansee’s take on the subject is quite nuanced—too many authors that have followed in her wake miss that. She cites Fichte’s manipulation of the authorial puzzle carefully:

Fichte goes on to distinguish three distinct shares of the property in a book: When the book is sold ownership of the physical object passes to the buyer to do with as he pleases. The material aspect, the content of the book, the thoughts it presents pass to the buyer. To the extent that he is able, through intellectual effort, to appropriate them, these ideas cease to be the exclusive property of the author becoming instead the common property of both author and reader. The form in which these ideas are presented, however, remains the property of the author eternally. . .

In short, the inconsequential grammatical form that Shelley dismisses becomes the central bargaining chip of authorial ownership of the text. It is the novel utterance occasioned by the attachment of certain pronouns that becomes the core issue over the rights to the text. This typified the egotistical novelty which both Shelley and Keats railed against. The Romantic construction of authorship is a rude beast at best.