W. J. B. Owen and Jane Worthington Smyser (eds), The Prose Works of William Wordsworth, Vol. 3

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mr. wordsworth to sergeant talfourd, m.p.

159Rydal Mount, April 18, 1838.

Editor’s Note160My Dear Sir—A strong opposition, which has manifested itself by 161public meetings and petitions to the House of Commons, having 162started up among printers, publishers, and others to your Bill for 163amending the law of copyrights, and no like counter-movement being 164made by authors on their part, it has been suggested to me, from 165quarters entitled to great respect, that it might be of service if, along 166with a most distinguished literary friend, I should present a petition 167to Parliament, praying that the Bill may pass, or at least one in favour 168of its principle. This compliment has no doubt been paid me as one 169among the oldest of living writers, and one therefore whose heirs 170must, in course of nature, be injured sooner than those of younger men, Editor’s Note171if the proposed measure be rejected. You will not be surprised if I 172feel some scruple in taking a step, though so well recommended, on 173account of an aversion to appear prominently in any public question, 174and because I am loth to think so unfavourably of Parliament as to deem 175that it requires petitions from authors as a ground for granting them a 176privilege, the justice of which is so obvious. I cannot bring myself to 177suppose that the mere shadows of argument advanced by printers and 178publishers against the claims of a class to whom they owe the respect-179ability of their condition, if not their very existence, should avail with 180any intelligent and disinterested Assembly. Yet further am I averse 181thus to petition Parliament, because I would not ask as an individual 182suppliant, or with a single associate, what in equity I consider to be the 183right of a class, and for a much longer period than that defined in your Editor’s Note184Bill—for ever. Such right, as you have stated in your admirable 185speech, was acknowledged by the common law of England; and let 186them who have cried out so loudly against the extension of the term as 187is now proposed show cause why that original right should not be 188restored. The onus clearly rests with them to do so; but they have not 189attempted it, and are glad to take shelter under the statute law as it now 190stands, which is a composition or compromise between two opinions; 191the extreme point of one being, that, by giving his thoughts to the world, 192an author abandons all right to consider the vehicle as private property; 193and of the other, that he has the right in perpetuity, that descends to his 194heirs, and is transferable to those to whom he or they may assign it.

195This right I hold to be more deeply inherent in that species of Editor’s Note196property than in any other, though I am aware that many persons, pg 314197perceiving wherein it differs from acquisitions made in trade and 198commerce, &c., have contended that the law in respect to literature 199ought to remain upon the same footing as that which regards the 200profits of mechanical inventions and chemical discoveries; but that 201this is an utter fallacy might easily be proved.

Editor’s Note202From the considerations above stated I decline to petition, as 203suggested, and content myself, in the silence of others better entitled 204to speak, with this public declaration of my judgment, so that at least, 205my dear Sir, you may not be liable to be treated as a volunteer intru-206ding without wish or sanction openly expressed by any one of the 207class whose rights and interests you have so much to your honour Critical Apparatus208stepped forward to maintain. Here this letter shall close, its purpose 209being answered, for no general arguments from me, and no statement 210of facts belonging to my own case, and which have come to my know-211ledge with respect to my illustrious friends Coleridge, Scott, Southey, 212and others, would avail to produce conviction where that has not been 213effected by your unrivalled speech made upon your first introduction Editor’s Note214of the Bill into the House of Commons, and by reasonings which 215have lately been set forth with great ability by writers in the public 216journals, who were more at liberty to enter into details than you could 217be while treating the subject before Parliament.

218Should your Bill be overborne, which I cannot allow myself to fear, 219by the interested opposition now at work, justice, nevertheless, 220sooner or later, must triumph; and at all events the respect and grati-221tude which authors feel towards you and your coadjutors upon this 222occasion will be cherished by them to the last hour of their lives.

  • 223I have the honour to be, my dear Sir, faithfully yours,
  • 224william wordsworth.  

Notes Settings


Editor’s Note
160–8. A strong … principle] Wordsworth is summarizing Philip Howard's letter of 11 April 1838, part of which is quoted in our Introduction. On 2 April The Times (p. 5, col. 1) reported that at meetings held on 26 and 27 March the London booksellers and publishers adopted a petition against the Bill and appointed a committee to watch over it in Parliament; on 6 April The Times (p. 3, col. 1) reported a similar meeting of master printers.
Editor’s Note
171–83. You will … a class] For Wordsworth's petition submitted to the House of Commons in February 1839 see Appendix.
Editor’s Note
184–94. Such right … assign it] In his introductory speech Talfourd first reviewed the history of perpetual copyright as recognized by the common law of England, and then argued that any statute limitation is a compromise 'between those who deny that the creations of the inventive faculty, or the achievements of reason, are the subjects of property at all, and those who think the property should last as long as the works which contain truth and beauty live' (A Speech Delivered By Thomas Noon Talfourd, Sergeant at Law, In the House of Commons on Thursday, 18th May, 1837 (London, 1837), pp. 2–4, 8).
Editor’s Note
196–201. though I … proved] Cf. 151–4 and n.
Editor’s Note
202–8. From the … maintain] In his speech made two days after the publication of this letter Talfourd said:

It has, sir, been asserted, that authors themselves have little interest in this question, and that they are, in fact, indifferent or hostile to the measure. True it is, that the greatest living writers have felt reluctant to appear as petitioners for it, as a personal boon; but I believe there are few who do not feel the honour of Literature embarked in the cause, and earnestly desire its success. Mr. Wordsworth, emerging for a moment from the seclusion he has courted, has publicly declared his conviction of its justice [Three Speeches, p. 62].

Critical Apparatus
208–17 its purpose … Parliament M.P.: MS. partly deletes: that I for one have not courage to do more than touch upon it. Yet I will [not ⟨Edd.⟩] let pass the opportunity of saying: MS.2 partly deletes: Yet I cannot forbear adding a few words upon the justice & expediency of extending the duration of Copyright [?] against it as have been publicly set forth by the opponents of the Measure. Here again I am crossed by the ability with which [this ⟨altered to a which is left undel.⟩ part del.] much of the subject has been treated: MS.3 alters and adds: Yet I cannot forbear adding a few words upon the justice & expediency of the proposed measure tho' both points have [already del.] been treated [by yourself with del.] on the introduction of the bill with an eloquence that might deter any one from following you & recently by writers who were more at liberty to enter into detail with admirable accuracy & good sense.* Note [:] I refer especially to a succession of articles that have appeared in the Morning Post, in particular in that of the 10th of April, noticing a remonstrance which issued from a meeting in London of Booksellers & Publishers &c. attended by Councel [sic] & Solicitors. It would be well if extracts from these Articles & others to the same purport from different Journals were collected in a small pamphlet—& along with your introductory speech—they could not but carry conviction to every disinterested & unprejudiced Person: MS.4 writes at the top of the page: its [main del.] purpose is answered. For: Striking partly through the word purpose in MS.4 and running diagonally the length of the page is a single line of deletion.
Editor’s Note
214–16. reasonings … public journals] From textual n. 208–17 it is clear that Wordsworth is thinking primarily of articles in The Morning Post by William Johnston; see Zall, PMLA lxx (1955), 138.
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