William Wordsworth, Dorothy Wordsworth

The Letters of William and Dorothy Wordsworth, Vol. 7: The Later Years: Part IV: 1840–1853 (Second Revised Edition)

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1589. W. W. to VISCOUNT MAHON

  • MS. Stanhope MSS., Chevening.2
  • K (—). LY iii. 1067 (—).

[In M. W.'s hand]

Rydal Mount. March 4th—42.

My dear Lord Mahon

Many thanks for your 2d letter, and the Extract which it contained, from Lord John Russel to you.3

Public opinion having the power which it has at present, and is likely to have, I think with you that it is utterly improbable that any attempt will be made to hold back from republication any valuable work whatever. Besides Sert Talfourd's bill provided against that in a clause, which if there had been any defect in its construction, might without difficulty have been improved.

I replied briefly to the 3 objections which you will find in the enclosed Ext from the only letter I received from Sir R. Peel (which he was so obliging as to write to me) upon the subject; but in an interview with which he honored me last Summer, we had a pretty long conversation upon it. It is remarkable that then pg 300he did not recur to any of those objections, but dwelt in general terms upon the evils of monopoly and in particular he deprecated the mischief which might arise from confining the circulation of improved processes in Science, (he instanced arithmetic) to the books thro' which they had been first made known. I must own I thought this rather an out of the way apprehension. For how would it be done? I certainly must acknowledge that I left Sir R. Peel with no grounds for believing that he was more favorable to Extension of Term than when the conversation began. He dwelt a good deal upon a discretionary power to be lodged in a Section of the Privy Council to reward, in the shape of Pensions, meritorious Authors, or to confer a privilege upon particular works supposed to be entitled to it.

I objected strongly to this, as putting the approved Authors in an invidious position, and as submitting the claims of Literature to a decision liable and likely to be influenced by partialities or dislikes, person[al] or political.

Nor did I scruple to add, that men in high office could not, if they did their duty to their Country, be supposed to have time duly to consider the merits of any profound or laborious work, or the claims which it might have upon the gratitude of succeeding times.

I should never had thought it worth while to move as I have done in this question, but for a wish to raise the Literature, as far as might be above a temptation to degrade itself by courting the Taste of the Public at any particular time. And I am quite unable to perceive what would be gained by taking refuge from this evil in a Section of the Privy Council, an Academy, or any other body of men.

It is supposed by some, that tho' there might not be much cause for fear from an injurious monopoly in the Descendents of Authors, yet where Copyright passed into the hands of Booksellers it would be sure of taking place. This I think would not happen. Education and a taste for reading having spread so widely, and its being certain that they will spread more and more, no combination of booksellers could be ignorant that their interest would be better promoted by selling at a low price to multitudes, rather than at a high one to a few. And there is in this consideration a sufficient answer to all the vague things that have been dinned into our ears upon Monopoly.

The observation you have made upon your present aim not pg 301precluding future improvements reconciles me to what I cannot but think, tho' a prudent, an inadequate measure.1

In regard to Posthumous works, which are often kept back that their Author may bestow more labour upon them, and are therefore, if they be good, entitled to especial regard, I may be allowed to say that a boon of 2 years (if that be granted) in addition to the 28 which the present law secures, is not an acquisition worth thinking about. Let us however be thankful for what we can get; and be assured, my dear Lord Mahon that I am duly sensible of the obligations Literature is under to you, for undertaking a Bill which is sure to meet with vexatious opposition from many Persons unworthy of the Seat they hold in the house of Commons, and but a lax support from many others, who may have no objection either to the principles or detail of your Measure.

  • I have the honor to be                  
  • faithfully your Lordship's            
  • obliged      
  • [signed] Wm Wordsworth

Extract—Sir R. Peele to Mr W.

"If the right of the Author to such extended Protection" (as proposed by Sergent Talfourd) "be admitted, can we refuse it in the case of Patents and every other discovery mainly owing to the ingenuity and skill of the discoverer? There, arises the difficulties of determining what constitutes an original work, as distinguishable from plagiarism, difficulties incident indeed to every degree of protection—but increasing, with the protraction of it. And there are too the difficulties of effectually preventing piracy in Countries not subject to our Jurisdiction"

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Notes

Editor’s Note
2 A draft of this letter in M. W.'s hand, with corrections by W. W., is among the Cornell MSS.
Editor’s Note
3 Mahon had sent on an extract from Lord John Russell's letter of 20 Feb., in which he stated that he would not oppose the Second Reading of Mahon's Bill, but that if it was similar to Talfourd's, he would wish to see it much altered in Committee. He considered 25 years a long enough term. (WL MSS.)
Editor’s Note
1 Lord Mahon's Bill, as a compromise measure, proposed a shorter term of copyright than that embodied in Talfourd's original Bill. See L. 1585 above.
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