T.S. Eliot once claimed, “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” But as a friend and admirer of Eliot, I must disagree.

One of my favourite quotes by G.K. Chesterton is his quip that he and his brother were always arguing but never quarreled. This difference between an argument and a quarrel is crucial. An argument is the use of reason to affirm or deny a proposition. The use of reason is good and, therefore, an argument is also good. A quarrel, on the other hand, is a violent contention or altercation between persons which usually ruptures their relationship. It lacks charity and causes enmity. This is not good. Having made this crucial distinction, I am now going to argue with T.S. Eliot. I do so as a friend and admirer of the great poet and I would never dream of quarreling with him.

There are many reasons to argue with Eliot. We could argue with his absurd claim that Hamlet was “most certainly an artistic failure,” or with his assertion that Hopkins, Crashaw, and Southwell were only “minor poets.” Such a lack of judgment on Eliot’s part illustrates, as I stated in an essay in the St. Austin Review earlier this year, that “even major poets are not necessarily always competent critics.” This is also the case, I would argue, with respect to one of Eliot’s best-known critical maxims: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal; bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better, or at least something different.” These words are often quoted without question and with the tacit understanding that they are true. I would argue that they are not only untrue but are arrant nonsense.

It might be reasonable enough to claim that immature poets imitate and that bad poets deface what they take from better poets. It might even be reasonable to state that good poets improve upon what they take from other poets, or at least that they do something interesting and different with what they take. I have no interest with arguing with these assertions, each of which seems reasonable enough. My argument is with the claim that “mature poets steal.”

Mature poets cannot be thieves who steal from other people’s work for the simple reason that the original work is not robbed of the thing taken from it. It is still there. If a poet plucks a line from Shakespeare for his own use, the line is not thereby lost from Shakespeare’s work. If we hear Lord Henry Wotton ask Dorian Gray, “what does it profit a man if he gain the whole world and lose his own soul,” we won’t find that passage missing from the Gospel the next time we look for it. There is, therefore, no question of poets stealing from the works of others. The question is whether a writer takes from someone else’s work for good and healthy and transparent reasons, or whether he takes it for bad and unhealthy and deceptive reasons. The correct word for the good type of taking, which is done by mature poets, is intertextuality; the correct word for the bad type of taking is plagiarism.

Let’s employ an analogy. A student writes a paper in which he quotes from many sources as a means of buttressing his thesis, each of which is properly accredited and annotated. Another student uses these same sources, cutting and pasting them into his own text, without giving any indication or acknowledgment that he is using the words and wisdom of others to support his thesis. The first student will have earned a good grade; the second student will not have earned a good grade, and, if his plagiarism is discovered, will have earned an F for the paper and perhaps for the whole course.

The point is that good writers, like good students, are not plagiarists. They will take from the works of others, knowing or expecting that their readers will know that they have done so, and indeed wanting their readers to know that they have done so. At its deepest and best, this sort of intertextuality adds layers of applicable meaning to the primary text, enriching it literarily.

Let’s give some examples of this sort of taking.

Dante nods deferentially in the direction of his mentor Virgil, placing Ulysses in the inferno for the crimes attributed to him in the Aeneid. Shakespeare alludes to the works of Robert Southwell in several of his plays in the knowledge and desire that many of those in the audience will see the intertextual connection he is intent on conveying and its allegorical significance. Southwell’s ghostly intertextual presence can be seen, for instance, in the casket scene in The Merchant of Venice, the graveyard scene in Hamlet, and in the final act of King Lear. Evelyn Waugh conveys the deepest supernatural dimension in Brideshead Revisited by connecting the action of grace in the novel to “a twitch upon the thread,” a metaphor for grace plucked from one of Chesterton’s Father Brown stories.

These great writers were not stealing from the works of others but were inserting these other great writers into their own works, inviting their readers to see the significant connection that such an insertion conveys. If the reader doesn’t see the intertextual presence, he is not reading the work in the way that the writer hopes that he will. He is missing the point. This is the very opposite of plagiarism which relies on the intention of the author to insert the work and wisdom of others in order to pass off such work and wisdom as his own.

The irony is that T.S. Eliot is truly a master of the art of intertextuality. The Waste Land is a patchwork quilt of the work of other great writers: Virgil, Dante, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Baudelaire, to name but a few, as well as multifarious biblical references, and allusions to the operas of Wagner. Would anyone dare to accuse Eliot of plagiarism? Of course, they wouldn’t. Eliot has been enriched by the Great Conversation which animates Western Civilization and shares his riches with his readers. He stitches the fragments of a multitude of other works together with the dexterous hands of a master poet, inviting us to delve deeper into the works that he shows us that we might be enriched as he has been and better able thereby to escape the lifeless desert of modernity’s waste land as he has done.

Since this is so, we can see that it is necessary to argue with T.S. Eliot in order to clear Eliot himself of the suggestion that he is either a thief or a plagiarist. He neither steals nor cheats, but shines forth the great truths that the Great Conversation reveals. And what is true of Eliot is true of all mature poets. Eliot might be a lousy critic but he is one of the greatest of poets. For this great blessing, we should thank the God whom Eliot worshipped for the gift of poetry he has bestowed on us and also for the gift of Eliot himself. It is through such poets that the Poet Himself is revealed in all His goodness, truth, and beauty. Deo gratias!

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The featured image is “Two Old Men Disputing” (1628) by Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-1669) and is in the public domain, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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