The Meaning and Origin of ‘Immature Poets Imitate; Mature Poets Steal’

In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle explores the origins of a famous quotation from T. S. Eliot

‘Talent borrows; genius steals.’ This four-word slogan has often been attributed to Oscar Wilde, although it wasn’t one of Wilde’s quips. But then Wilde is, like Mark Twain and Winston Churchill, one of those figures who attract quotations the way picnics attract wasps. The broadcaster, writer, and editor Nigel Rees even came up with a term for this habit of attributing all quotations to such figures: ‘Churchillian drift.’

And Wilde was not above borrowing others’ witticisms and passing them on, or rather passing them off as his own. There’s a nice exchange between him and the American artist, James Whistler, who had just said something witty. ‘How I wish I’d said that,’ Wilde replied. ‘You will, Oscar, you will,’ Whistler shot back.

So, ‘Talent borrows; genius steals’ is not an authentic Wilde quotation. And the quotation itself is not, in fact, one that originates in the writings of conversation of any great writer. But a slightly longer version expressing a similar sentiment is found in the work of a very different writer from Wilde: T. S. Eliot. ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal’.

Although it is common knowledge that many lines from T. S. Eliot’s poetry have passed into what we might almost call everyday speech – ‘April is the cruellest month’, ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust’, ‘This is the way the world ends’ – the quotable quality of Eliot’s prose has received less attention from critics.

His prose pronouncements are a regular feature of internet quotations pages and inspirational self-help guides, and although his critical authority has waned in recent decades (few people now utilise, or champion, his ideas of the ‘objective correlative’ and the ‘dissociation of sensibility’), his status as an important cultural figure has endured, even while it has altered and evolved in the decades since his death in 1965.

Yet there has been little serious exploration of the importance to Eliot’s writing of that minimalist literary genre, the epigram. Some of Eliot’s most oft-repeated and famous pronouncements come, not from his poetry, but from his critical work.

Many of Eliot’s most famous and frequently quoted critical pronouncements share much with the bons mots of the work of leading figures of the 1890s, such as Max Beerbohm, Henry James, and Wilde himself.

Take what is perhaps his pithiest and most oft-repeated statement, from his essay on Jacobean playwright Philip Massinger: ‘Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal’.

This is a true epigram in being antithetical, but it is also stylistically akin to the paradoxical axioms of Oscar Wilde, and as I have already noted, Eliot’s line has been misattributed to Wilde on numerous occasions. An Eliot quotation on literary theft has, it appears, been stolen, posthumously, by Wilde.

But it’s worth bearing in mind what Eliot writes after this, as it qualifies this provocative statement in somewhat more responsible terms. In his 1920 essay ‘Philip Massinger’, Eliot writes: ‘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.’

In other words, the issue is not that one poet takes another poet’s work and tries to pass it off as their own, but rather that, if they do it well, a poet can borrow a phrase or image from a previous poet and do something different with it.

But what did Eliot mean by saying this? It’s tempting to link such a pronouncement to his famous 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, in which he argued that the best poets assimilate the work of previous poets in such a way as to allow those past masters to ‘assert’ their immortality.

So we can ‘hear’ Shakespeare clearly in Eliot’s own work, such as when he alludes to Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29 in his Ash-Wednesday (changing ‘art’ to ‘gift’ in Shakespeare’s ‘Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope’, but allowing his theft to remain in plain sight). He has taken from Shakespeare so that the borrowing (or theft – or ‘gift’?) is obvious, but he has also allowed Shakespeare’s sentiment to be immortalised and reinvented through his poem.

On a related note, we might bear in mind Eliot’s own response when he was accused of such theft. In Eliot’s short poem ‘Cousin Nancy’, written in the early twentieth century, he concludes with the line ‘The army of unalterable law’. This line is lifted straight from an earlier, Victorian poet, George Meredith:

Soaring through wider zones that pricked his scars
With memory of the old revolt from Awe,
He reached a middle height, and at the stars,
Which are the brain of heaven, he looked, and sank.
Around the ancient track marched, rank on rank,
The army of unalterable law.

When a reader spotted the ‘theft’, Eliot responded by pointing out that his use of Meredith’s line was not plagiarism, because he intended the reader to recognise the line as a deliberate borrowing, and to note the difference in context between Meredith’s original use and Eliot’s, which transports Meredith’s weighty line to the context of the mantelpiece in a New England drawing room. Eliot had ‘stolen’ the line straight from Meredith, but the thief wished to be caught red-handed, and even to be applauded for the ingenuity of his ‘crime’.

As with many memorable maxims and epigrams, Eliot’s six-word declaration is as carefully worded as his poetry. ‘Immature’ leads into not only ‘mature’, its opposite, but also ‘imitate’, the verb that is to be linked with it; ‘poets’ is repeated as the middle word in each of the two three-word clauses. The only word that shares nothing with any of the others is ‘steal’, the one which provides the final word, and the main thrust to the statement.

Curiously, this line may owe something to an article in the Gentleman’s Magazine from 1892 by W. H. Davenport Adams, titled ‘Imitators and Plagiarists’. Davenport Adams writes: ‘Of Tennyson’s assimilative method, when he adopts an image or a suggestion from a predecessor, and works it up into his own glittering fabric, I shall give a few instances, offering as the result and summing up of the preceding inquiries a modest canon: “That great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil.”’ (See W. H. Davenport Adams, ‘Imitators and Plagiarists’, The Gentleman’s Magazine 272 (June 1892), 627-28.)

Eliot may have borrowed this axiom in order to overturn it; but the point is that he is actually engaged in a similar act of anti-romantic propaganda to Davenport Adams, because both of them wish to debunk the Romantic notion of original genius. (That is to say, they both agree that the notion of poetic originality is at best suspect and at worst impossible; what they disagree on is the terms of the relationship between literary imitation and poetic ‘theft’ or appropriation.)

In the same essay, Eliot goes on to pronounce, ‘A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.’

Eliot himself certainly lived by this: the thirteenth-century poet Dante, arguably the one poet who exercised the most powerful influence over Eliot throughout his career, was remote in time (by some six centuries), alien in language (Eliot actually taught himself Italian so he could read Dante in the original), and diverse in interest (Christian damnation and salvation are arguably the great themes in Dante; although Eliot would himself become a Christian in the late 1920s).

Immature poets imitate because they want to be like other poets; mature poets steal because they want to be themselves, and assert their own originality in the context of the ‘great tradition’ of previous poetry.

Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.

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