Friday, September 15, 2006

Good poets steal

Bob Dylan's been at it again, borrowing lines and images from one source for Modern Times, this time from a nineteenth-century American poet named Henry Timrod. One article on the subject is in The Independent.

As for the Eliot line that I stole the title of this from, I have always heard it as "bad poets imitate; good poets steal," but the web is full of references to "bad poets borrow; good poets steal." The former sounds like a better maxim to me, and since TSE was good at maxims, I hope he said "imitate" and not "borrow." But the web is not very useful in answering this question, since a search only gives you a zillion unreferenced citations of the maxim, in both forms!

(I'm expecting at least one occasional reader of my blog to be able to provide an immediate answer to this question!)

Timrod, by the way, wrote South Carolina's official state anthem, "Carolina."


Anonymous said...

i'm afraid to tell you that neither of the forms are correct. it's taken from Eliot's essay on Philip Massinger and it goes, "One of the surest of tests is the way in which a poet borrows. 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." you can find the whole essay on

There was also an article about Dylan's stealing on NYT online, including a table that compared "original" and "stolen."

hope i helped

Donald Brown said...

Damn it Andrew, that was the title I was going to use! As 'renew' says, I've always heard it as "imitate" vs. "steal." But it is often collapsed into the "bad poet/good poet" line, rather than given as "immature/mature." That said, Dylan is surely mature enough to steal.

I haven't read the printed materials you and renew cite, but I did link my blog to wikipedia's site on "Modern Times" where at least some of the stolen lines are listed. Then today in the dept. lounge I heard someone talking about "the flak" over Bob's "plagiarist pen" (to use a Joycean epithet--aimed at his alterego Shem the Penman).

Andrew Shields said...


Sorry to have stolen your line. :-)

The Eliot line gets misquoted everywhere. Another example of bad poets imitate, I guess. :-)

It makes me wonder if I have ever actually read the Massinger essay.

As for Bob, mature poets steal, I've finally concluded. Nuff said. A.

C. Dale said...

renew is correct on this one. The essay by Eliot isn't one of his rivetting ones, but it does have this passage that is so oft misquoted. It has been misquoted for so long people now quote the misquote without a clue that Eliot never wrote that.