An oft-repeated mantra among creative writers is attributed to T.S. Eliot and runs something along the lines of: “good poets borrow; great poets steal” or “good writers borrow; great writers steal.”
The only problem is that T.S. Eliot never actually said this.
What he did say is quoted below from his essay on playwright Philip Massinger:
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. The good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different than that from which it is torn; the bad poet throws it into something which has no cohesion. A good poet will usually borrow from authors remote in time, or alien in language, or diverse in interest.
The most notable difference between the misquote and actual quote is that T.S. Eliot distinguishes between “good” and “bad” poets. Meanwhile the misquote makes it seem as though it’s not possible to be a bad poet!
Whoever butchered the quote, and whoever repeated it so often that it wound up kicking around this way, appears to have performed a feel-good I’m-okay-you’re-okay surgical operation to assure inexperienced writers that using material from other sources would make them, at worst, “good” instead of “great.” How sad.
I can’t help but wonder whether too many writers have taken too many liberties with the misquote and used it to justify poor derivative work. As my poet friends can attest, bad poetry floods literary journal submission boxes to the gunwales; bad fiction comes in second, followed by bad nonfiction.
It’s important to identify bad poetry—or any sort of writing, for that matter—as something that could be “defaced” or exhibit “no cohesion.” So often I read work that seems derivative for no reason, or that uses epigrams to “explain” a story which is incomprehensible (the epigrams, of course, make things more confusing). Writers could spend more time worrying about whether they are actually “bad” instead of just merely “good” in other words.
I note that there are versions of this quote in practically every discipline, including a version for artists attributed to Picasso and a version for musicians attributed to Stravinsky. I wonder whether these have been adapted within their discipline, or if they derive from some other actual statement by an artist I’m not aware of?
Sadly, the record will probably never be set straight.