Poets as plagiarists


clouston-pic-001The plagiarist today runs the risk of being sued by an artist, whether novelist, poet, composer or dramatist –or by the artist’s estate. However, in the case of poetry, it has always struck me how easy it must be for anyone entering a poetry competition to filch some particularly impressive lines from a forgotten slim volume or a short-lived little magazine. If the victim of the theft is dead there is only the slimmest possibility that the estate would discover it .

But when the theft is made from a comparatively obscure literary work many hundreds of years old and in another language the chances of the thief being detected in his or her lifetime are very thin indeed. Most literary thieves of this type are exposed many years after their own deaths. The whole issue is discussed in Literary Coincidences ( 1901) by W. A. Clouston, a folklorist and expert on oriental literature well qualified to address this matter.

One of the worst offenders seems to have been Lord Byron. In his Hebrew Melodies we find this first verse of ‘To a Lady Weeping ‘

‘I saw thee weep—the big bright tear

Came over that eye of blue;

And then methought it did appear

A violet dropping dew;’

Byron brazenly stole this simile from Dr Carlyle’s Specimens of Arabian Poetry in which can be found the following translation of a verse by the ninth century poet Ibn al-Rumi:

‘When I behold thy blue eye shine

Through the bright drop that pity drew,

I saw beneath those tears of thine

A blue-eyed violet bathed in dew.’

As Clouston points out, ‘Carlyle’s work was first published in 1810, four years before Byron wrote his Hebrew Melodies ‘. Several further instances of Byron pilfering from obscure oriental sources are discussed.


Byron also copied flagrantly from the Cavalier poet Lovelace. While the latter wrote :

‘Oh, could you view the melody

Of every grace,

And music of her face…’

Byron uses these actual words in The Bride of Abydos (Canto 1 st.vi)

‘The mind, the music of her face…’

William Cowper was also known to filch from others. Take the famous lines from The Task, book 1; the ‘The Time Piece’.

‘England, with all thy faults, I love thee still,

My country !’

These are lifted from Charles Churchill’s The Farewell and simply re-arranged.

‘Be England what she will,

With all her faults, I love my country still ‘.

Clouston also suggests that the famous homily voiced by Isaac Newton when close to death was probably derived from the following passage in a sermon preached by Jeremy Taylor at Dublin University years before:

‘ Spend not your time on that which profits not; for your labour and your health, your time and your studies, and very valuable; and it is a thousand pities to see a diligent and hopeful person spend himself in gathering cockle-shells and little pebbles, in telling sands upon the shore, and making garlands of useless daisies…’

Here’s Newton:

‘I don’t know what I may seem to the world, but as to myself, I seem to have been only a boy playing on the sea-shore, and diverting myself now and then by finding a smoother pebble or a prettier shell than ordinary, whilst the great ocean of Truth lay all undiscovered before me.’

But when is apparent plagiarism merely ‘ coincidence of thought’ ? Clouston suggests that the striking similarities between the words of the early Italian poet Berni and those of Shakespeare are probably down to two minds thinking alike. Here’s Berni in Orlando Innamorato :

‘Who steals a bugle-horn, a ring, a steed,

Or suchlike worthless thing, has some discretion:

‘Tis petty larceny. Not such his deed

Who robs us of our fame, our best possession.

And he who takes our labour’s worthiest meed

May well be deemed a robber by profession;

Who so much more our hate and scourge deserves,

As from the rule of right he wider swerves.’

Now here’s Shakespeare in Othello:

‘Who steals my purse steals trash: ‘tis something, nothing;

‘Twas mine, ‘tis his, and has been slave to thousands;

Bit he that filches from me my good name,

Robs me of that which not enriches him,

And makes me poor indeed.’


Email this to someoneShare on FacebookTweet about this on TwitterShare on Google+Pin on PinterestShare on TumblrShare on RedditShare on StumbleUpon

2 thoughts on “Poets as plagiarists

  1. Roger

    There have been actual cases of people stealing and republishing whole poems. It’s probably more difficult now though, with internet access making poems more widely available.
    Shakespeare stole from the start: in one of the earliest references to him Robert Greene accused him of plagiarism.
    The Reliques of Father Prout is another entertaining book on plagiarism. It would be worth checking if Clouston was…inspired, shall we say?… by it.


Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published.