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T.S. Eliot, John Lennon, and Bob Dylan: Masters of Allusion, or Plagiarists?

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When "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" was published, the poet William Carlos Williams angrily lashed out at T.S. Eliot and his friend Ezra Pound:

Eliot's more exquisite work is rehash, repetition in another way of Verlaine, Baudelaire, Maeterlinck... just as there were Pound's early paraphrases of Yeats and his constant later cribbing from the Renaissance, Provence and the modern French: men with the connotations of their masters.

Publication of The Waste Land brought more abuse: E.E. Cummings asked "why Eliot couldn't write his own lines instead of borrowing from dead poets," and Robert Frost told lecture audiences that Eliot had made "an anthology of the best lines in poetry, strung them together, and copyrighted the result."

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T.S. Eliot (1920). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

All art is allusive, connected more or less visibly with earlier works of art. But in the modern era a number of artists have gone beyond earlier uses of allusion, in not only referring to other works, but quoting them precisely, and doing so with a frequency that exceeds earlier practice. Thus Edmund Wilson remarked that Eliot and Pound had "founded a school of poetry which depends on literary quotation and reference to an unprecedented degree." More recently, Louis Menand observed that Eliot made poems out of other people's poems, and with The Waste Land had "approached the scandalous limits of the technique." John Sutherland awarded Eliot the title "Master Allusionist."

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Bob Dylan and Joan Baez at the Civil Rights March on Washington, DC, August 1963. Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Eliot and Pound were not alone. Several scholars have contended that both of them were influenced by James Joyce: one described Ulysses as "a supreme example of the allusive method... on a breathtaking scale." And they were followed by later artists. In 1970, Greil Marcus wrote that Bob Dylan's new album, Self-Portrait, was characterized by "borrowing, lifting, and plagiarism." In 1999, David Sterritt described Jean-Luc Godard's recent films as "virtuosic in their kleptomania."

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Jean-Luc Godard at Berkeley (1968). Image courtesy Wikimedia Commons.

Why do these artists borrow so much and so often from earlier artists? In a famous essay, Eliot argued that a poet should suppress his own personality, and write with "a feeling that the whole of the literature from Europe from Homer... has a simultaneous existence," creating new poems by recontextualizing the greatest poetry of the past. Curiously, however, Eliot's poems quoted not only such immortals as Dante, Donne, and Shakespeare, but also popular songs, nursery rhymes, and drunken barroom conversations. And again, Eliot was not alone. John Lennon told an interviewer that his sources ranged from Lewis Carroll to Oscar Wilde, but in fact he also drew from a much wider range of popular sources (one of his earliest compositions was inspired by a song his mother had sung to him as a child, from the Disney movie of Snow White, that included the lyrics "Want to know a secret? Promise not to tell?") Richard Poirier observed in 1967 that the Beatles' allusions were so diverse that listening to Sgt. Pepper "one thinks not simply of the history of popular music but of the history of this century." Entire web sites are currently devoted to Bob Dylan's unacknowledged quotations, which include literary sources as widely scattered as Marcel Proust, the Japanese novelist Junichi Saga, and the 19th-century poet Henry Timrod.

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The Beatles (1963). Image courtesy of the National Portrait Gallery, London.

No one has offered a convincing explanation for why great modern artists have engaged in large-scale quotation, and this puzzle is not an easy one. One striking feature is that it is overwhelmingly -- perhaps exclusively - a conceptual practice. This is not surprising. Allusion and quotation are generally inconsistent with the direct expression of perception that is characteristic of experimental art. Frequent allusion and quotation are obvious means of making art directly from earlier art, which is characteristically conceptual.

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Bob Dylan at the Newport Folk Festival (1965). Image courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Another distinctive feature of the large-scale use of quotation is that it is generally associated with an abstract attitude that perceives art as timeless, and consequently available and eligible for appropriation without regard to chronology. When these conceptual artists walk through museums or libraries, they do not consider the techniques or substance of older art as dated or superseded by subsequent developments: Eliot contended that the development of art "abandons nothing en route," and "does not superannuate either Shakespeare, or Homer." Ezra Pound declared that "All ages are contemporaneous," and Eliot offered a conception of poetry as "a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written."

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The Beatles in Washington, DC (1964). Image courtesy of the Huffington Post.

Detractors of large-scale allusion in art have often criticized it as incoherent. Conrad Aiken, for example, criticized The Waste Land as "a brilliant and kaleidoscopic confusion." But others have disagreed. Edmund Wilson wrote with some surprise that in The Waste Land Eliot "manages to be most effective... precisely where he might be expected to be at least original -- he succeeds in conveying his meaning, in communicating his emotion, in spite of all his learned or mysterious allusions." Peter Wollen felt the same about Godard's early masterpiece: "the originality of Breathless depended on its status as creative sampling, as a remix of fragments adopted from other films or from the works of art which Godard revered, a remake, but different, personalized." Richard Poirier stressed the singularity of artistic selections in allusion: "the taste of the Beatles or of Dylan is an emanation of personality, of a self."

Is large-scale quotation in art fair or foul -- poetic creativity or dishonest theft? It is likely that there will never be a single resolution of this question, but rather that the answer will inevitably depend on the experimental or conceptual orientation of the viewer. For experimental artists, from Robert Frost to Joni Mitchell, it is likely that large-scale quotation will never cease to be illegitimate, an inexplicable and inexcusable sign of the absence of true originality, hence a failure of creativity. But to conceptual observers, skillful use of quotation will continue to be a satisfying source of artistic innovation: As T.S. Eliot wrote in 1920, "bad poets deface what they take, and good poets make it into something better...the good poet welds his theft into a whole of feeling which is unique, utterly different from which it was torn." In today's highly conceptual world of art, the primary debates will continue to be not over the legitimacy of quotation and appropriation, but over how effectively they are done.