“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.”
—From T.S. Eliot’s “The Sacred Wood” (1920)
When writers and critics cite T.S. Eliot’s maxim above, they often stop with the deadpan funniest/cheeky part: “Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal.” It’s a great line, suggesting a mirthful larceny far at odds with the preternatural sobriety and moral seriousness of Eliot’s best-known works—“Four Quartets” and “The Wasteland” perhaps premier among them.
But the maxim’s second part elaborates a valuable guidepost for how all writers and artists should approach and pay homage to the history of their craft.
What Eliot suggests at a much deeper level is that no artist creates in isolation, without standing on the shoulders of all who have struggled in the same way t...Read More