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I've been trying to do research to confirm my English teacher's claim that T. S. Eliot plagiarized works by Jules Laforgue, Henri Bergson, and Andrew Marvell in his poem "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". Unfortunately, I haven't been able to get any solid evidence.

What follows is a summary of the research I've done on each of the three examples my teacher told us about:

My teacher claims that lines 13-14 plagiarize Jules Laforgue:

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

He didn't mention a specific poem that Laforgue wrote, but after doing some quick googling, I found plenty of other similar claims. They mention these lines:

Dans la pièce les femmes vont et viennent
En parlant des maîtres de Sienne.

I've searched online for a poem - by Laforgue or otherwise - that these lines could belong to, but the only things I can find are other analyses of Eliot and French translations of this poem. When I exclude phrases like "Eliot", "Prufrock", etc. there are very few results, and they all seem to be unrelated or slipped through from one of the categories mentioned above. If anyone can help me find the source of this quote, that would help me a lot!

My teacher also claims that line 2 plagiarizes the philosopher Henri Bergson's book Time and Free Will (French: Essai sur les données immédiates de la conscience).

When the evening is spread out against the sky

But again, I haven't been able to find any connections yet. I found a pdf of Time and Free Will, translated into English, and I searched for phrases like "evening" and "night" and "sky". There were two results for "night", but they were both about the sound of a clock ticking in the night. The other phrases didn't return anything. There were many references, however, to astronomy, astronomers, astronomical phenomena, etc. It would be helpful if anyone could help me find the specific ideas or phrases that my teacher might think are being referenced here. I can't seem to link the pdf, but if you search for "Time and Free Will pdf" I'm sure you will find it. It should be in the public domain, since it was published in 1889.

Finally, my teacher has said that the phrase "There will be time" - which is first used in line 23, but is repeated many times throughout that stanza - plagiarizes the poem "To His Coy Mistress" by Andrew Marvell. The concept of time is clearly very important in both poems, but I can't find any evidence of plagiarism at all. In fact, the two poems appear to have a very different stance on time, at least on the surface. Out of all of the examples he gave, this one seems the most plausible to me, and yet I'm just not convinced. Can anyone help me understand why my teacher would claim this?

This might be unnecessary information, but the reason I'm doing all this is because this teacher is giving an assignment next week where we have to identify three examples of plagiarism in the text and explain why there is "such a focus on plagiarism" in this poem. The way he has described these examples, you would think that these would be extremely obvious examples of plagiarism. I thought it would be easy to do a little research on the examples to prepare for next week, but now I'm just confused.

TL;DR: My teacher says "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" plagiarizes several other texts, but after some research, I can't seem to back up his claims. Is he wrong, or am I missing something here?

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    Excellent first question, glad to have you here. Please check out our tour to see how Literature Stack Exchange works.
    – bobble
    Oct 20 at 18:34
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    Related: Was T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land" plagiarised? (The conclusion there is that no, Eliot wasn't plagiarising. That doesn't necessarily answer your question, of course, but anyway the Waste Land question has two fantastic answers which are well worth reading.)
    – Rand al'Thor
    Oct 20 at 18:52
  • I'm reminded of a quotation I was told comes from T.S. Eliot: "Bad poets borrow; good poets steal." However, doing a Google Search I could only find this attributed to the poet: "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." Make of that what you will.
    – llywrch
    Oct 21 at 15:19
  • @llywrch I've heard that quote in many forms and attributed to many authors, replacing "poets" with whatever type of artist is appropriate. Not sure if anyone knows which came first. Oct 21 at 17:46
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    Allusions and resemblances aren't plagiarism. For your teacher's claim to succeed, he would have to show that the majority of the text was deliberately stolen by Eliot, with evidence. He is misusing words. Dunno how you handle that ...
    – user207421
    Oct 22 at 3:11
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Examples of allusions in the poem

In The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume I edited by Christopher Ricks (Faber & Faber, 2015), Ricks has several notes for the lines "In the room the women come and go / Talking of Michelangelo."

First, he points out that the lines "Dans la pièce les femmes vont et viennent / En parlant des maîtres de Sienne" are not from Laforgue but are the French translation by Pierre Leyris (1947) of T. S. Eliot's lines from "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock". The claim that Eliot plagiarised Laforgue seems to be based on a comment in B. C. Southam's A Student's Guide to the Selected Poems of T. S. Eliot (Faber & Faber, 1968, 1994, page 50):

In imitating Laforgue almost word for word, Eliot introduces an element of parody, re-rendering the French in a tripping rhyming couplet (…).

Second, the words "women come and go" echo lines from Christina Rosetti's "The Convent Threshold":

Love-music warbling in their throat,
Young men and women come and go.

Third, he points out that "go / Talking of ..." has an echo in Ash-Wednesday's, "Going (...) / Talking of trivial things". Ash-Wednesday is a much later poem, first published in 1930.

The claim that the words "When the evening is spread out against the sky" are plagiarised from Bergon's Time and Free Will is plain and simply wrong. Scholars know that Eliot had read the 1910 translation (Time and Free Will is available on Archive.org) and Bergson uses the word combination "spread[ing] out" repeatedly in that work. However, it is not the evening that is spread out anywhere, nor is anything described as "spread out against the sky". Below are a few examples from Bergson's essay:

In some of its manifestations consciousness even appears to spread outwards, as if intensity were being developed into extensity, (…).

But yet we spoke at first of one and the same sensation which spread further and further, of one prick which increased in intensity.

(…) if on the other hand our conception of number ends in spreading out in space everything which can be directly counted (…)

(…) while states of consciousness are not essentially external to one another, and become so only by being spread out in time, regarded as a homogeneous medium.

By separating these moments from each other, by spreading out time in space, we have caused this feeling to lose its life and its colour.

the absurdity of the fundamental hypothesis by which it spreads out time in space (…)

B. C. Southam comment on Bergson's influence both in the general introduction to his Student's Guide ... and in the introduction to the chapter on "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" but does not use the word "plagiarism" in this context (nor in the context of the supposed imitation of Laforgue).

The word "retreats" in line 5 had also been used by the Victorian-era poet James Thomson in The City of Dreadful Night:

Although lamps burn along the silent streets;
(...)
The dark holds countless lanes and close retreats;

(Eliot had read some of Thomson's work but it would go a bit far to describe borrowing a single word as plagiarism.)

The phrase "overwhelming question" (line 10) had also been used in James Fenimore Cooper's The Pioneers (Chapter XXIII) (1823):

The whole company were a good deal astounded with this overwhelming question, (…)

Ricks has notes on many other lines of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" that point to similar phrases and usages in other works (in addition to echoes in Eliot's later poems). Whether these echoes and similarities constitute plagiarism is very hard to judge, since this depends on where you draw the line between inspiration and plagiarism.

Modernism and intertextuality

When discussing modernist literature such as the works of T. S. Eliot or James Joyce, it is important to take into account that these authors introduced a more allusive style. Eliot's The Waste Land is a famous (or infamous) example of this. Julia Kristeva would later coin the term intertextuality for practices or techniques such as allusion, quotation, translation, pastiche, parody and even plagiarism.

In his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919), Eliot had already written how literary works are always interconnected in a way that is very similar to Kristeva's concept of intertextuality:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. (…) The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not onesided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.

Eliot also discussed the allusive nature of Joyce's novel Ulysses in his review of the novel ("Ulysses, order and myth"). Ulysses reuses episodes and other aspects from the Odyssey, whereas some of the echoes in "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" refer to authors that have now been forgotten (except by scholars), making it harder for modern readers to regard these echoes as true allusions that they can reasonably be expected to recognise. This may be the explanation for some of the plagiarism accusations that have been levelled at T. S. Eliot.

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Plagiarism means unlawful theft of intellectual property in the context of writing. Modernism is heavily characterised by what is commonly referred to as allusiveness. When an author uses another author’s words for their artistic effect, this is often called “citation” (it means quotation rather than the academic sense of providing sources for ideas).

T. S. Eliot is considered a central, prototypical figure in modernist style and he deliberately, consciously and transparently re-used fragments of other writers in his poetry.

The question is more about the definition of plagiarism. Arguably, plagiarism is a sociological and legal construct. The critic Northrop Frye points out that copyright law has misled people into overestimating the role of originality in artistic production, since art has always been heavily imitative. People absorb ideas and forms from their culture and environment.

The conventional answer would be that this is not plagiarism because T. S. Eliot never lied that the ideas were solely his. But in a modern legal context, someone could be sued for reproducing parts of someone else’s work without permission.

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    No it does not. "Unlawful theft of intellectual property in the context of writing" is copyright infringement, not plagiarism. Plagiarism is specifically about good faith attribution of authorship, not about ownership or property.
    – Alexis
    Oct 24 at 0:25

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