This Q&A mention accusations of plagiarism levelled at T. S. Eliot in the context of his famous poem "The Waste Land". There seems to be a lot of information about this on the internet, for example Plagiarism Today and the linked Cracked article, but I couldn't easily distil the important points to understand what's going on here. What was the origin of these accusations? How prevalent have they been, and how much credit should we give them? What's the evidence for and against "The Waste Land" being plagiarised, and from whom?

  • 1
    "I couldn't easily distil the important points to understand what's going on here." People trying to work up a storm in a teacup and willing to misrepresent what Eliot was doing ...
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 16:07
  • 3
    LOL: "T.S. Eliot, one of the best-known American poets, plagiarized much of his work “The Waste Land” which, according to the Cracked article was “Most of ‘The Waste Land’ was just cobbled together out of quotes from other writers,” which is a fairly apt description." Any cobbler who end up creating The Waste Land is a master-builder in my books. And if we going to talk about cobbling from others, surely Joyce out plagiarises Eliot!
    – fundagain
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 16:54
  • Of course Joyce has always complained that Eliot plagiarised The Waste Land directly from Ulysses...
    – fundagain
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 16:56
  • I am going to upvote this question, because if this rubbish is in the public domain it should be examined, and this is the best site to deal with this.
    – fundagain
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 17:05
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    Are you interested specifically in accusations from Eliot's lifetime or later "discoveries"?
    – Tsundoku
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 18:19

3 Answers 3


TL;DR: No.


Eliot said that the source of the title, theme and imagery of ‘The Waste Land’ was the medieval legend of the Fisher King:

Not only the title, but the plan and a good deal of the incidental symbolism of the poem were suggested by Miss Jessie L. Weston’s book on the Grail legend: From Ritual to Romance.

T. S. Eliot (1922), Notes on ‘The Waste Land’.

The poem also quotes many phrases and lines from other works, amounting to about 40 lines of the poem’s 433. Eliot uses these quotations transformatively, altering some of them, and placing them in new and ironic contexts.

Does this use of sources and quotations amount to plagiarism? Plagiarism is copying without attribution, and Eliot’s notes to the poem give the attributions. But in any case plagiarism is a violation of academic norms, not of poetic norms. ‘The Waste Land’ was not a term paper, and poets have always alluded to each other and drawn on a common stock of images and themes.

In addition to the direct quotations and the influences acknowledged by Eliot, ‘The Waste Land’ (like any poem) contains echoes of unacknowledged influences, the most well-known of which I discuss below. A clever muck-raker with a facility for rhetoric can muddle these two aspects of the poem, pointing out that some lines are copied (but not that Eliot attributed them), and that some lines have unacknowledged influences (but omitting to mention that no copying is involved), creating the false impression that Eliot copied substantial amounts of text from other works without attribution. Since all the works involved are widely available, it is a simple matter of comparing the originals to expose the falsehood. But who bothers to check original sources?

Even without the operation of dishonesty, so long as everyone relies on secondary and tertiary sources instead of checking against the originals, a game of whispers can take place whereby a coincidental similarity gets described by A as a “parallel”, by B as a “borrowing”, by C as “copying”, and by D as “plagiarism”. In this kind of ‘innocent’ accusation, even a casual reader ought to be able to tell that D has gone wrong somewhere, because if they really had evidence for plagiarism they would present their best examples. The fact that they don’t do so is evidence that they have nothing to present.


Madison Cawein’s ‘Waste Land’ has some striking similarities to Eliot’s poem in title, theme, and imagery. It begins like this:

Briar and fennel and chincapin,
        And rue and ragweed everywhere;
The field seemed sick as a soul with sin,
        Or dead of an old despair,
        Born of an ancient care.

The cricket’s cry and the locust’s whirr,
        And the note of a bird’s distress,
With the rasping sound of the grasshopper,
        Clung to the loneliness
        Like burrs to a trailing dress.

Madison Cawein (1913). ‘Waste Land’. Poetry, January 1913.

The suggestion that Eliot was inspired by Cawein was first made by Richard Patteson in a note that I’ll quote in full:

Following T. S. Eliot’s own suggestion, critics have generally assumed that Jessie L. Weston’s From Ritual to Romance is the sole source for the title of The Waste Land. But seven years before the publication of Miss Weston’s book, there appeared in Harriet Monroe’s Poetry magazine a poem which bears striking similarities to The Waste Land. Madison Cawein’s “Waste Land”, like Eliot’s poem, presents a desolate landscape as a metaphor for spiritual desolation: “The field seemed sick despair.” Much of the poem’s imagery also suggests Eliot’s. Cawein’s setting is dry and dead. Trees are “Skeletons gaunt that gnarled the place”, and the single human being on the scene is “Like a dead weed, gray and wan,/Or a breath of dust”. Eliot’s “cicada/And dry grass singing” is forecast by Cawein’s “crickets’ cry and the locusts’ whirr”. More revealing than the imagery, however, is Cawein’s explicit equation of “the grim death there” with “forms of the mind, an old despair,/That there into semblance grew/Out of the grief I knew”. We now know, thanks to Valerie Eliot’s facsimile edition of The Waste Land, something of the grief that lay behind T. S. Eliot’s own work. Of course, the use of nature to express an emotional or spiritual condition does not originate either with Eliot or with Madison Cawein. But Eliot must surely have read Cawein’s poem in Poetry; and Cawein’s title, combined with his imagery and theme, seems rather too close to Eliot’s to be purely coincidental.

Richard F. Patteson (1976). ‘An additional source for “The Waste Land”’. Notes and Queries 23:7, pp. 300–1.

Note that Patteson has to fill the gap in his argument with speculation (“must surely have read”, “seems rather too close”) since there is no evidence of textual copying that he can point to, just similarities of imagery and theme.

Some significant words (‘cricket’, ‘bones’, ‘dust’, ‘dog’, ‘trees’) do appear in both poems, but a detailed look at the text shows no evidence of copying, for example Cawein has “The cricket’s cry and the locust’s whirr” whereas Eliot has “And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief”. The imagery of crickets or locusts laying waste to the land is, in any case, an ancient one, appearing for example several times in the Bible.

So even though the similarities are suggestive, it remains, I think, more likely that both poets drew their theme and imagery from other sources, for example the medieval legend of the Fisher King or the plagues of locusts in Exodus and Ezekiel. Once you have picked the idea of a wasteland as a metaphor for the human condition, images of crickets, dust and dry bones may not be all that difficult to come by.


The suggestion that Eliot was inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses was first made by Giorgio Melchiori:

Ulysses was published in its final form in the same year as The Waste Land was written; besides, the Lestrygonians episode, from which this passage is taken, is among those published two or three years before in The Little Review, a periodical to which Eliot himself contributed. There can be little doubt that the poet had read it before writing The Waste Land, and, reviewing it in 1923, he acknowledges that it had made a deep impression on him: ‘It is a book to which we are all indebted, and from which none of us can escape.’ It would not be surprising that the scene from the Lestrygonians, where the suggestion of sumptuousness in the window-display rouses voluptuous thoughts (together with a hint of sexual disgust), leading to the merely physical and sordid stimulus of food, should have wandered into the poet’s imagination while he was dealing with a not very different subject.

Giorgio Melchiori (1951). ‘Echoes in “The Waste Land”’. English Studies 32:1-6, p. 3.

Melchiori’s claim in the first sentence is false: ‘The Waste Land’ was published in 1922, but the earliest manuscripts are thought to date from 1914. Note also Melchiori’s use of speculation: “There can be little doubt” and “It would not be surprising”.

The trouble with Melchiori’s argument in this paper is that it relies on picking a little atmosphere and a few words out of a very large amount of text. This is as good as it gets in the 1951 paper:

But what seems most striking is the echo of Joyce’s line ‘He turned Combridge’s corner, still pursued’, in Eliot’s “And still she cried, and still the world pursues.”

Melchiori (1951), p. 4

In a 1954 paper (‘The Waste Land and Ulysses’, English Studies, 35:1-6, pp. 56–68), Melchiori explored some similarities in imagery between ‘The Waste Land’ and the Proteus episode of Ulysses. Melchiori’s argument is too vague to summarize, but the key similarities are as follows. First, both works have a digging dog and a corpse:

Their dog ambled about a bank of dwindling sand, trotting, sniffing on all sides. Looking for something lost in a past life. Suddenly he made off like a bounding hare, ears flung back, chasing the shadow of a lowskimming gull. The man’s shrieked whistle struck his limp ears. He turned, bounded back, came nearer, trotted on twinkling shanks. […] Unheeded he kept by them as they came towards the drier sand, a rag of wolf’s tongue redpanting from his jaws. His speckled body ambled ahead of them and then loped off at a calf’s gallop. The carcase lay on his path. He stopped, sniffed, stalked round it, brother, nosing closer, went round it, sniffing rapidly like a dog all over the dead dog’s bedraggled fell. […] His hindpaws then scattered sand: then his forepaws dabbled and delved. Something he buried there, his grandmother. He rooted in the sand, dabbling, delving and stopped to listen to the air, scraped up the sand again with a fury of his claws, soon ceasing, a pard, a panther, got in spousebreach, vulturing the dead.

“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
“Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!

Second, both works have a drowned man and allusions to Ariel’s song from The Tempest:

—There’s five fathoms out there, he said. It’ll be swept up that way when the tide comes in about one. It’s nine days today.

The man that was drowned. […]

Five fathoms out there. Full fathom five thy father lies. At one he said. Found drowned. High water at Dublin bar. Driving before it a loose drift of rubble, fanshoals of fishes, silly shells. A corpse rising saltwhite from the undertow, bobbing landward, a pace a pace a porpose. There he is. Hook it quick. Sunk though he be beneath the watery floor… A seachange this, brown eyes saltblue. Seadeath, mildest of all deaths known to man.

Is your card, the drowned Phoenician Sailor,
(Those are pearls that were his eyes. Look!) […]

Phlebas the Phoenician, a fortnight dead,
Forgot the cry of gulls, and the deep sea swell
And the profit and loss.
A current under sea
Picked his bones in whispers. As he rose and fell
He passed the stages of his age and youth
Entering the whirlpool. […]

And on the king my father’s death before him.
White bodies naked on the low damp ground

Melchiori is not attempting to demonstrate plagiarism: his theory is that these passages are evidence of “unconscious reminiscence” at most, and in that light the similarities are interesting, but far from dispositive, as the most striking ones arise from the use of a common source, The Tempest.

Thomas Lorch also combed the two texts for thematic parallels, finding in both works rivers, nymphs, nerves, adultery, rats, thunder, and barren lands.

These parallels even extend as far as verbal echoes. “The Burial of the Dead” actually takes place, in the form of Patrick Dignam’s funeral. The concept of planting the corpse comes up at the funeral when Bloom pleads, “Plant him and have done with him” and Bloom’s thought in the graveyard, “How many! All these here once walked round Dublin” resembles Eliot’s lines, “so many,/I had not thought death had undone so many.”

Thomas Lorch (1964). ‘The Relationship between Ulysses and The Waste Land’. Texas Studies in Literature and Language, 6:2, p. 125.

But the last of these verbal echos may be another case of a shared source. Eliot is alluding to Dante, and Joyce may be too:

And there, behind it, marched so long a file
Of people, I would never have believed
That death could have undone so many souls.

Dante Alighieri. Inferno III.55-57. Translated by James Finn Cotter.

As with Melchiori, in evaluating the saliency of these echoes we face the problem of a missing base rate. Ulysses is so vast and multifarious that we should expect to be able to find echoes of it in a great many works. The question is not whether ‘The Waste Land’ has any echoes of Ulysses, but whether it has significantly more and stronger echoes than a typical work of its length, and neither Melchiori nor Lorch addresses this point.


William Tindall claimed that Joyce had accused Eliot of stealing ‘The Waste Land’ from Ulysses, and that he had encoded this claim in the text of Finnegans Wake. He states this with great confidence (but without citation) early in his Reader’s Guide:

Joyce, as we have also noticed, always insisted that Eliot stole ‘The Waste Land’ from Ulysses.

William York Tindall (1969). A Reader’s Guide to Finnegans Wake, p. 60. Syracuse University Press.

However, if you look in detail at Tindall’s method, any confidence you might have in his boldly stated claims evaporates. The trouble is that Finnegans Wake is written using stream-of-consciousness, dream-logic, fluid symbolism, shifting allusion and convoluted puns. This encourages a mode of reading in which you grasp at associations in an effort to find any kind of meaning in the text. But this is hopeless if you are trying to make biographical claims about Joyce: to make these associations you have to read as much into the text as you read out of it. I’ll give two examples where I am confident that Tindall is confabulating.

First example:

[Finnegans Wake] Bygmester Finnegan, of the Stuttering Hand, freemen’s maurer, lived in the broadest way immarginable in his rushlit toofarback for messuages before joshuan judges had given us numbers or Helviticus committed deuteronomy

[My interpretation.] This sentence gives us Finnegan’s profession, and sets the scene in space and time. ‘Bygmester’ is Danish for ‘master builder’ and sounds like ‘big mister’. ‘Maurer’ is German for ‘mason’. Freeman’s Stone is an ancient boundary marker formerly on the ‘margin’ of Dublin. In Ulysses a ‘two-pair-back and passages’ is a kind of Dublin tenement. The time is antiquity, before the books of the Bible—Joshua, Judges, etc.—had been written. ‘Helviticus’ looks like a portmanteau of ‘Helveticus’ (Latin for ‘Swiss’) and ‘Leviticus’.

[Tindall’s interpretation.] Helviticus comitting “deuteronomy” is T. S. Eliot imitating Ulysses in Switzerland—“by the waters of Leman”, as he says in ‘The Waste Land’.

[My commentary.] Tindall’s theory here is that ‘deuteronomy’ means ‘imitation’ (because it repeats material from Exodus) and that ‘Helveticus’ means ‘Eliot’ (because Eliot visited Switzerland in 1921 during the composition of ‘The Waste Land’). But these connections are very thin: there would be no reason to suspect the equation of ‘Helviticus’ with Eliot unless you were already convinced that Joyce thought Eliot had plagiarised from Ulysses while he was in Switzerland, so you can’t adduce it as evidence of Joyce accusing him of doing so without engaging in circular reasoning.

Second example:

[Finnegans Wake] What child of a strandlooper but keepy little Kevin in the despondful surrounding of such sneezing cold would ever have trouved up on a strate that was called strete a motive for future saintity by euchring the finding of the Ardagh chalice by another heily innocent and beachwalker whilst trying with pious clamour to wheedle Tipperaw raw raw reeraw puteters out of Now Sealand in spignt of the patchpurple of the massacre, a dual a duel to die to day, goddam and biggod, sticks and stanks, of most of the Jacobiters.

[My interpretation.] This sentence alludes, first to the dispute between the finders of the Ardagh Chalice in 1868. A ‘strandlooper’ is a beach-comber, hence by association a treasure-hunter. ‘Trouved’ suggests French ‘trouver’, to find, and English ‘trove’ meaning buried treasure. ‘Euchring’ means ‘outwitting’ but also puns on ‘eucharist’ which the chalice was used for. Paddy Flanagan found the chalice in a potato (‘puteter’) field near Ardagh Fort, but his friend Jimmy Quin tried to ‘euchre’ him out of the credit. Then the allusion switches to the Jacobite Young Irelander Rebellion of 1848 in Tipperary. ‘Patchpurple’ puns on ‘purple patch’ and the ‘battle of Widow McCormack’s cabbage patch’ in which the ‘Jacobiters’ (the Young Irelanders) fought the Irish Constabulary in a ‘duel’ of gunfire, the ‘dual’ ‘massacre’ being the killing of rebels Cahir McGoldrick and Gareth Ney. Jacobites traditionally wore a sprig of purple heather in their caps, or perhaps the patch is purple with the blood of the slain men.

[Tindall’s interpretation.] At this point Kevin–Shaun is T. S. Eliot stealing ‘The Waste Land’ from Ulysses, Joyce’s purple-patched “massacre”. April, “future saintity”, the chalice (Joyce’s golden cup and Eliot’s grail), “strandlooper” (Prufrock), “beachwalker” (Stephen) and “euchring” (Mme. Sosostris’ wicked pack of cards) establishes identity.

[My commentary.] I can follow some of Tindall’s associations: in Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ Prufrock says that he will “walk upon the beach”; in the ‘Proteus’ episode of Ulysses, Stephen Dedalus walks on the beach; Ulysses can be described as a ‘purple patch’ in both senses (a success; an excessively ornate passage of text); Eliot drew on the Grail legend, and the Grail is a cup, and so is the Ardagh chalice; Madame Sosostris has a deck of Tarot cards and euchre is also played with cards. But these seem very weak, and I don’t understand Tindall’s claims about “massacre” and “future saintity”.


A 2009 article by Robert Evans at cracked.com ekes out a teaspoon of truth with a bucket of lies, innuendo, and snide rhetoric, in order, I can only guess, to create a controversy that might drive clicks to the site. (For this reason I have not linked to it.) Almost every sentence in Evans’ piece includes either an outright falsehood or an innuendo amounting to one, something that would be hard to achieve merely through ignorance and incompetence. Let’s have a look at it in detail:

The problem with this is that Eliot didn’t write ‘The Waste Land.’ Not all of it anyway.

Robert Evans (2009). ‘5 Great Men Who Built Their Careers on Plagiarism’. cracked.com

Note the rhetoric: an initial sweeping claim that is immediately admitted to be false.

As it turns out, the idea behind ‘The Waste Land,’

Note the use of ‘as it turns out’ to give a misleading impression of certainty. Some scholars speculate that Eliot got his title and some of his imagery from Cawein (as discussed above), but the evidence is too thin for ‘as it turns out’ to be a fair summary.

and a fair amount of its content, was plagiarized from an almost unknown American poet named Madison Cawein.

Note the use of ‘fair amount’ to avoid having to quantify exactly how many lines Eliot took from Cawein. That’s because Eliot took no lines from Cawein (see above) but it would not suit Evans’ purpose to say so.

Cawein’s poem was even named ‘Waste Land.’

Note the use of ‘even’ here: this seems to imply that not only did Eliot plagiarise the poem, he even plagiarised the title. But the title is the main reason anyone thinks Eliot was influenced by Cawein at all.

It was first published in the same issue of Poetry as Eliot’s ‘Love Song,’

This is false. Cawein’s ‘Waste Land’ was published in the January 1913 issue of Poetry but Eliot’s ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ was published in the June 1915 issue.

and contains several metaphors that were later used word for word by Eliot in his ‘The Waste Land.’

Note again the use of ‘several’ to avoid quantification. Cawein’s ‘Waste Land’ is only 40 lines long so it is easy to check every phrase. There are no metaphors “that were later used word for word”.

(Eliot’s lucky he died before trying to publish his ‘The Romeo and Juliet’ and ‘The Tyler Perry’s Diary of a Mad Black Woman.’)

This is false, but phrased as a joke so that it is deniable.

But the poor, unappreciated Madison Cawein wasn’t the only person Eliot stole from.

Note the attempt to solicit sympathy for Cawein, as if Eliot were responsible for his lack of prominence.

This passage from ‘The Waste Land:’ “The Chair she sat in, like a burnished throne / Glowed on the marble,” was slightly altered but still stolen from Shakespeare, who wrote, “The barge she sat in, like a burnish’d throne / Burn’d on the water”.

Evans is correct that Eliot adapted these two lines from Antony and Cleopatra (maybe he read Eliot’s note?), but ironically Shakespeare’s description of Cleopatra’s barge that follows these lines is not original to him either: he adapted it from Thomas North’s translation of Plutarch’s ‘Life of Marcus Antonius’.

Evans also neglects the transformative way Eliot has used these lines: the woman in her suburban dressing-room likened ironically to Cleopatra in her barge on the Nile, her banal modern furnishings described with the grandeur of Shakespeare’s pentameter and classical reference.

Eliot’s line, “Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song,” was stolen entirely from Edmund Spenser’s ‘Prothalamion.’

Evans is correct about the source of this line, but again omits to explain the transformative way it is used. In Spenser the Thames is decked out with “variable flowers” and “dainty gems” for a wedding day, but in Eliot “the last fingers of leaf / Clutch and sink into the wet bank” of a river flowing through a wasteland.

Most of ‘The Waste Land’ was just cobbled together out of quotes from other writers.

Note the rhetorical use of ‘just’ to suggest that Eliot contributed nothing more than stringing the quotes together. Note also the use of ‘most’ to avoid quantification. It’s not too difficult to look through ‘The Waste Land’ and count the lines with quoted material, which amount to about 40 out of 433.

Until very recently, most scholars have been happy to simply chalk these up as ‘allusions’ to the work of other authors. For a long time, it was regarded as something poets just did, as a way of honoring their influences.

Note the use of scare quotes around ‘allusions’ to imply that the term is illegitate in some way, and the use of “Until very recently” and “For a long time” to suggest (without saying so) that allusion is no longer considered to be something that poets do (which would be false).

  • +1 I agree with this answer, mine not-with-standing.
    – fundagain
    Commented Apr 5, 2019 at 23:12
  • The suggestion that Eliot was inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses was first made by Giorgio Melchiori. How do you justify this as being the first. You say first definitively. What does Joyce say about it and when?.
    – fundagain
    Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 18:25
  • I think the part of your answer on the Joyce accusation, may be open to legitimate challenge. That Pound had to talk Eliot out of a toilet scene speaks volumes to the direct line from Joyce to Eliot.
    – fundagain
    Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 18:39
  • By "first" I mean "earliest that I was able to find (by tracing citation chains backwards)" You should say that.
    – fundagain
    Commented Apr 6, 2019 at 18:43
  • 2
    Let us continue this discussion in chat. Commented Apr 7, 2019 at 9:36

1. What plagiarism?

The sources of the accusation of plagiarism are the two following articles:

I did not find any accusation of plagiarism in the 17 reviews, contemporary reactions and interpretations from the years 1922 - 1945 included in the Norton Critical Edition of The Waste Land, edited by Michael North (Norton, 2001).

Since Bailey appears to agree with Evans's accusation against T. S. Eliot, let us first look at what he considers the "generally accepted definition of plagiarism" (i.e.from Dictionary.reference.com) and then see whether the accusations by Evans and Bailey hold water:

The unauthorized use or close imitation of the language and thoughts of another author and the representation of them as one’s own original work.

The remainder of this essay discusses whether and to what extent this definition applies to the quotes and allusions in The Waste Land.

2. Cawein as unacknowledged source of inspriation

Evans first claims that "the idea behind The Waste Land (...) was plagiarized from an almost unknown American poet named Madison Cawein". Eliot's source was supposedly Cawein's poem "Waste Land". ("Waste Land" can be read online.)

Evans also claims that

a fair amount of its content [i.e. of The Waste Land], was plagiarized from (...) Madison Cawein.

Cawein's poem is exactly 40 lines long, whereas The Waste Land is 433 lines long, so it is not clear how most of the content of The Waste Land could have been plagiarised from "Waste Land".

Evans then goes on to say that Cawein's "Waste Land"

contains several metaphors that were later used word for word by Eliot in his The Waste Land.

Evans doesn't bother to tell us what those images or words are, but we can consult Richard F. Patteson's short article "An Additional Source for “The Waste Land”" in Notes and Queries (July 1976), which is Evans's unnamed source. (Since Evans doesn't acknowledge Patteson but presents the "plagiarism" as his own discovery, his article can be seen as an example of plagiarism according to the definition cited by Bailey, because that definition does not only cover "language" but also "thoughts".)

Patteson says about "Waste Land" that "[m]uch of the poem's imagery also suggest's Eliot's":

  • "Cawein's setting is dry and dead."
  • Eliot's "cicada / And dry grass singing" is forecast by Cawein's "cricket's cry and the locusts' whirr".

  • More revealing (...) is Cawein's explicit equation of "the grim death there" with "forms of the mind, an old despair, / That there into semblance grew / Out of the grief I knew".

Patteson then mentions "the grief that lay behind T. S. Eliot's own work". However, he also admits that "the use of nature to express an emotional or spiritual condition does not originate either with Eliot or with Madison Cawein." Patteson concludes that Eliot must have read Cawein's poem but does not accuse him of plagiarism.

Patteson's findings definitely don't constitute "a fair amount" (see Evans's claim above). The theme of drought and the "waste land" (or devastated land) goes at least as far back as the Grail legend (see Perceval ou le Conte du Graal by Chrétien de Troyes, 12th century), which is also cited in one of Eliot's other sources, Jessie L. Weston's book From Ritual to Romance (Cambridge University Press, 1920). On Reddit, someone pointed out that there is similar imagery to Cawein's in Robert Browning's poem Childe Roland To The Dark Tower Came - Poem by Robert Browning:

I think I never saw
Such starved ignoble nature; nothing throve:
For flowers---as well expect a cedar grove!
But cockle, spurge, according to their law
Might propagate their kind, with none to awe,
You'd think; a burr had been a treasure-trove.

The commenter (using the pseudonym FerdinandoFalkland) adds: "Amazingly enough, again, descriptions of wastelands all sound... curiously like descriptions of wastelands."

In addition, using nature or weather phenomena to express an emotional state is known by the literary term pathetic fallacy.

With regard to Patteson's last point: whereas Cawein uses the cited imagery to express the narrator's (and not necessarily the author's) grief, one cannot say that Eliot uses this imagery to express his personal grief, even if that provided (part of?) the initial impetus for the composition of The Waste Land. First, The Waste Land does not have a sole narrator but changes perspectives many times; unlike Cawein's poem, it works as a collage of viewpoints and fragments. Second, what inspires a poet to compose a poem and the poem's meaning are not the same thing, even if they are related. Moreover, T. S. Eliot wrote in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" that poetry is not the expression of personality:

The process of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

(...) the poet has, not a "personality" to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.

(Quoted from The Waste Land and Other Writings. Introduction by Mary Karr. New York: The Modern Library, 2001, pages 103 and 105-106, respectively.)

Eliot's view of poetry is relevant here in the sense that he uses images, whether borrowed or original, in a different way than Cawein or many of his other predecessors; it explains in part why Eliot would never write a line like "Out of the grief I knew", or at least not in a way that allows identification between himself and the poem's narrator.

Cawein's "Waste Land" was an unacknowledged source of inspiration for The Waste Land, but Evans's accusation of plagiarism is an exaggeration. Evans conveniently ignores the note in which Eliot explained that Weston's book was a source of inspiration and that the drought theme goes back to Medieval Grail stories, presumably to avoid weakening his accusation of theft.

3. Other sources for "The Waste Land"

What are the other authors that Eliot supposedly "plagiarised"? Evans's second example is the beginning of Part II, which uses a modified quote from Shakespeare's play Antony and Cleopatra (Act II, scene 2). Evans conveniently ignores that Eliot's note explicitly mentions this source and that the type of reader Eliot had in mind was expected to recognise the lines. His third and final example is the line "Sweet Thames, run softly, till I end my song" (the fourth line in Part III), which comes from Edmund Spenser's poem "Prothalamion". Here, again, Evans ignores that Eliot's own notes identify this source.

Evans concludes that

[m]ost of "The Waste Land" was just cobbled together out of quotes from other writers

and that T. S. Eliot was "a plagiarizing cockbag".

In other words, Evans is claiming that Eliot was trying to pass off other people's work as his own. This claim ignores several aspects of Eliot's work.

  1. Whenever Eliot inserts a quote (whether modified or not) into The Waste Land, there is a change in metre, register, line length, language or a combination of these. Even a relatively unexperienced reader of poetry should be able to notice these changes. In other words, readers were expected to notice changes in poetic style.
  2. Eliot had a type of educated reader in mind who would be able to recognise a large proportion of the quotes and allusions. To take two obvious examples, readers should recognise the Shakespeare quotes in "Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies" (Ophelia in Hamlet) and "Those are pearls that were his eyes" (The Tempest). And the Marvell allusion in "But at my back from time to time I hear" ("To His Coy Mistress). Readers were also expected to recognise the Dante allusion in "so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many", as Eliot explained "What Dante Means to Me" (published in his book To Criticize the Critic, 1965). Admittedly, Eliot's notes are not always helpful, for example, because they don't always mantion line numbers or because they cite sources in Latin or Dante's Tuscan dialect without translation. Even in spite of the notes, the poem is not very accessible. In New Bearings on English Poetry (1932), F. R. Leavis wrote about this, "But that the public for it is limited is one of the symptoms of the state of culture that produced the poem."
  3. According to Helen Gardner (in an essay in Eliot in His Time, 1973) Eliot even "wished to go through English poetic styles as Joyce had gone through English prose styles the section called "Oxen of the Sun" [in Ulysses]. However, according to Gardner, Eliot was not a good enough parodist to disguise his own style, so Pound advised against that idea. This is relevant to the accusation of plagiarism because this plan required quoting and allusions.
  4. As Gorham Munson pointed out in his review in The Manchester Guardian of 31 October 1923, "the central process of the poem (...) is to take ancient beauty by the neck and twist it into modern ugliness." John Crowe Ransom wrote in The New York Evening Post Literary Review (14 July 1923) that Eliot used a device "not fundamentally different from parody. To parody is to borrow a phrase whose meaning lies on a plane of intelligence and to insert it into the context of a lower plane; an attempt to compound two incommensurable imaginative creations." If parody is The Waste Land's central process, large-scale quoting and alluding is simply unavoidable.

The conclusion from the above points is that Eliot's use of quotes and allusions is part of a plan, and that this plan is made obvious both through literary means (points 1 and 2 above) and by means of the notes. Bailey, who claims to be a poet, does not mention any of the artistic considerations of using quotes and allusions in his accusation of plagiarism. Evans's claim that "[m]ost of "The Waste Land" was just cobbled together out of quotes from other writers" simply betrays ignorance of literary techniques.

4. The meaning of "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal"

Finally, there is the infamous quote "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal", which Bailey interprets as Eliot "bragging about his rampant copying". Both Evans and Bailey take this quote out of context and present it as Eliot describing his own method. The quote actually comes from Eliot's essay "Philip Massinger", published in The Sacred Wood (1920, i.e. before the composition of The Waste Land). Philip Massinger (1583 - 1640) was a younger contemporary of Shakespeare (1564 - 1616). Eliot's essay reviews a book by a certain Mr. A. H. Cruickshank that (among other things) presents "parallel quotations from Massinger and Shakespeare to make manifes Massinger's indebtedness." It is in this context that Eliot writes the following (emphasis mine):

One of the surest of tests [of indebtedness] is the way in which a poet borrows. 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 that is unique, utterly different from that from which it was torn; the bad poet throws it into something which as no cohesion. (...) Chapman borrowed from Seneca; Shakespeare and Webster from Montaigne.

Poets always inherit from a tradition, as Eliot wrote earlier in "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919). When Elizabethan dramatists "borrowed" from their contemporaries (or from Antiquity), they did not simply rip unacknowledged quotes from another poet's work; what Eliot says is that they borrowed images or ideas and tried to turn them into something that was in their own voice. Hence, the words "Immature poets imitate; mature poets steal" is not about plagiarism perpetrated by Elizabethan dramatists, but about a normal process of artistic influence. (Ironically, since the first impression of The Waste Land is often a lack of cohesion, the above quote could be misread as saying that Eliot calls himself a bad poet.)

Below is one of the parallel quotations that illustrate the idea "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal":

Shakespeare (Othello, Act III, scene 3):

Not poppy, nor mandragora
Nor all the drowsy syrops of the world
Shall ever medecine thee to that sweet sleep
Which thou owedst yesterday.

Massinger (The Emperor of the East):

Can I call back yesterday, with all their aids
That bow unto my sceptre? or restore
My mind to that tranquility and peace
Is then enjoyed?

If we follow Evans's and Bailey's interpretation of "immature poets imitate; mature poets steal" is a defence of plagiarism, then the above Massinger quote either imitated or plagiarised the preceding Shakespeare quote. Eliot writes,

This is, on Massinger's part, an echo rather than an imitation or a plagiarism - the basest, because least conscious form of borrowing.

Eliot knew very well the difference between a literary echo, imitation and plagiarism. What he did in The Waste Land relied on an artistic process that was new and that challenged the boundary between quotes and allusions on the one hand and plagiarism on the other. When Bailey writes in his essay that it is "very unlikely" that Eliot would be able to do the same thing today, he is ignoring this artistic process and putting it on the same level as one non-fiction author copying language from another author without proper citations or acknowledgement. Coming from someone who claims to be a poet, this is simply baffling.

  • Your answer is really nice and I upvoted it. But after rereading all the answers here, I had to accept Gareth's because it was so comprehensive. I gave you both a mention in the quarterly best-of post on meta.
    – Rand al'Thor
    Commented Jul 6, 2019 at 17:51

It appears that the people making this claim overlooked two important details:

  1. "The Waste Land", as it was published, owed much of its final form to the editorial attention of Ezra Pound. This is a well-known & established fact. Further, Pound was a major literary figure in close contact with the other major literary figures of his time: for example, he aided James Joyce in getting A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man published. So he was very aware of what other poets had produced, & if there is any plagiarism in this poem, Pound would be equally guilty -- at the least for failing to prevent Eliot from committing this crime. (And there's no reason to excuse Pound as a partner in this crime: he was later enticed by fringe economic theories, & became a notorious anti-Semite & Fascist. Plagiarism would be a minor blemish in the reputation of this influential personage.)

  2. And if Pound alone is responsible for plagiarism, we should limit ourselves to "The Waste Land" before Pound worked on it. This version of the poem is easily available for the manuscript has survived. An edition of this manuscript was published in 1974 as The Waste Land: A Facsimile and Transcript of the Original Drafts Including the Annotations of Ezra Pound, and the manuscript itself can be viewed at the British Library. (Here is an online copy.) I don't see any evidence that the advocates of this theory worked from this version of the poem, instead of the later final draft.

And by ignoring these two points, those who argue for Eliot's plagiarism weaken their case with poor scholarship.

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