Was ‘The Waste Land’ plagiarised?


Over on the Literature Stack Exchange, someone asked for an analysis of the claims that T. S. Eliot’s poem ‘The Waste Land’ was plagiarised.

1. Summary

Eliot claimed that the title, theme and imagery of ‘The Waste Land’ came from 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.1

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.

2. Cawein

Madison Cawein’s 1913 poem ‘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.3

The suggestion that Eliot was inspired by Cawein was first made by Richard Patteson in 1976 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.4

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. For example, Robert Browning’s ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’ (1855) also has a description of a waste land:

If there pushed any ragged thistle-stalk
    Above its mates, the head was chopped; the bents
    Were jealous else. What made those holes and rents
In the dock’s harsh swarth leaves, bruised as to baulk
All hope of greenness? ’tis a brute must walk
    Pashing their life out, with a brute’s intents.

As for the grass, it grew as scant as hair
    In leprosy; thin dry blades pricked the mud
    Which underneath looked kneaded up with blood.
One stiff blind horse, his every bone a-stare,
Stood stupefied, however he came there:
    Thrust out past service from the devil’s stud!5

3. Joyce

The suggestion that Eliot was inspired by James Joyce’s Ulysses was first made in 1951 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.7

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.”8

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:

[Ulysses] 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.

[‘The Waste Land’] “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:

[Ulysses] —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.

[‘The Waste Land’] 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.

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.”9

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.10

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.

4. Tindall

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.11

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”.

5. Evans

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.12

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).

6. Notes and references

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

  2.  From Otto Arthur Rothert (1921). The story of a poet: Madison Cawein, p. 29. Louisville: J. P. Morton.

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

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

  5.  Robert Browning (1855). ‘Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came’. In Men and Women.

  6.  Photo by Alex Ehrenzweig, restored by RedAppleJack on Wikimedia Commons.

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

  8.  Melchiori (1951), p. 4.

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

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

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

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