Wednesday, October 23, 2013

Tradition as Muse

The recent brief uproar on plagiarism still vexes me. There was much public condemnation of poetic processes which involved shallow reworkings, borrowings, appropriation, and theft - choose your terminology to match your level of moral outrage. The first instance that came to my attention was the case of an Australian poet who had apparently lifted phrases from a considerable number of sources to concoct a prize-winning poem.

How would such a process work? One might start with some simple idea, such as that writing a poem is a lot of hard work, a struggle like that of Sisyphus, and thinking of "ars longa" one could take some relevant lines from an established and competent poet ... let's take Longfellow ...

Art is long, and Time is fleeting,
  And our hearts, though stout and brave,
Still, like muffled drums, are beating
  Funeral marches to the grave

And now that we are thinking of funerals, graves, and cemeteries, Thomas Gray's Elegy could very easily spring to mind, so let's grab a few lines from there ...

Full many a gem of purest ray serene,
The dark unfathomed caves of ocean bear:
Full many a flower is born to blush unseen,
And waste its sweetness on the desert air.

We might decide to jettison the image of the ocean and say that the gems are hidden far from picks and drills ... that might even be an improvement, keeping the imagery earthy.

Now we can put the whole thing together: the Sisyphus, the Longfellow, and the Gray. If we then translate the whole thing into French and smooth out the sound of it, we end up with a passable pastiche.

Pour soulever un poids si lourd,
Sisyphe, il faudrait ton courage!
Bien qu'on ait du coeur à l'ouvrage,
L'Art est long et le Temps est court.
Loin des sépultures célèbres,
Vers un cimetière isolé,
Mon coeur, comme un tambour voilé,
Va battant des marches funèbres.
— Maint joyau dort enseveli
Dans les ténèbres et l'oubli,
Bien loin des pioches et des sondes;
Mainte fleur épanche à regret
Son parfum doux comme un secret
Dans les solitudes profondes.

— Charles Baudelaire (plagiaire??)

Geoffrey Grigson noted these borrowings in his note-book published as The Private Art.