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Imitation in literature: inspiration or plagiarism?

Imitation is a complex word with a long and tangled history. Today, it usually carries a negative charge. The Oxford English Dictionary’s second definition of the word is “a copy, an artificial likeness; a thing made to look like something else, which it is not; a counterfeit.” So an imitation of a designer handbag might be a tatty fake.

In the field of literature, at least since the second half of the eighteenth century, the word has acquired a wide range of associations, many of which are negative. An imitation of an earlier text might be no more than a juvenile exercise: John Keats wrote his “Imitation of Spenser” (generally thought to be his first poem) when he was in his teens. As early as 1750, William Lauder claimed to have identified John Milton’s imitations of a number of contemporary Latin poets, and argued that Milton was a textual thief who had stolen most of Paradise Lost from other writers. Ironically, however, Lauder was himself no saint. He had sexed up his list of Milton’s thefts by inserting into Milton’s supposed sources quotations from Latin translations of Paradise Lost. Unsurprisingly, these inserted passages closely resembled passages from Paradise Lost. Today, a writer who accuses another writer of imitating his work is unlikely to mean it as a compliment. He might well be ready to follow up the accusation with a writ.

There is a long-standing association between imitation and plagiarism. This is because an imitation has from the early stages of literary history often been regarded as a work which has a clear and evident verbal debt to an earlier text. The fifth century writer Macrobius discussed at length the ways that Virgil imitated Homer, and sought to defend the Roman author against the charge of stealing from the Greek. The passages he cited were close verbal parallels. After the copyright act of 1709, legal arguments about intellectual property strengthened these long-standing associations between imitation and furtive or unlawful acts of textual appropriation. And once romantic conceptions of originality and creativity were thoroughly embedded in the literary tradition, imitation became generally a dirty word.

These legal and historical forces are too powerful to resist. But they are worth thinking about critically, since they can have a stifling effect on human creativity. They make us nervous about imitating other people or other writers. In the age of copyright, we run the risk of forgetting a key truth about human beings. Everyone learns by imitating other people. Children learn the simplest tasks by observing adults or other children, and replicating their actions. They might do so by direct gestural replication of the person they are imitating, or by grasping what that person appears to be trying to do, and finding an alternative way of realising that end. Either way, they learn by imitation.

Everyone learns by imitating other people.

Literary imitation can be thought about in a similar way. When someone imitates an earlier text, they are not necessarily just taking words from that text. Indeed, the object of literary imitation is usually not simply a sequence of words, but something much more nebulous: a style, or a way of writing. A later author can learn a style from an earlier author—as Keats did from Edmund Spenser, for instance—or a way of structuring sentences, or a stanzaic form. Literary imitation, that is, does not have to be about verbal replication. It can be a means by which writers learn from the past how to do something new.

In the Roman rhetorical tradition, imitation was a good thing. It was how you learnt from an expert earlier orator, how you discovered what kind of writer you might become yourself, and how you equipped yourself with a set of tools which would enable you to address new cases, new circumstances, and new audiences. Imitation had nothing to do with verbal replication. The Roman rhetorical tradition wasn’t simply admirable. Male orators would present themselves as learning from those they imitated ways of fighting and defeating their opponents. Today, that might look like a parody of masculine competitiveness. But that tradition fed into the work of generations of poets right through until the nineteenth century, and it gave our ancestors an understanding of a key point which we risk losing sight of today.

People learn how to do things by closely watching how others do it, by practising the skills they see in others, and by working out new ways of achieving similar outcomes. Literary imitation can be very similar. The pressure to be original and creative and to avoid the stigma of producing “a thing made to look like something else,” puts pressure on writers to avoid dependency on other creative agents. Creativity grows through learning skills from others. We should not regard it as paradoxical to claim that creativity is the product of imitation.

Featured image: “Book background” by Patrick Tomasso. CC0 via Unsplash.


Recent Comments

  1. steve kerensky

    Have a squint at “Tradition & the Individual Talent” by TS ELiot in Selected Essays. Many novels showing no sign of writing ability are being sold and apparently endless quantities of Austen & Bond spin-offs. Very few people read critics these days as they are too often made incomprehesible by those who have dined too heavily on indigestible French theories.

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