Monday 9 November 2009

Andrew Motion and Shakespeare

There's a story in The Times today about how a chap called Ben Shephard has accused Andrew Motion of plagiarism. Motion's defence is that other people have done it and he cites Shakespeare.

Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra borrowed whole passages from Sir Thomas North’s Life of Mark Antony he said, including the description of her barge: “The poop was beaten gold; purple the sails . . .”

The Times doesn't actually make clear whether this is Motion speaking in free indirect discourse or the journalist's interpolation, but it gave me a nasty turn. I dashed for my edition of Antony & Cleopatra (luckily I keep a copy of North's Plutarch strapped to my ankle for just such emergencies as these) and I compared passages. Here is the full sentence from North:

She disdained to set forward otherwise, but to take her barge in the river of Cydnus, the poope whereof was of gold, the sailes of purple, and the owers of silver, which kept stroke in rowing after the sounde of the musicke of flutes, howboyes, citherns, violls, and such other instruments as they played upon in the barge.

And here (if you need it) is Shakespeare:

The barge she sat in, like a burnished throne,
Burned on the water: the poop was beaten gold;
Purple the sails, and so perfumèd, that
The winds were lovesick with them; the oars were silver,
Which to the tune of flutes kept stroke, and made
The water which they beat to follow faster,
As amorous of their strokes.

Now correct me if I'm wrong (which I never am), but a few scattered words do not a "whole passage" make. It's not even a whole damned sentence. Moreover, those insidious dot dot dots suggest that there's more, whereas in fact Shakespeare now interpolates perfumes for the lovely alliteration of Ps.

My New Cambridge Shakespeare (I can't find my Arden) says that "the verbal parallels are remarkably close", but nothing of whole passages copied word for word.

Motion might just as well have cited Prospero's speech in The Tempest:

Ye elves of hills, brooks, standing lakes and groves

As against Golding's Metamorphoses (which flicks out from my left wrist like that gun in Taxi Driver):

Ye elves of hills, of brooks, of woods
Of standing lakes,

But neither of these comes close to T.S. Eliot's Journey of the Magi:

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp

When compared to Lancelot Andrewes Christmas Day sermon of 1622:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp

This is a trifle more important because not only is it a whole quatrain taken pretty much word for word, but "A cold coming we had of it" is one of Eliot's most famous lines. Not the most famous, perhaps, but it's a contender alongside lines like:

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

Which of course has nothing whatsoever to do with Jules Laforgue's
Dans la piece les femmes vont et viennent
En parlant des maîtres de Sienne.
[In the room the women come and go
Talking of the Siennese masters]

Going through the Motions

1 comment:

  1. When a student produces a work which coincides, word for word, line by line, with say Achtung-Panzer!, I simply assume it is because I as a teacher have very skillfully recreated the exact environmental and psychological pressures which conditioned the original. I have yet to come across a single example of plagiarism in my class.