Great poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil (W. H. Davenport Adams, June 1892)

ADSGarson O'Toole adsgarsonotoole at GMAIL.COM
Wed Mar 6 20:19:37 UTC 2013

Steve Jobs endorsed a popular and controversial aphorism about the
process of innovation that he attributed to Pablo Picasso:

Good artists copy; great artists steal.

There were multi-million dollar lawsuits between Apple, Microsoft, and
Xerox hinging on the originality of the graphical user interface of
the Macintosh operating system (OS), the Microsoft Windows OS, and the
Xerox Star OS (and research prototypes). So, the comment of Jobs was
especially provocative.

I have not found any evidence for assigning the adage to Picasso.
Perhaps he said it in Spanish and it did not make it into English for
many years. Or perhaps Jobs was confused. Help on this question would
be welcome.

I located a precursor to the maxim in an article titled "Imitators and
Plagiarists" published in The Gentleman's Magazine in 1892. The author
was W. H. Davenport Adams, and the terminology he used was transposed:
"to imitate" was commendable, but "to steal" was unworthy. Adams
extolled the works of the famed poet Alfred Tennyson, and presented
several examples in which Tennyson constructed his verses using the
efforts of his artistic antecedents as a resource. In the following
passage Adams referred to his aphorism as a "canon", and he placed it
between quotation marks.

[ref] 1892 June, The Gentleman's Magazine, Volume 272, Imitators and
Plagiarists (Part 2 of 2) by W. H. Davenport Adams, Start Page 613,
Quote Page 627 and 628, Published by Chatto & Windus, Piccadilly,
London. (Google Books full view) link [/ref]

[Begin excerpt]
Of Tennyson's assimilative method, when he adopts an image or a
suggestion from a predecessor, and works it up into his own glittering
fabric, I shall give a few instances, offering as the result and
summing up of the preceding inquiries a modest canon: "That great
poets imitate and improve, whereas small ones steal and spoil."
[End excerpt]

Different versions of the saying were employed by (or attributed to)
T. S. Eliot, Lionel Trilling, Igor Stravinsky, and William Faulkner.
There is a post on the Quote Investigator website on this topic:

Relevant cites before 1892 would be interesting to me. Evidence that
Picasso used the expression would be interesting. Jobs used the adage
in April 1988. Earlier instances by Jobs would interest me.

Thanks for reading,

The American Dialect Society -

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