Famous Epigraphs and Literary Borrowings
Famous Literary References and Allusions
"Mature poets steal."
―T. S. Eliot
An epigraph is a brief excerpt or quote, borrowed from one writer by another,
which commonly appears beneath a title or heading (like the one directly
A literary allusion or reference occurs when one writer alludes or refers to
another writer's work. Which poets have been alluded to the most by other
writers? My top ten most influential poets would include Sappho, Homer, Virgil,
Dante, Petrarch, Chaucer, Shakespeare, Milton, William Blake, Walt Whitman, and
the writers of the King James Version of the Bible. But I would also give a nod
to less-well-known poets like Ernest Dowson, who coined memorable phrases such
as "gone with the wind" and "the days of wine and roses," and Andrew
Marvell, whose carpe diem poem "To His Coy Mistress" has inspired thousands of
allusions and knock-offs.
Which writers should we honor (or find guilty) for the best (or most egregious) borrowings
in Poetry and Literature? T. S. Eliot confessed that "mature poets steal" so let's
begin with his influences, who include Homer, Dante, Chaucer,
Shakespeare, Andrew Marvell, Ernest Dowson, Joseph
Conrad and the Bible ...
T. S. Eliot's most famous poem begins with an epigraph taken from Dante:
The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock by T. S. Eliot
S’io credesse che mia
A persona che mai tornasse al mondo,
Questa fiamma staria senza piu scosse.
Ma percioche giammai di questo fondo
Non torno vivo alcun, s’i’odo il vero,
Senza tema d’infamia ti rispondo.
Translation: ""If I thought that my reply would be made to someone who would ever
return to earth, this flame (my spirit) would remain silent and motionless; but
because no one has ever returned alive from this abyss, if what I hear is true, I can
answer you with no fear of infamy."
Here, Eliot may be suggesting that he, too, can be honest because it is unlikely
that anyone will ever hear his confession. He may also be comparing his earthly
existence to hell.
taken from Canto 27 of the Inferno by Dante Alighieri
There are a number of other "borrowings" or allusions in the same poem:
The speaker seems to be a composite of Shakespeare's Hamlet and Polonius; he
combines Hamlet's agonized questing indecision with Polonious's pretentiousness.
Lines 13-14 appear to have been "borrowed" from Jules LaForgue: "Dans la piece
les femmes vont et viennent / En parlant des maîtresde Sienne." ("In the room
the women go and come while speaking of the Siennese masters.")
Line 23 ("And indeed there will be time") may refer to the opening line of
Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress."
Line 28: ("There will be time to murder and create") is an allusion to
Line 29 ("And time for all the days of works and hands") appears to be a
reference to Hesiod's Works and Days.
Line 52 ("I know the voices dying with a dying fall") echoes Orsino's opening
lines in Shakespeare's Twelfth Night.
Lines 81-82 refer to the Bible's account of the beheading of John the Baptist.
Line 92 ("To have squeezed the universe into a ball") seems to refer to the ball
mentioned at the end of Andrew Marvell's "To His Coy Mistress."
Line 94 refers to the Bible's account of Lazarus, who returned from the dead.
Line 117 ("Full of high sentence") echoes Chaucer's description of the Clerk of
Oxford in the General Prologue to The Canterbury Tales.
Lines 120-132 seem to refer to Odysseus, who heard the songs of the sirens
(mermaids), but Eliot's speaker knows their songs are not meant for him.
The Hollow Men by T. S. Eliot
Mistah Kurtz―he dead
A penny for the Old Guy
Mistah Kurtz in the epigraph above is a character in Joseph Conrad's Heart
The term "hollow men" appears to be a reference to Ernest Dowson's "hollow
lands" in his poem "A Last Word."
Ernest Dowson coined the phrase "the days of wine and roses" which became the
title of a 1962 movie directed by Blake Edwards which starred Jack Lemmon and
Henry Mancini composed and performed a song with the same title.
Ernest Dowson also coined the phrase "gone with the wind," which became the
title of Margaret Mitchell's blockbuster book and the subsequent movie starring
Clark Gable and Vivien Leigh.
Ernest Dowson with his refrain "I have been faithful to thee, Cynara! in my
fashion" inspired the Cole Porter song "Always True to You in My Fashion" from
the musical Kiss Me, Kate.
"The Waste Land" by T. S. Eliot
"The Waste Land" is one of the most allusive poems in the English language.
Sources from which Eliot quotes, or to which he alludes, include the works of:
Homer, Sophocles, Petronius, Virgil, Ovid, Saint Augustine of Hippo, Dante
Alighieri, William Shakespeare, Edmund Spenser, Gérard de Nerval, Thomas Kyd,
Geoffrey Chaucer, Thomas Middleton, John Webster, Joseph Conrad, John Milton,
Andrew Marvell, Charles Baudelaire, Richard Wagner, Oliver Goldsmith, Hermann
Hesse, Aldous Huxley, Paul Verlaine, Walt Whitman and Bram Stoker.
(Interestingly, Bram Stoker based his famous character Dracula on the
tender-hearted Walt Whitman!) Eliot also makes extensive use of scriptural
writings, including the Bible, the Book of Common Prayer, the Hindu
Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, and the Buddha's Fire Sermon, and of
cultural and anthropological studies such as Sir James Frazer's The Golden
Bough and Jessie Weston's From Ritual to Romance. Eliot wrote in
his original head note that "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."
The symbols Eliot employs, in addition to the Waste Land, include the Fisher
King, the Tarot Deck, the Chapel Perilous, and the Grail Quest.
A Handful of Dust by Evelyn Waugh
I will show you something different from either
Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust.
taken from T. S. Eliot's "The Waste Land"
Frankenstein by Mary Shelley
Did I request thee, Maker, from my clay
To mould me Man, did I solicit thee
From darkness to promote me?
taken from John Milton's Paradise Lost, X, 743-45
"I Am a Rock" by Paul Simon
Paul Simon's popular song "I Am A Rock (I Am an Island)" seems to be a bitter
refutation of a sermon by the English poet John Donne in which he claimed that
"No man is an island." Paul Simon was the songwriter for the highly popular duo
Simon and Garfunkel. Most of his songs were written initially as poems, with the
music being added later.
taken from a sermon by John Donne
For Whom the Bell Tolls by Ernest Hemingway
Hemingway's title was taken from the same sermon that inspired Paul Simon's "I
Am a Rock":
No man is an Iland, intire of it selfe; every man is a peece of
the Continent, a part of the maine; if a Clod bee washed away by
the Sea, Europe is the lesse, as well as if a Promontorie were, as well as if a Mannor of
thy friends or of thine owne were; any mans death diminishes me, because I am
involved in Mankinde; And therefore never send to know for whom the bell tolls;
It tolls for thee.
taken from a sermon by John Donne
The Sun Also Rises by Ernest Hemingway
What profit hath a man of all his labour which he taketh under the sun? One
generation passeth away, and another generation cometh: but the earth abideth
for ever. The sun also ariseth, and the sun goeth down, and hasteth to his place
where he arose...
taken from Ecclesiastes
Catch-22 by Joseph Heller
The title of Joseph Heller's satirical novel has taken on a life of its own. A
"catch-22" proposition is one that cannot be resolved successfully. For
instance, according to the Bible, Adam and Eve were put in a catch-22 situation
because they lacked the knowledge of good and evil, and the only way they could
acquire the knowledge of good and evil required them to suffer and die.
coined by Joseph Heller
"Trojan horse" by Homer and Virgil
The term "Trojan horse" refers to the hollow horse which, according to the poets
Homer and Virgil, the ancient Greeks used to dupe the city of Troy, ending in
taken from the Odyssey and the Aeneid
"Big Brother" by George Orwell
In 1984, George Orwell's dystopian novel published in 1949, Big Brother
is the personification of the power of an all-seeing, all-intrusive,
all-controlling state. When Donald Trump threatens to monitor Muslims, he is
fulfilling the bleak prophecy of George Orwell that governments will always
meddle in the lives of nonconformists.
coined by George Orwell
"Tilting at windmills" and "quixotic" by
Don Quixote, the quixotic main character of Miguel Cervantes' classic novel
published in 1605, attacks windmills that he believes to be giants.
coined by Miguel Cervantes
"After the Persian" by Louise Bogan
"After the Persian" refers to the waxing and waning moon of the ancient Epic
taken from the Epic of Gilgamesh
The House of Mirth by Edith Wharton
The heart of the wise is in the house of mourning, but the heart of fools is in
the house of mirth.
taken from Ecclesiastes