One of the most eloquent denunciations of plagiarism is delivered by Tristram Shandy. 'Shall we forever make new books, as apothecaries make new mixtures, by pouring only out of one vessel into another?' he asks. 'Are we forever to be twisting and untwisting the same rope?' It was not noticed until some time after Laurence Sterne's death in 1768 that this passage was itself plagiarised from Robert Burton's attack on literary imitators in his introduction to The Anatomy of Melancholy. 'As apothecaries,' Burton observed, 'we make new mixtures every day, pour out of one vessel into another . . . Again, we weave the same web still, twist the same rope again and again.' Sterne acknowledged his borrowings from writers such as Cervantes and Montaigne, but was curiously silent about his many thefts from Burton. They were first spotted by John Ferriar, a Manchester physician, who in 1793 published a sympathetic but puzzled essay on Sterne's indebtedness to the Anatomy: 'I do not mean to treat him as a Plagiarist,' he writes. 'I wish to illustrate' - to celebrate - 'not to degrade him. If some instances of copying be proved against him, they will detract nothing from his genius, and will only lessen that imposing appearance he sometimes assumed, of erudition which he really wanted.' Five years later Ferriar issued an expanded discussion of the matter, Illustrations of Sterne (1798), in which he adopted a less lenient attitude towards his author's habit of making 'prize of all the good thoughts that came in his way'. This book promoted a lively debate in various magazines about the ethics of Sterne's 'borrowed plumes': was he 'a literary pilferer', 'a servile imitator', or should one, rather, admire the 'ingenuity' with which he incorporated the works of other writers into the patchwork tapestry of his all-accommodating masterpiece?
LRB 2 December 2004 | PDF Download