Tradition and the Individual Talent  

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"Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) is an essay written by T. S. Eliot. The essay was first published, in two parts, in "The Egoist" (1919) and later in Eliot's first book of criticism, "The Sacred Wood" (1920). The essay is also available in Eliot's "Selected Prose" and "Selected Essays.

While Eliot is most often known for his poetry, he also contributed to the field of literary theory (hence, he has been dubbed the “literary dictator” by Delmore Schwartz). In this dual role, he acted as poet-critic, comparable to Sir Philip Sidney and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is one of the more well known works that Eliot produced in his critic capacity. It formulates Eliot’s influential conception of the relationship between the poet and the literary tradition which precedes him.

Harold Bloom presents a conception of tradition that differs from that of Eliot. Whereas Eliot believes that the great poet is faithful to his predecessors and evolves in a concordant manner, Bloom (according to his theory of “anxiety of influence”) envisions the “strong poet” to engage in a much more aggressive and tumultuous rebellion against tradition.


Content of essay

Eliot presents his conception of tradition and the definition of the poet and poetry in relation to it. He wishes to correct for the fact that, as he perceives it, “in English writing we seldom speak of tradition.” A conservative on many issues, Eliot was also, as he coined himself, a “classicist in literature.” In particular, his classical orientation is evident in the way that he instituted, through writings including "Tradition and the individual talent," the notion of “tradition” as a topic that is discussed in literary and intellectual circles.

For Eliot, the term “tradition” is imbued with a special and complex character. It represents a “simultaneous order,” by which Eliot means a historical timelessness – a fusion of past and present – and, at the same time, a sense of present temporality. A poet must embody “the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer,” while, simultaneously, expressing his contemporary environment. Eliot challenges our common perception that a poet’s greatness and individuality lies in his departure from his predecessors. Rather, Eliot argues that “the most individual parts of his (the poet) work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.” When Eliot writes that new works are inevitably judged by the past, he means that successful works must resemble preceding works in some way. Paradoxically, in order to appear individual, a work of art must conform.

But, this fidelity to tradition does not require the great poet to forfeit novelty in an act of surrender to repetition. Rather, Eliot has a much more dynamic and progressive conception of the poetic process. Novelty is possible, and only possible, through tapping into tradition. When a poet engages in the creation of new work, he confronts an aesthetic “ideal order,” as it has been established by the literary tradition that has come before him. As such, the act of artistic creation does not take place in a vacuum. The introduction of a new work disrupts the cohesion of this existing order, and causes a readjustment of the old in order to accommodate the new. Thus, the poet speaks to the past, but also, rewrites it. In Eliot’s own words: “What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it.” Eliot refers to this organic tradition, this developing canon, as the “mind of Europe.” The private mind is subsumed by this more massive one.

This leads to Eliot’s so-called "Impersonal Theory" of poetry. Since the poet engages in a “continual surrender of himself” to the vast order of tradition, artistic creation is a process of depersonalization. The mature poet is viewed as a medium, through which tradition is channeled and elaborated. He compares the poet to a catalyst in a chemical reaction, in which the reactants are feelings and emotions that are synthesized to create an artistic image that captures and relays these same feelings and emotions. While the mind of the poet is necessary for the production, it emerges unaffected by the process. The artist stores feelings and emotions and properly unites them into a specific combination, which is the artistic product. What lends greatness to a work of art is not the feelings and emotions themselves, but the nature of the artistic process by which they are synthesized. The artist is responsible for creating “the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place.” And, it is the intensity of fusion that renders art great. In this view, Eliot rejects the theory that art expresses metaphysical unity in the soul of the poet. The poet is a depersonalized vessel, a mere medium.

Great works do not express the personal emotion of the poet. The poet does not reveal his own unique and novel emotions, but rather, by drawing on ordinary ones and channeling them through the intensity of poetry, he expresses feelings that surpass, altogether, experienced emotion. This is what Eliot intends when he discusses poetry as an “escape from emotion.” Since successful poetry is impersonal and, therefore, exists independent of its poet, it outlives the poet and can incorporate into the timeless “ideal order” of the “living” literary tradition.

Another essay found in Selected Essays relates to this notion of the impersonal poet. In “Hamlet and His Problems” Eliot presents the phrase “objective correlative.” The theory is that the expression of emotion in art can be achieved by a specific, and almost formulaic, prescription of a set of objects, including events and situations. A particular emotion is created by presenting its correlated objective sign. The author is depersonalized in this conception, since he is the mere effecter of the sign. And, it is the sign, and not the poet, which creates emotion.

Eliot and New Criticism

Unwittingly, Eliot inspired and informed the movement of New Criticism. This is somewhat ironic, since he later criticized their excruciatingly detailed analysis of texts. Yet, he does share with them the same focus on the aesthetic and stylistic qualities of poetry, rather than on its ideological content. The New Critics resemble Eliot in their close analysis of particular passages and poems.

Criticism of Eliot

Eliot’s theory of literary tradition has been criticized for its limited definition of what constitutes the canon of that tradition. He assumes the authority to choose what represents great poetry, and his choices have been criticized on several fronts. For example, Harold Bloom disagrees with Eliot’s condescension of Romantic poetry, which, in The Metaphysical Poets (1921) he criticizes for its “dissociation of sensibility.” Moreover, many believe Eliot’s discussion of the literary tradition as the “mind of Europe” reeks of Euro-centrism. (on the same note it should be recognized that Eliot supported many Eastern and thus non-European works of literature such as the The Mahabharata. Eliot was arguing the importance of a complete sensibility: he didn't particularly care what it was at the time of tradition and the individual talent.) He does not account for a non-white and non-masculine tradition. As such, his notion of tradition stands at odds with feminist, post-colonial and minority theories. Kenyan author James Ngugi advocated (in a memo entitled “On the Abolition of the English Department”) a commitment to native works, which speak to one’s own culture, as compared to deferring to an arbitrary notion of literary excellence. As such, he implicitly attacks Eliot’s subjective criterion in choosing an elite body of literary works. Post-colonial critic Chinua Achebe also challenges Eliot, since he argues against deferring to those writers, including Conrad, whom have been deemed great, but only represent a specific (and perhaps prejudiced) cultural perspective.

Harold Bloom presents a conception of tradition that differs from that of Eliot. Whereas Eliot believes that the great poet is faithful to his predecessors and evolves in a concordant manner, Bloom (according to his theory of “anxiety of influence”) envisions the “strong poet” to engage in a much more aggressive and tumultuous rebellion against tradition.

In 1964, his last year, Eliot published in a reprint of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, a series of lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1932 and 1933, a new preface in which he called "Tradition and the Individual Talent" the most juvenile of his essays (although he also indicated that he did not repudiate it.)

See also

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