T.S.Eliot: Tradition and Individual Talent
T.S.Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent” was published in 1919 in The Egoist - the Times Literary supplement. Later, the essay was published in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism in 1920/2. This essay is described by David Lodge as the most celebrated critical essay in the English of the 20th century. The essay is divided into three main sections: the first gives us Eliot’s concept of tradition; the second exemplifies his theory of depersonalization and poetry. and in the third part he concludes the debate by saying that the poets sense of tradition and the impersonality of poetry are complementary things.
At the outset of the essay, Eliot asserts that the word ‘tradition’ is not a very favourable term with the English who generally utilize the same as a term of censure. The English do not possess a orientation towards criticism as the French do, they praise a poet for those aspects of the work that are individualistic. However, they fail to realize that the best and the most individual part of the poet’s work is that reflects maximum influence of writers of the past. Tradition does not imply a blind adherence to the literary tradition of the past tradition. This would amount to mere copying or slavish imitation.
For Eliot, Tradition has a three-fold significance. Firstly, tradition cannot be inherited and involves a great deal of labour and erudition. Secondly, it involves the historical sense which involves apperception not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence. Thirdly, the historical sense enables a writer to write not only with his own generation in mind, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer down to the literature of his own country forms a continuous literary tradition.
As claimed by Chris Baldick that Eliot had created an inverted literary history in which history being second to the permanent quality of literature, is readjusted to accommodate it to literature. Therefore Eliot’s conception of history is a dynamic one and not static; and is forever in a state of flux.
(1) In English literary criticism ‘Tradition’ is used as a phrase of censure.
(2) Criticism is indispensable creative activity.
(3) The Importance of Tradition to Individual Talent.
Eliot says that the Englishmen have a tendency to insist, when they praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles any one else. In these aspects of his work they try to find out what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of that man. They try to find out the difference of the poet with his contemporaries and predecessors, especially with his immediate predecessors. They try to find out something that can be separated in order to be enjoyed.
But if we study the poet without bias or prejudice, we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality forcefully and vigorously. We find the dead poets in the present poets not in their impressionable period of adolescence but in the period of their full maturity. According to Eliot tradition and individual talent are not separate entity. They are inseparable and hence go together.
To him knowledge of tradition plays vital role in the development of personal talent. He writes, “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves the historical sense.” This means: “the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”
A creative artist, though he lives in a particular milieu, does not work merely with his own generation in view. He does not take his own age, or the literature of that period only as a separate identity, but acts with the conviction that in general the whole literature of the continent from the classical age of the Greeks onwards and in particular the literature of his own country, is to be take as a harmonious whole. His own creative efforts are not apart from it but a part of it.
The close relationship and interdependence of the past and the present: Eliot gives importance to the interdependence of past and the present. He finds not contradictory but supplementary elements in the co-relationship of the past and the present. He expresses his views as follows:
“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a principle of æsthetic, not merely historical criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.”
The relationship of a poet’s work to the great works of the past:
Eliot is of the view that the present work of art should not be judged by the standards of the past. The present work ay or may not conform to the standards of the past, but it should not decide whether the work of art is good or bad. Eliot explains it as, “In a peculiar sense he(modern writer) will be aware also that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated, by them; not judged to be as good as, or worse or better than, the dead; and certainly not judged by the canons of dead critics. It is a judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other. To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art. And we do not quite say that the new is more valuable because it fits in; but its fitting in is a test of its value—a test, it is true, which can only be slowly and cautiously applied, for we are none of us infallible judges of conformity. We say: it appears to conform, and is perhaps individual, or it appears individual, and may conform; but we are hardly likely to find that it is one and not the other.”
Literature as continuity:
To be traditional in Eliot’s sense means to be conscious of the main current of art and poetry. The poem must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the mot distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He writes: “The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past's awareness of itself cannot show.”
Eliot covers the possible objection that his doctrine requires a ridiculous amount of erudition and that much learning deadens or perverts poetic sensibility. He says that there is a distinction between knowledge and pedantry. “Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential histories from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum”. What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career.
His theory of Depersonalization:
He starts the second part of his essay with:
“Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry”.
The artist or the poet adopts the process of depersonalization, which is “a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
There still remain to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to sense of tradition.
Eliot explains this by comparing it to a chemical process – “The analogy was that of the catalyst. When the two gases Oxygen and Sulphur dioxide, are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”
The elements of the experience of the poet are of two kinds – emotions and feelings. They are the elements which entering the presence of the poet’s mind and acting as a catalyst, go to the making of a work of art. The final effect produced by a work of art may be formed out of several emotions into one, it may be formed out of a single emotions or out of the feelings invoked in the poet by various words and images. Thus the poet’s mind is a receptacle(container) for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles, which can unite to form a new compound, are present together.
- Eliot explains his theory of depersonalization more elaborately. He elaborates his idea by saying that the emaotions and experiences in the art are differenct than the emotions and experiences of the artist. He writes: “If you compare several representative passages of the greatest poetry you see how great is the variety of types of combination, and also how completely any semi-ethical criterion of "sublimity" misses the mark. For it is not the "greatness," the intensity, of the emotions, the components, but the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place, that counts.” He further writes: “The poet has, not a "personality" to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.”
It is not in his (artist) personal emotions, the emotions provoked by particular events in his life, that the poet is in any way remarkable or interesting. His particular emotions may be simple, or crude, or flat. The emotion in his poetry will be a very complex thing, but not with the complexity of the emotions of people who have very complex or unusual emotions in life. One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse. The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Consequently, we must believe that "emotion recollected in tranquility" is an inexact formula. For it is neither emotion, nor recollection, nor, without distortion of meaning, tranquility. It is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great number of experiences which to the practical and active person would not seem to be experiences at all; it is a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation. These experiences are not "recollected," and they finally unite in an atmosphere which is "tranquil" only in that it is a passive attending upon the event. Of course this is not quite the whole story. There is a great deal, in the writing of poetry, which must be conscious and deliberate. In fact, the bad poet is usually unconscious where he ought to be conscious and conscious where he ought to be unconscious. Both errors tend to make him "personal." Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.
In the last section of this essay, Eliot says that the poets sense of tradition and the impersonality of poetry are complementary things. Eliot writes: “To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad.”
Finally he end his essay with: “very few know when there is expression of significant emotion, emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.”
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.)
• Brooks, Harold Fletcher. T. S. Eliot as Literary Critic. London: C. Woolf, 1987. • Rainey, Lawrence S. Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998. • Shusterman, Richard. T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism. London: Duchworth, 1988. • "T. S. Eliot." The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.