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Tradition and Individual Talent


Summary Points
T.S Eliot as a critic
One of the most seminal critics of his time.
His literary criticism can be seen as an expression of his poetic credo.
His critical works may be grouped under:
o theoretical criticism dealing with the principles of literature,
o descriptive and practical criticism dealing with the works of individual writers and
evaluation of their achievements, and
o Theological essays.
Tradition and the Individual Talent
A Manifesto of Eliots critical creed;
First published in 1922 in Sacred Woods, and was subsequently included in the Selected
Essays (1917-1932);
Forms the basis of all his subsequent criticism.
Divided into three parts
o The first part gives us Eliots concept of tradition;
o The second part develops his theory of the impersonality of poetry; and
o The third part is a conclusion
Redefining the term Tradition
The word tradition generally regarded as a word of censure, disagreeable to English ears.
The English praise a poet for those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone
else, i.e.,for his/her individuality
Shows the uncritical English mind; they praise the poet for the wrong thing. But,
. . . if we approach a poet without this prejudice, we shall often find that not only the best,
but the most individual part of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors,
assert their immortality most vigorously
Tradition and How It Can Be Acquired
Tradition is not blind adherence to the ways of the previous generations, not a slavish
imitation of what has already been achieved, as novelty is better than repetition.
For Eliot, Tradition, is a matter of much wider significance.
It cannot be inherited, can only be obtained by hard labour.
It can be obtained only by those who have the historical sense.
What is Historical Sense?
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.
What does historical sense do?
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It thus makes a writer fully conscious of :
o his own generation,
o his place in the present,
o his relationship with the writers of the past.
Thus the sense of tradition implies . . .
a recognition of the continuity of literature,
a critical judgment as to which of the writers of the past continue to be significant in the
present, and
a knowledge of these significant writers obtained through painstaking effort.
The value of a writer
No writer has his value and significance in isolation: 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 the artists.
A poet has value if he conforms or fits in to the tradition; you must set him, for contrast and
comparison, among the dead, but this is not a one-sided process and is not passive
Tradition as a dynamic concept
Tradition or the past is not static; when a really new work of art is created something
happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it.
The ideal order among existing monuments is modified by the introduction of the new
work of art among them
Conformity between the old and the new happens when the whole existing order is, if
ever so slightly, altered in terms of the relations, proportions, values of each work of art
toward the whole
Therefore the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by
the past.
The poet is thus judged by the standards of the past but not as good or bad, right or
wrong, but will be measured against each other by comparison; this is conformity or fitting
in.
The relationship of the poet to the past
To the poet the past is not
o An indiscriminate lump, or
o One or two favourite authors, or
o Any preferred period
The past is a consciousness of the the main current of tradition, which however does not
at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations.
Criticism of Eliots conception of tradition
Eliot is aware that his doctrine seems
o To require a ridiculous amount of erudition (pedantry), and
o To deaden or pervert poetic sensibility
He replies that . . .
Knowledge of the past does not mean book knowledge of literature from Homer to the
present;
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Some absorb this while others have to sweat for it; Shakespeare acquired more essential
history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum.
It is a consciousness of the past which must be developed throughout the career of the
poet.
Theory of Impersonality
The thesis statement: The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual
extinction of personality.
Poetry is not individual talent or feeling but a living whole of all the poetry that has ever
been written.
The mind of a mature poet is only a more finely perfected medium in which special, or very
varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations.
It is not personality or interesting/ great thoughts which make it mature.
The poetic process: The analogy of the catalyst
The mind of the poet is like a catalyst, like a filament of platinum when oxygen and sulphur
dioxide combine to from sulphurous acid;
The combination takes place only in the presence of platinum, the platinum is neutral and
unaffected, the new acid has no traces of platinum.
The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who
suffers and the mind which creates.
The poetic mind
The poets mind is a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases,
images which remain there until it can unite to form a new compound.
What counts in 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
the poet does not have a personality to express, but a particular medium, which is only a
medium and not a personality,
. . . impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways in this medium.
So impressions and experiences important for the man may have no place in the poetry, and
important feelings in the poetry may have only a negligible part in the personality.
Eliots critique of Wordsworths definition
The particular emotions of a poet may be simple, or crude, or flat but the emotion in his
poetry will be a very complex thing because of the poetic mind.
The emotional complexity in the poem is not the same as the complexity of the emotions of
people who have very complex or unusual emotions in life.
The poet works up ordinary emotions into poetry and creates feelings which are not in
actual emotions at all
Poetry is a concentration, and a new thing resulting from the concentration, of a very great
number of experiences, not necessarily relevant or ones own
This concentration does not happen consciously or of deliberation.
Thus there is no emotion or recollection or tranquillity in poetry and Wordsworths
definition is an inexact formula.
Thus 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
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Conclusion:
The emotion of art is impersonal.
The poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work
to be done.
Thus Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the
poetry.