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ClassModernism,7Nov.

2014

OnT.S:EliotsTraditionandtheIndividualTalent

TraditionandtheIndividualTalent,hasbecomeafoundationalessayintheorisingmodernism,by
providingageneralframeworkandcriticalapparatus.Ithasshapedaparticularcriticalcontext,then,
inwhichwereadModernism.Theessayalsoprovidesacriticalvocabularyaboutindividualtextsin
largercontexts,orindividualwriterswithinthecanon.Fromthisderivesacomplicatedtheoryof
subjectivity,EliotsantiRomanticnotionofpoeticimpersonality.Mostimportantly,Eliotsessay
seeks topositionchangeandthenew firmlybackintradition,inanunchangingideal order
remotefromtheparticularitiesofhistoricalchangethatwehavecometoassociate,forexample,with
thedateofDecember1910.

TwoyearsafterthepublicationofEliotsfirst,groundbreakingvolumeofpoetry,Prufrockandother
Observations(1917),andthreeyearsinadvanceof TheWasteLand(1922),thisseminalmodernist
essaywaspublishedintwoparts,inthejournalonwhichEliotwasassistanteditor,TheEgoistfor
SeptemberandDecember1919.Republishedseveraltimesinthepoetslifetime,Traditionhas
beenavidlycitedandanthologizedbyModernistcriticismeversince.Morethanthis,ithasbeenthe
pedagogical foundation for institutionalizing literary canons. The essays two main propositions
concernfirst,themutuallyadjustingrelationsbetweentheindividualartistandanidealorderor
canonofart;andsecondly,thestatusandroleofthepoetsemotionsandpersonalityinthe
productionofpoetry.Itculminatesintheidentificationofsignificantemotion,whichisanaesthetic
emotionparadoxicallyarisingfrompoeticimpersonality.Whathappensisacontinualsurrenderof
himselfasheisatthemomenttosomethingwhichismorevaluable.Theprogressofanartistisa
continualselfsacrifice,acontinualextinctionofpersonality.Thisisadynamicprocessofrepeated
cyclesofartisticsurrendertoanidealorderofaestheticsandartisticresurrection.Moregenerallyit
putsforwardawayofthinkingabouttheindividualinrelationtolargerordersorsystems.

"Tradition and the Individual Talent," the essay in which Eliot developed his theories about
impersonality in poetry, was first published in The Egoist in 1919 and was reprinted in Eliot's
collection TheSacredWood:Essays onPoetryandCriticism the followingyear.The essaywas
greetedwithsomedissentatthetime;theTimesLiterarySupplementidentifiedacontradictionatthe
heart of the piece whereby although scientific rather than artistic procedures are used, "certain
perversities,instinctiveratherthanrational"areexpressed. 1

However,"Tradition"hascometobeacknowledgedasthe"mostcelebrated"ofEliot'scriticalessays .2
ThisisareputationaboutwhichEliotexpressedsomeambivalence.Inhis"Preface"tothe1964
editionofTheUseofPoetryandtheUseofCriticismheregretsthefrequencywithwhichtheessayis
anthologizedandapologizesforits"juvenile"tone,althoughheexplicitlyrefusesto"repudiate"it. 3
Certainlytheessayhasbeenhugelyinfluentialandiswidelyregardedashavingpavedthewayforthe
riseofNewCriticism,withitsattemptatdetached,objectiveappraisaloftheliterarytext. 4

Eliot'ssubjectin"Tradition"isthe"relationofthepoemtoitsauthor"(p.44).HerethinksRomantic
notions of the necessary and direct relationship between individual artist, experience, and poem,
arguinginsteadfortherestorationofclassicalvalues(order,restraint,objectivity).AsCharlesFerrall
argues,hisimplicittargetis"theromanticcultofpersonality." 5Mostimportantly,Eliotinsistsonthe
importancetotheartistofasenseofhistory,oftheadoptionofalongviewoftheplaceoftheartist's
workinanevermutatingliterarytradition.Itisthepoemanditscontributiontothistraditionwhich
aretobeevaluated,ratherthantheindividualwriterandhisexperience.Eliotarguesforthemutual
relianceofthepoetryofthepastandthatofthepresentsuchthateachdefinestheotherandthereby
the"wholeexistingorder"(p.41,Eliot'semphasis).ForEliot,thisorganictraditionisprimary,andit
isinobeisancetothisthattheindividualartistmust,inhismuchquotedlines,"sacrifice"himself(p.
44).

AsMaudEllmanindicates,"Tradition"presents"aseriesofparadoxes.Newnesswithoutnovelty
imitationwithoutrepetition:anypoet[...]must,moreover,bebothconsciousandunconscious,and
thoughhemusthave'emotions,'hemustalsoknowwhatitmeanstoescapethem. 6Indeed,although
Eliot'sessayseemstoproceedbyexaminingandvalorizingonesideinasuccessionofbinaries(past
v. present, learning v. inspiration, impersonality v. personality, creative mind v. suffering man,
tradition v.individualtalent),theargumentoftheessayisfraughtwithcomplexityandambiguity.
JewelSpearsBrookersuggeststhat"thepurposeofEliot'sessay[...]istounderminebinarylogic." 7

1 Qtd.inTonySharpe,T.S.Eliot:ALiteraryLife(Macmillan,1991),p.66.
2 DavidLodge,ed.20thCenturyLiteraryCriticism:AReader(Longman,1972),p.70;Sharpe,p.73.
3 TheUseofPoetryandtheUseofCriticism:StudiesintheRelationofCriticismtoPoetryin
England(FaberandFaber,1964),pp.9,10.
4 Lodge,p.70;FrankLentricchia,ModernistQuartet(CambridgeUniversityPress,1994),p.256.
5 ModernistWritingandReactionaryPolitics(CambridgeUniversityPress,2001),p.102.
6 Ellman,p.36
7 JewelSpearsBrooker,MasteryandEscape:T.S.EliotandtheDialecticofModernism(Universityof
MassachusettsPress,1994),p.220.
Equally, as Maud Ellman, Kenneth Asher, and a number of other critics have indicated, "Eliot's
classicismis[...]deeplyimplicatedintheromanticismitsocategoricallyrejects."Asherproceedsto
arguethat"Tradition""justifiespoetryonalmostpurelyaffectivegrounds,andtheessayitself,read
withsensitivitytothevolcanicpressurebehindit,strikesoneasanemotionallychargedpieceon
behalfofcoolnessanddistance.8

ThepresenceofT.S.Eliotand,inparticular,oftheargumentof"TraditionandtheIndividualTalent"
isimplicitincontemporaryattemptstodelineatetheconfessionalmodeamodewhich,aswemight
suggest,inducedsomeambivalenceinotherconfessionalpoets.Earlystudiesofconfessionalismby,
for example, Robert Phillips, Michael Rosenthal, and Al Alvarez posit a strong and necessary
relationshipbetweenspeakerandpoet,textualand"real"experience. 9Insodoing,theyestablishan
oppositionbetweenconfessionalismandthemodernpoetrywhichprecededitandwhichisEliot's
subject.InplaceofEliot's"themoreperfecttheartist,themorecompletelyseparateinhimwillbethe
manwhosuffersandthemindwhichcreates"(p.44),weareintroducedtoapoetryinwhich"private
humiliations,sufferingsandpsychologicalproblems"aredominant,andinwhich"theliteralSelf[is
placed]moreandmoreatthecenterofthepoem." 10WhereasforEliot"thepoethas,nota'personality'
toexpress,butaparticularmedium,whichisonlyamediumandnotapersonality"(p.46),forRobert
Phillips,the"directexpressionoftheself"andthe"expressionofpersonality"areessential. 11Where
Eliotinsiststhat"poetryisnotaturninglooseofemotion,butanescapefromemotion;itisnotthe
expression of personality, but an escape from personality" (pp. 4849), conventional views of
confessionalismproposethatitssubjectisincapableofescape.Sheisfiguredasthepassivevictimof
hereffervescentemotions,subjecttoinescapablecompulsions,inthralltoherexperience.

Inbrief,inEliotsideathepoetisfiguredasaspiritualmediumforapasttraditionofdeadpoets.The
livingpoetgivesvoicetothedead,buthemustsuppresshisownpersonalitytoachievethis,oratthe
veryleasthemustsuppressthepoeticsubjectivityofRomanticismforitisclearthatEiotdoesnot
expecthispoettoreviveWordsworth.HistheoryofimpersonalitydirectlycontradictsWordsworths
definitionoftranscendentpoeticsubjectivity,inhisprefacetoLyricalBallads,asthespontaneous
overflow of powerful feelings. William Blake, another of Eliots Romantic refuss, warns the
cisterncontains,thefountainoverflows(PoeticalWorks,151).Eliotofcoursefavoursthecistern.He
seemstorecognisethattopushthefountainbackintothecisternisapoetictaskthatcanneverbe

8 KennethAsher,T.S.EliotandIdeology(CambridgeUniversityPress,1998),p.163.
9 M.L.Rosenthal,TheNewPoets:AmericanandBritishPoetrySinceWorldWarTwo(OxfordUniversity
Press,1967);AlAlvarez,"BeyondAllThisFiddle,"TimesLiterarySupplement(23March1967),pp.22932.
10 Rosenthal,pp.2627.
11 Phillips,pp.89.
completed,itisaperpetualstruggle,acontinualselfsacrifice,acontinualextinctionofpersonality.
Butthepoetsself,paradoxically,isinasensereaffirmedbythiscycleofextinctionandresurrection.
Eliotimpliesthattheauthorgainshisplacewiththeimmortalsatthepriceofthesuppressionof
himself,andascriticMaudEllmannremarks,Inthisway,theartistuniversalizeshisidentityatthe
verymomentthatheseemstobenegated(38).