Notes on T.S. Eliot’s Tradition And Individual Talent

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T.S. Eliot

The essay Tradition And Individual Talent was first published in 1919 in the Times Literary Supplement, as a critical article. The essay may be regarded as an unofficial manifesto of Eliot’s critical creed, for it contains all those critical principles from which his criticism has been derived ever since. The seeds will have been sown here come to fruition in his subsequent essays. It is a declaration of Eliot’s critical creed and these principles are the basis of all his subsequent criticism.

Its Three Parts

The essay is divided into three parts. The first part gives us Eliot’s concept of tradition, and in the second part is developed his theory of impersonality of poetry. The short third part is in the nature of a conclusion, or summing up of the whole discussion.

The Significance Of Tradition

Eliot begins by pointing out that the word tradition is generally regarded as a term of censure. It sounds disagreeable to the English ears. When the English praise a poet, they praise him for those aspects of his work which are individual and original. It is supposed that his chief merits lie in such parts. This undue stress on individuality shows that the English have an uncritical turn of mind. They praise the poet for the wrong thing. If they examine the matter critically with an unprejudiced mind, they will realise that the best and the most individual part of a poet’s work is that which shows the maximum influence of writers of the past. To quote his own words : “ Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice, we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”

Tradition : Ways in which It Can Be Acquired

This brings Eliot to a consideration of the value and significance of tradition. Tradition doesn’t mean a blind adherence to the ways of previous generation or generations. This would be mere slavish imitation, a mere reception of what has already been achieved and “ novelty is better than repetition ”. Tradition in the sense of passive repetition is to be discouraged. For Eliot, tradition is a matter of much wider significance. Tradition in the true sense of the term cannot be inherited, it can only be obtained by hard labour. This labour is the labour of knowing the past writers. It is the critical labour of shifting the good from the bad, and of knowing what is good and useful. Tradition can be obtained only by those who have the historical sense. The historical sense involves a perception “not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence. One who has the historic sense feels that the whole world of the literature of Europe from Homer down to his own day, including the literature of his own century, forms one continuous literary tradition ”. He realises that the past existing the present, and the past and the present form one simultaneous order. This historical sense is the sense of timeless and the temporal together. It is the historic sense which makes a writer traditional. A writer with the sense of tradition is fully conscious of his own generation, of his place in the present, but he is also acutely concious of his relationship with the writers of the past. In brief, sense of tradition implies

(a) a recognition of the continuity of literature.

(b) a critical judgement as to which of the writers of the past , continue to be significant in the present.

(c) a knowledge of these significant writers obtained through painstaking effort.

Tradition represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of ages and so it’s knowledge is essential for really great and noble achievements.

Dynamic conception of tradition

Emphasising further the value of tradition, Eliot points out that no writer has his value and significance in isolation. To judge the work of the poet or an artist, we must compare and contrast his work with the work of poets and artists in the past. Such contrast and comparison is essential for forming an idea of the real worth and significance of a new writer and his work. Eliot’s conception of tradition is dynamic one. According to his view, tradition is not anything fixed and static, it is constantly changing, growing and becoming different from what it is. A writer in the present must seek guidance from the past, he must confirm to the literary tradition. But just as the past directs and guides the present, so the present alters and modifies the past. When a new work of art is created, if it is really new and original, the whole literary tradition is modified through ever so slightly. The relationship between the past and the present is not one-sided, it is a reciprocal relationship. The past directs the present, and is itself modified and altered by the present. To quote the words of Eliot himself : “ The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the 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.” Every great poet like Virgil, Dante or Shakespeare adds something to the literary tradition out of which the future poetry will be written.

Its Function

The work of poet in the present is to be compared and contrasted with works of the past, and judged by the standards of the past. But this judgement does not mean determining good or bad. It does not mean deciding whether the present work is better or worse than works of the past. An author in the present is certainly not to be judged by the principles and standards of the past. The comparison is to be made for knowing the facts , all the facts about the new work of art. The comparison is made for the purposes of analysis and for forming a better understanding of the new. Moreover this comparison is reciprocal. The past helps us to understand the present and it throws light on the past. It is in this way alone that we can form an idea of what is really individual and new. It is by comparison alone that we can sift the traditional from individual elements in a given work of art.

Sense of Tradition

Eliot now explains further what he means by a sense of tradition. The sense of tradition does not mean that the poet should try to know the past as a whole, take it to the lump or mass without any discrimination. Such a course is impossible as well as undesirable. The past must be examined critically and only the significant in it should be acquired. The sense of tradition does not also mean that the poet should know only a few poets whom he admires. This is a sign of immaturity and inexperience. Neither should a poet be content merely to know some particular age or period which he likes. This may be pleasant and delightful, but it will not constitute a sense of tradition. A sense of tradition in the real sense means consciousness, “ of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations.” In other words, to know the tradition, the poet must judge critically what are the main trends and what are not. He must confine himself to the main trends to the exclusion of all that is incidental or topical. The poet must possess the critical gift in ample measure. He must also realise that the main literary trends are not determined by the great poets alone. Smaller poets are also significant. They are not to be ignored.

The poet must have realised that art never improves, though its material is never the same. The mind of Europe may change , but this does not mean that great writers like Shakespeare and Homer have grown outdated and lost their significance. The great work of art never lose their significance, for there is no qualitative improvement in art. There may be refinement, there may be development, but from the point of view of the artist there is no improvement.

T.S. Eliot is conscious of the criticism that will be made of his theory of tradition. His view of tradition requires, it will be said, a ridiculous amount of erudition. It will be pointed out that there have been great poets who were not learned, and further that too much learning kills sensibility. However, knowledge does not merely mean bookish knowledge, and the capacity for acquiring knowledge differs from person to person. Some can absorb knowledge easily, while others must sweat for it. Shakespeare, for example, could know more of Roman history from Plutarch than most men can from the British museum. It is the duty of every poet to acquire this consciousness throughout his career. Such awareness of tradition, sharpens poetic sensibility and is indispensible for poetic creation.

Impersonality of Poetry

The artist must continually surrender himself to something which is more valuable than himself, i.e. the literary tradition. He must allow his poetic sensibility to be shaped and modified by the past. Heust continue to acquire the sense of tradition throughout his career. In the beginning, his self, his individuality, may assert itself, but as his powers mature there must be greater and greater extinction of personality. He must acquire greater and greater objectivity. His emotions and passions must be as impersonal and objective as a scientist. The personality of the artist is not important ; the important thing is his sense of tradition. A good poem is living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written. He must forget his personal joys and sorrows, and be absorbed in acquiring a sense of tradition and expressing it in his poetry. Thus the poet’s impersonality is merely a medium, having the same significance as a catalytic agent, or a receptacle in which chemical reactions take place. That is why the poet holds that, “ Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.”

The Poetic Process

In the second part of the essay, Eliot develops further his theory of the impersonality of the poetry. He compares the mind of the poet to a catalyst and the process of the poetic creation to the process of a chemical reaction. Just as chemical reactions take place in the presence of catalyst alone, so also the poet’s mind is the catalytic agent for combining different emotions into something new. Suppose there is a jar containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide. These two gases combine to form sulphurous acid when a fine filament of platinum is introduced into the jar. The combination takes place only in the presence of the piece of platinum, but the metal itself does not undergo any change. It remains inert, neutral and unaffected. The mind of the poet is like a catalytic agent. It is necessary for combination of emotions and experiences to take place, but itself does not undergo any change during the process of poetic combination. The mind of the poet is constantly forming emotions and experiences, into new wholes, but the new combination does not contain even a trace of the poet’s mind, just as the newly formed sulphurous acid does not contain any trace of platinum. In the case of young and immature poet, his mind, his personal emotions and experiences, may find some expression in his composition, but, says Eliot, “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” The test of maturity of an artist is the completeness with which his mind digests and transmutes the passion which form the substance of the poetry. The man suffers i.e. has experiences, but it is his mind which transforms his experiences into something new and different.

The experience which enters the poetic process, says Eliot, may be of two kinds. They are emotions and feelings. Poetry may be composed out of emotions or out of feelings only, or out of both. T.S. Eliot here distinguishes between emotions and feelings, but he does not state what this difference is. “Nowhere else in his writings ” , says A.G. George, “ is this distinction maintained ; neither does he adequately distinguish between the meaning of the two words”. The distinction should, therefore, be ignored, more so as it has no bearing on his impersonal theory of poetry.

Poetry as Organisation

Eliot next compares the poet’s mind to a jar or receptacle in which are stored numberless feelings, emotions etc. which remain there in an unorganised and chaotic form till, “all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together”. This poetry is organisation rather than inspiration. And the greatness of a poem does not depend upon the greatness or even the intensity of the emotions, which are the components of the poem, but upon the intensity of the process of poetic composition. Just as a chemical reaction takes place under pressure, so also intensity is needed for the fusion of emotions. The more intense the poetic process, the greater the poem. There is always a difference between the artistic emotion and the personal emotions of the poet. For example, the famous Ode to Nightingale of Keats contains a number of emotions which have nothing to do with the nightingale. The difference between the art and the event is always absolute. The poet has no personality to express, he is merely a medium in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may find no place in his poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may have no significance for the man. Eliot thus rejects romantic subjectivism.

The emotions of poetry is different from personal emotions of the poet. His personal emotions may be simple or crude, but the emotions of his poetry may be complexed and refined. It is the mistaken notion that the poet must express new emotions that result in much eccentricity in poetry. It is not the business of the poet to find new emotions. He may express only ordinary emotions, but he must impart to them a new significance and a new meaning. And it is not necessary that they should be his personal emotions. Even emotions which he has never personally experienced can serve the purpose of poetry. Eliot rejects Wordsworth’s theory of poetry, having its origin in “emotions recollected in tranquility” and points out that in the process of poetic composition there is neither emotions nor recollection nor tranquility. In the poetic process there is only concentration of a number of experiences and a new thing results from the concentration. And this process of concentration is neither conscious nor deliberate ; it is a passive one. There is, no doubt, that there are elements in the poetic process which are conscious or deliberate. The difference between a good and a bad poet is that a bad poet is conscious where he should be unconscious and unconscious where he should be conscious. It is this consciousness of the wrong kind which makes a poem personal, whereas mature art must be impersonal. But Eliot does not tell us when a poet should be conscious, and when not. The point has been left vague and indeterminate.

Poetry as Escape From Personality

Eliot concludes “ 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.” This Eliot does not deny personality or emotion to the poet. Only, he must depersonalise his emotions. There should be an extinction of his personality. This impersonality can be achieved only when the poet surrenders himself completely to the work that is to be done. And the poet can know what is to be done only if he acquires a sense of tradition, the historic sense, which make him conscious, not only of the present, but also of the present moment of the past, not only of what is dead, but of what is already living.