Selected Essays, 1917-1932 Themes

Themes

Tradition
Selected Essays, 1917-1932 begins with what is probably the most important theme of the collection: tradition. Eliot has a complex and personal idea of tradition, but mainly he refers to the vast canon of literature written by great authors of the past. He does not specifically mean literature written in English, but he does mean "Western classical’’ literature, from the ancient Greeks to Seneca, Dante, Chaucer, the Renaissance writers, Dryden, and Pope, through the romantics and the Victorians. In other words, tradition in Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is literature that Eliot considers of the highest order, literature he deems important for modern English writers and critics to have read.

Eliot is one among many famous critics to have established such an idea of tradition; even in selecting and revising the list of important works, he heavily relies on such writers as Matthew Arnold, who is famous for identifying the classical literary canon in Victorian times. This seems somewhat
ironic, since modernism, the literary movement of which Eliot is considered a great leader, is generally thought to break from the past. Eliot makes clear in his description of the importance of tradition, however, that writers of his time should only break with the very recent past, the age immediately before theirs, which Eliot considers to have gone astray in artistic principles. Indeed, Eliot finds art meaningless unless it is placed within the broad context of literary history. Literature finds its value in the way it communicates with the past. Eliot writes:

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.

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(The entire section is 755 words.)