“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” one of Eliot’s early essays, typifies his critical stance and concerns; it has been called his most influential single essay. Divided into three parts, appearing in The Egoist in September and December, 1919, the essay insists upon taking tradition into account when formulating criticism—“aesthetic, not merely historical criticism.”
Eliot opens the essay by revivifying the word “tradition” and arguing that criticism, for which the French were then noted more than the English, in his view “is as inevitable as breathing.” The first principle of criticism that he asserts is to focus not solely upon what is unique in a poet but upon what he shares with “the dead poets, his ancestors.” This sharing, when it is not the mere and unquestioning following of established poetic practice, involves the historical sense, a sense that the whole of literary Europe and of one’s own country “has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”
A correlative principle is that no poet or artist has his or her complete meaning in isolation but must be judged, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. As Eliot sees it, the order of art is complete before a new work of art is created, but with that new creation all the prior works forming an ideal order are modified, and the order itself is altered.
One of the essay’s memorable and enduring phrases concerns the...
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