Tradition and the Individual Talent

by T. S. Eliot
Start Free Trial

According to T. S. Eliot, what is the role of individual talent in the creative process of a poet as in "Tradition and the Individual Talent"?

According to T. S. Eliot in the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent," the creative process of a poet involves sublimation of individual talent, emotions, and personality in favor of a consciousness of and adherence to the artistic traditions of the past.

Expert Answers

An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" by T. S. Eliot, the author's contention is that individual talent must be integrally related to tradition, or the vast body of works of poets and artists that have gone before. He begins by noting that tradition is denigrated and individuality praised by contemporary critics, whereas the truth is that poets derive strength from the efforts of the past.

This tradition that Eliot speaks of is obtained by the "great labor" of study so that the artist obtains "a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence." In other words, the artist must realize that the works of the past should not be forgotten. Instead, they remain in the present as a sort of foundation upon which contemporary artists can build. A poet needs to "write not merely with his own generation in his bones," but with a sense of all the poets who have written before. This makes a writer both traditional and contemporary, and the appreciation of contemporary work is founded upon the appreciation of "dead poets and artists."

Individualism takes into account the whole body of work that has gone before it, and "the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." New artists will "inevitably be judged by the standards of the past." Eliot makes the point that although art changes, it never really improves. Instead, the contemporary poet develops the consciousness of the past. In this sense of adherence to the past, individualism is eliminated in the mature poet.

Eliot goes on to explain the blending of tradition and individualism as a sort of chemical reaction. In poetry, the artist creates a "fusion of elements" that blends various aspects of the past to present something new. In this way, poets express not individual personality but a combination of impressions and experiences, creating not personal emotions or new emotions but "a new thing resulting from the concentration of a great number of experiences." Eliot concludes the second part of his essay by stating that "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."

In his conclusion, Eliot states that "the emotion of art is impersonal." We see, then, that in this essay Eliot affirms that the mature poet foregoes individualism and instead finds unique expression in carrying on the artistic tradition of the poets and artists of the past.

Last Updated by eNotes Editorial on
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

In "Tradition and the Individual Talent," Eliot takes a strong stance for the importance of previously written poetry as the context in which new poetry is understood. Eliot is quite specific that he is talking about European tradition and poetry when he makes this statement, and he views the role of the poet as being familiar with and building upon the foundation established by past European poets. In this framework, the talent of the poet comes not from individual expression or emotion but rather in the ability to set asides ones context and feelings and to channel the tradition. The poet is a conduit through which the tradition continues to grow and the technical prowess of the poet allows them to more fluidly express the tradition.

In addition to the Euro-centric heart of Eliot's model which seems nearly white-supremacist, this model, which calls for the death of the poet as an individual, seems like an incredibly harsh way to approach poetry. No doubt it is a model capable of producing poetry that is meaningful to a certain kind of audience, but the breadth of poetic approaches and traditions makes clear that there are many alternatives to Eliot's approach that produce impactful poetry.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

To a large extent, Eliot's insistence on the impersonality of the individual talent is a reaction (an over-reaction, perhaps?) to what he perceives as the emotional excesses of Romanticism. The kind of poetry that Eliot recommends, and which he himself always strove to write, is an escape from personality and emotion, both of which, under the guise of Romantic self-expression, remove the individual poet, however temporarily, from the Western literary tradition of which he or she ought to be a part.

A key theme of Eliot's, here as elsewhere, is that of poetic impersonality. In order to write poetry worthy of the name, the poet must put aside his or her personality, sacrificing their selfhood to a heightened awareness of the past. Then and only then will the poet be able to make their own unique contributions to the poetical tradition as it has developed over the centuries.

On this reading, a poet is not simply a creator, but rather a conduit for the expression of tradition. This entails a certain passivity on the part of the individual poet, who must allow his or her mind to become the receptacle of inherited images, phrases, and feelings of the past, which can then be combined to form the basis of their own works, their own unique contributions to the tradition of which they are the inheritors.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
An illustration of the letter 'A' in a speech bubbles

The role of the individual talent in the creative process, as expressed by T. S. Eliot in "Tradition and the Individual Talent," is to recognize the long accumulation--the tradition--of poets who comprise an organized whole into which the new poet's mind must be imersed in order to access all the accumulated knoweldge that resides in tradition (as Eliot defines tradition). The poet's mind can then be an active repository for all the feelings, images and phrases comprising tradition until all the particles needed for creation are accummulated, at which time the poet's mind is the catalyst to turn impressions of feeling, images and phrases into a new creation of poetry that will be subsumed into the organized whole of tradition, joining tradition and thereby altering it for the next poets.

Approved by eNotes Editorial Team
Soaring plane image

We’ll help your grades soar

Start your 48-hour free trial and unlock all the summaries, Q&A, and analyses you need to get better grades now.

  • 30,000+ book summaries
  • 20% study tools discount
  • Ad-free content
  • PDF downloads
  • 300,000+ answers
  • 5-star customer support
Start your 48-Hour Free Trial