How might one briefly outline T. S. Eliot's ideas in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"?

Expert Answers
vangoghfan eNotes educator| Certified Educator

In the course of his influential essay “Traditional and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot makes a number of key points, including the following:

  • Ideally, poetic “tradition” does not refer simply to what has been done in the recent past but to the whole history of the art. Serious poets have an obligation to familiarize themselves with the history of poetry, and doing so requires hard work. Merely and slavishly imitating one’s immediate predecessors is not at all the kind of attention to tradition that Eliot values.
  • The serious poet must write with a strong sense of the present but also with a strong sense of the best aspects of past writing; the poet must somehow help to imbue the writing s/he does today with an awareness of the best previous writing, over hundreds and even thousands of years.  As Eliot puts it,

the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence.

  • To properly value a poet’s work, readers and critics must compare it with all the best poetry that has been done before:

You cannot value [the poet] alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead.

  • Any really important new work of poetry inevitably affects our view of all the best poetry written in the past. Just as we compare and contrast a new work with the works of the past, so we now compare and contrast that new work to the works of the traditional canon. Our view of past works affects our view of the new work, and vice versa.
  • The focus of the best criticism should not be the life of the poet but on the actual poetry s/he has written.
  • The best poetry is not merely personal self-expression but is the achievement of a kind of impersonal art, in which the artistry is most important. What matters is not what the poet personally felt but what the poet was able to get down effectively on paper:

To divert interest from the poet to the poetry is a laudable aim: for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good and bad.



Further Reading:
monu12 | Student

Eliot's "Tradition and Individual Talent" is one of the critical essay in which Eliot has described the concept of tradition, individual talent, emotion and poetry as well as his concept of depersonalized art. In the opening of the essay, Eliot defines tradition, as a literary history. He says that each and every nation has it's individual genius who create literature. So many such individual writers produce a big bulk of writing which is tradition.



In other words, tradition is the matter of past that is even related to present since it is in the process of formation. Eliot gives an example of English literature produced from the Anglo Saxon period up to the present day. It is like a wall where there are so many bricks working commonly. Eliot also says that when a writer comes to write at present. He should be aware of the tradition. To learn the tradition he should have a great labor but he should not imitate it. Learning the tradition is also called historical sense that is necessary to the present writer, because tradition as the past influences.

Read the study guide:
Tradition and the Individual Talent

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