What is T.S. Eliot's concept of "tradition" and "individual talent" as put forth in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"?
In a sense, Eliot's tradition resembles what structuralist linguists call "langue" and the individual talent or piece of writing resembles "parole." Writers do not invent ex nihilo, as romantics might claim. Instead, one writes in a language that has evolved over millennia. The genres in which one writes are often handed down over centuries, as are stylistic expectations. Even when an artist violates such traditions, such as one might find in a mock epic, absurdist, or avant-garde work, such breaks are only meaningful against the background of the traditions against which they rebel.
For Eliot, what is to be prized in poetry and other arts is not some unachievable ideal of pure originality, but instead incremental and personal manipulation of an inherited tradition, building on what has gone before. Rather than admire the myth of the untutored naive poet writing from pure inspiration, Eliot suggests that the best poets read widely and deeply, and the very depth of their connection to tradition is what allows them to transmute it into something both old and new, deeply rooted in their culture and yet original. It is not the artist's unique personality in and of itself that matters, but rather the way the artist has something—like Keats's negative capability—that allows tradition to speak through him that is important. Poetry is not an exercise in individuality and egotism for Eliot, but rather an escape from individuality.
T.S. Eliot was a renowned literary critic as well as poet. In 1919 he wrote the critical essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Ironically in a 1964 publication of lectures given at Harvard University in the 1930s, he labeled "Tradition and the Individual Talent" a juvenile work, though without denying its statements.
The concepts that Eliot lays out in the essay are that today's poetry of genius is inescapably built on the traditions of a culture's forerunners in poetry and that talent is the poet's ability to master the tradition of poetry and give it voice in new poetry that represents the poet's current day culture.
The poet's task is to study the masters of earlier times and incorporate their genius into his work, thereby echoing what Elliot called the "mind of Europe." Though an innovative new application to literary endeavors, the notion that creative breakthroughs come only following rigorous study of the previous masters had previously been a cornerstone of training in the physical arts, e.g., painting and sculpture.