What is T.S. Eliot's concept of "tradition" and "individual talent" as put forth in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"?

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Karen P.L. Hardison | College Teacher | eNotes Employee

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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.