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Please discuss T. S. Eliot's Objective Theory in reference to his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent." What influenced Eliot's critical theories?

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Kale Emmerich eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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T. S. Eliot's Objective Theory essentially states that a poem or piece of literature should have a sense of inevitability. The idea is that the feelings and emotions should be clear and directly linked with actions, to the point where the outcome is a logical conclusion and understanding of the individual's emotions or motivations. In terms of a poem, while the emotions and experiences of the poet are all swirling around as a many-layered thing, the final result should be a cohesive expression of a unified idea. A poem should express one concept or emotion. It can be an incredibly unique and complex one, but there should be an overarching tone or mood to a successful piece of poetry.

In terms of storytelling, there should be objective and clear motivations and emotions. Eliot analyzes the play Hamlet and concludes that the character of Hamlet is poorly written, because his emotions and choices are not indicative of the events that happen to him in the story. Lady Macbeth is juxtaposed against this, though, as someone that is successfully written—the events of the story lead to a natural response, and the reader or observer can relate and, presumably, would take similar actions given the same set of circumstances.

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Karen P.L. Hardison eNotes educator | Certified Educator

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T. S. Eliot’s Objective Theory stated, in the simplest terms, that whereas poetry for the romantic poets was the product of emotion, thus a manifestation of emotional pleasure or pain, poetry was in reality a structure of nonemotional objective unity. According to Eliot, the poet carries within his mind a multiplicity of experiences, thoughts, emotions upon which the poet imposes order and from which emerges a unity. Thus is a new “artistic emotion" created that is unique to the poem. Therefore, the critic is to judge a poem based on objective rationality of the unity created. In other words, does the poem present a whole unit of intelligibility produced from a multiplicity of disparate parts. Think of The Waste Land when considering this concept. Some can argue that The Waste Land presents elements of irrationality and hyper-emotionalism, yet, all the disparate parts fit together as a whole unit producing a poem that is more than the sum of the parts of the poet’s collection of emotions and experiences.

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mstokes | Student

In the essay “tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot presents his concept of tradition and  endeavours to define the concept of “poet” and poetry in relation to it.

As Eliot observes , "in English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence."

Eliot suggests that the English tradition generally upholds the belief that art progresses through change. This is a separation from tradition because  literary advancements are instead recognized only when they conform to the tradition. Eliot, felt that the true incorporation of tradition into literature was unrecognized, that tradition was  a word that "seldom... appear[s] except in a phrase of censure."

For Eliot, the term "tradition" is infused with special and complex meaning. It represents an historical timelessness. In other words, a fusion of past and present A poet must  be mindful of "the whole of the literature of Europe," while, at the same time portraying the world around him. Eliot challenges our view that a poet’s greatness and individuality lies in his departure from the work of previous poets. Eliot argues that

"the most individual parts of  [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets provide inspiration."

This fidelity to tradition does not require the great poet to constantly ape the work of predecessors, novelty is possible, through tapping into tradition. When a poet engages in the creation of new work, he realizes an aesthetic "ideal order," as it has been established by the literary tradition that has come before him. The act of artistic creation does not take place in a vacuum. In Eliot’s own words:

"What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it."

Eliot refers to this organic tradition, this developing canon, as the "mind of Europe." The private mind is subsumed by this more massive one.

Eliot inspired the movement known as New Criticism. These critics used a close analysis of particular passages and poems.