Selected Essays, 1917-1932 Themes
Selected Essays, 1917-1932 begins with what is probably the most important theme of the collection: tradition. Eliot has a complex and personal idea of tradition, but mainly he refers to the vast canon of literature written by great authors of the past. He does not specifically mean literature written in English, but he does mean "Western classical’’ literature, from the ancient Greeks to Seneca, Dante, Chaucer, the Renaissance writers, Dryden, and Pope, through the romantics and the Victorians. In other words, tradition in Selected Essays, 1917-1932 is literature that Eliot considers of the highest order, literature he deems important for modern English writers and critics to have read.
Eliot is one among many famous critics to have established such an idea of tradition; even in selecting and revising the list of important works, he heavily relies on such writers as Matthew Arnold, who is famous for identifying the classical literary canon in Victorian times. This seems somewhat
ironic, since modernism, the literary movement of which Eliot is considered a great leader, is generally thought to break from the past. Eliot makes clear in his description of the importance of tradition, however, that writers of his time should only break with the very recent past, the age immediately before theirs, which Eliot considers to have gone astray in artistic principles. Indeed, Eliot finds art meaningless unless it is placed within the broad context of literary history. Literature finds its value in the way it communicates with the past. Eliot writes:
Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.
Although this sounds like a simple idea, it has very subtle and complicated results; it is the reason for Eliot's constant and difficult allusions and comparisons to so many different works, authors, and literary movements. Because of his concept of tradition, Eliot analyzes each single work only as a single part of the grand, shifting meaning of literature. In fact, it is difficult to appreciate Eliot's criticism of a single work without understanding his greater concept of the purpose of Western literature. Although it begins with the concept of ‘‘a continual extinction of personality'' on the part of the poet in order to fit in with tradition, this concept changes and gradually develops Selected Essays, 1917-1932.
Eliot is interested throughout his essays in the merging of poetry and dramatics. He continually stresses the aesthetic ideal of beautiful verse and sophisticated use of language merged with realistic characters in compelling situations. The essays in section 2, especially, point out that a literary form, or convention, established by like-minded artists of a generation is necessary for great dramatic poetry to succeed. Often, Eliot judges writers almost entirely by how well they accomplish this feat; for Eliot, the two must coexist in all great pieces of literature. Essays on novelists like Dickens or...
(The entire section is 755 words.)