Tradition and the Individual Talent by T. S. Eliot

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Eliot argues in this essay that there is a difference between a poet's personality and his art, and that great poetry exists in a kind of dialog with the tradition of poetry, which, for Eliot, means the European tradition. His essay is divided into three parts.

In part one, Eliot articulates his notion of literary tradition. Eliot argues that often what marks great poetry is the degree to which it is able to evoke the poets of the past most "vigorously." His point isn't that great poetry should simply imitate poetry of the past, but that it should exist in awareness of the "whole of the literature of Europe" as its context. In this sense, the meaning of a poem is never created solely by the author; its significance comes from the author's "appreciation" of his relationship to the tradition. In this sense, Eliot claims that the life of an artist is "continual self sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."

In part two, Eliot focuses on the poetic practices this position requires. He argues that the mature poet writes not because he has "more to say" but because his technique has made it possible for him to more finely articulate emotion. He explains this using an analogy from chemistry: how platinum, in the presence of oxygen and sulfur dioxide, acts as a catalyst to create sulfurous acid. The poet is akin to the platinum: through the practice of his art, new work is brought into being, but the poet himself, personally, is unchanged. In this regard, Eliot makes a distinction between "emotion" and "feeling." The poetic mind is a receptacle for recording feelings, which the poetic process turns into "emotion." Eliot uses several examples, of which Dante is key; Dante's poetry achieves greatness not through the intensity of its emotion but the intensity of the "artistic process," which is to use new combinations of feelings to evoke in new ways the universal emotions that form the basis of literary tradition.

Part three is a short conclusion. Here, Eliot recapitulates his argument: that "the emotion of art is impersonal," and the work of the artist is to articulate feeling within the context of the living literary tradition of Europe.


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

“Tradition and the Individual Talent,” one of Eliot’s early essays, typifies his critical stance and concerns; it has been called his most influential single essay. Divided into three parts, appearing in The Egoist in September and December, 1919, the essay insists upon taking tradition into account when formulating criticism—“aesthetic, not merely historical criticism.”

Eliot opens the essay by revivifying the word “tradition” and arguing that criticism, for which the French were then noted more than the English, in his view “is as inevitable as breathing.” The first principle of criticism that he asserts is to focus not solely upon what is unique in a poet but upon what he shares with “the dead poets, his ancestors.” This sharing, when it is not the mere and unquestioning following of established poetic practice, involves the historical sense, a sense that the whole of literary Europe and of one’s own country “has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”

A correlative principle is that no poet or artist has his or her complete meaning in isolation but must be judged, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. As Eliot sees it, the order of art is complete before a new work of art is created, but with that new creation all the prior works forming an ideal order are modified, and the order itself is altered.

One of the essay’s memorable and enduring phrases concerns the objection that the living know so much more than the dead writers could have: Eliot counters by asserting, “Precisely, and they are that which we know.” In gaining that knowledge, the artist engages in a “continual surrender” to tradition, and his or her progress “is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.” The definition of depersonalization that...

(The entire section is 1,708 words.)