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Last Updated on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 630

Introduction

T. S. Eliot’s 1919 critical essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was first published in the London literary magazine The Egoist. It was republished a year later, alongside nineteen of Eliot’s other essays, in the 1920 collection The Sacred Wood. Though “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was composed...

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Introduction

T. S. Eliot’s 1919 critical essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was first published in the London literary magazine The Egoist. It was republished a year later, alongside nineteen of Eliot’s other essays, in the 1920 collection The Sacred Wood. Though “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was composed early in Eliot’s career, it remains one of his best-known and most influential essays, having contributed heavily to the founding of the New Criticism movement. New Criticism practices close reading and emphasizes the aesthetic and stylistic elements of poetry rather than the ideological or biographical ones. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot advocates for the separation of art from artist and argues that tradition has less to do with imitation and more to do with understanding and expanding upon the intellectual and literary context in which one is writing. The essay is divided into three sections, with the first section outlining Eliot’s definition of tradition, the second expanding upon the relationship between poetry and the poet, and the third offering a brief conclusion. 

Summary

In part 1, Eliot articulates his concept of literary tradition. He argues that often what marks great poetry is the degree to which it is in conversation with the poetry of the past. In his view, to be “traditional” is not to lack originality, but rather to possess an awareness of the “whole of the literature of Europe.” Innovation and creativity are important, but truly accomplished poets must understand how their works relate to both the present and the past. Essentially, Eliot claims that poetry does not exist in a vacuum and that the meaning of a poem is never defined solely by its contents. Instead, all art is in conversation with itself, with each new generation’s contributions expanding and altering the ways in which the literary canon as a whole is understood. Thus, tradition is a constantly evolving construct, one which accomplished poets must give themselves over to, resulting in a “continual self sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

In part 2, Eliot expands on his belief that the creation of poetry is an act of depersonalization. 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: platinum, in the presence of oxygen and sulfur dioxide, acts as a catalyst to create sulfurous acid, but remains itself unchanged. The poet is akin to the platinum in this reaction: through the creation of art, new work is brought into being, but the poet is unchanged. 

Building on his concept of the poet as an impersonal medium, Eliot asserts that great art is not an expression of the poet’s personal emotions but rather an act of aesthetic distillation. Instead of depicting novel or uniquely potent emotions, the poet must instead collect ordinary “feelings, phrases, [and] images” and synthesize them into a “new compound.” This new compound does not achieve greatness from the intensity of its components but rather from the rigors of the “artistic process” that the poet subjects them to. The end result should transcend the more personal experiences of emotion and feeling. Thus the poem arrives at a broader aesthetic sensibility that is self-contained yet converses with the works of the past, present, and future.  

Part 3 offers a short conclusion and advocates for shifting critical focus away from poets and onto the poems themselves. Eliot reiterates his argument that “the emotion of art is impersonal.” In his view, the work of poets is not to convey their own “sincere emotion,” but rather to act as a medium through which the collective thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the living “mind of Europe” are conveyed. 

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Last Updated on October 26, 2018, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 744

Only rarely in the history of English literature has a critical essay, such as “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” so changed the way people understand poetry. Anyone who has any real interest in modern poetry—reader, critic, or poet—has had to confront this essay and decide for himself or herself its strengths and weaknesses.

One of the important ways that the essay has altered literary criticism has to do with the meaning of the title’s key words, “tradition” and “individual talent.” In the very first paragraph, Eliot indicates that, by “tradition,” he does not mean what people usually mean in talking about literature; ordinarily, a “traditional” writer is perhaps an old-fashioned writer, one who uses tried-and-true plots and a steady, understandable style. Rather, Eliot uses “tradition” in a more objective and historical sense: His definition of tradition is paradoxical because he says that the historical sense of tradition is a keen understanding of both what is timeless and what is not. A true poet understands “not only the pastness of the past, but . . . its presence.”

This is less confusing than it appears: Eliot simply means that for a poet writing in the tradition—a poet who understands his or her heritage—all the great poetry of the past is alive. When the poet writes a poem, great poems of the past help to enliven the modern work. This dynamic relationship is not finished when the poem is written, however, because the new poem casts a new light on the poems that came before. In the same way that the tradition of great poetry helped shape a new, modern poem, the contemporary poem changes the way one looks at the poems that shaped it.

Another apparent contradiction lies in Eliot’s use of “individual” in “individual talent.” He says that a poet’s true individuality lies in the ways he or she embodies the immortality of poetic “ancestors.” In a sense, poets who know what they are doing “plug into” tradition; electrified by the greatness of the past, they achieve a sharper profile, a greater individuality.

It is important to stress that Eliot is not saying that good poets should simply copy the poetry of the past. In fact, he argues just the opposite: Good poets bring something new into the world—“novelty,” he writes, “is better than repetition”—that makes an important advance on what has come before. To do this, the poet has to know what is truly new and different; a poet can do this only by having a thorough knowledge of the classic and traditional. To have this kind of knowledge means, in turn, that the poet needs to know not only about the poetry of his or her own language but also about the poetry of other nations and cultures.

In a crucial metaphor about midway in the essay, Eliot compares the poet to a catalyst in chemistry. He describes what happens when two gases are combined in the presence of a piece of platinum: A new compound is formed, but the platinum is unaffected. The platinum is the poet’s mind, which uses tradition and personal experience (the two gases) to create a poem. In this kind of literary combustion, the poet remains “impersonal.” That is, he or she manages to separate individual facts of life from the work of art that is being created. As Eliot says, “the poet has, not a ’personality’ to express, but a particular medium,” which is the medium of poetry.

In a third, concluding section of the essay, Eliot draws an important conclusion, one that has been crucial to the way poetry has been studied since the 1920’s. The essay shifts the study of a poem from an emphasis on the poet as a person, to the study of the poem isolated from the poet. After reading this essay, critics would increasingly concentrate on the internal structure of poetry—the tropes, figures, and themes of the work. At the same time, critics would banish the life of the writer from the study of his or her writings; the poet’s personality, as Eliot seemed to imply, was irrelevant to the artwork produced. The peak of this theory was reached with the New Critics and their successors in Britain and the United States from about 1930 through the 1950’s. Later years, however, have seen a waning of the impersonal theory of poetry and a return of the poet to his or her work.

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