Tradition and the Individual Talent Summary

T. S. Eliot


“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...

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(Masterpieces of World Literature, Critical Edition)

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.”...

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