Last Updated September 5, 2023.
Eliot’s essay stands at the beginning of modernist literary scholarship, addressing the role of the unique writer within a long-standing literary heritage. The tension Eliot discusses centers on an individual writer whose work is read within the culture. Eliot notes that critics tend to praise poets for what they do that is different from others. Yet in order for poets to achieve such originality, they must have a sense of the traditional conventions of their cultural heritage. The English, he suggests, tend to be less alert to these distinctions—to their peril, for emerging modernist works and the prior era of Romantic poetry both contain a high degree of contextualization, despite celebrating the individual creative voice.
To be alert to tradition is to be alert to a larger audience than those who read an original poem:
The historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.
Modernist notions of time and history are complex, but this passage seems to reflect much of Eliot’s own poetic purpose. In his own poems “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and The Waste Land, the speakers’ voices are distinctly of the twentieth century—yet they possess a quality that makes them seem to come out of a distant past and endure beyond the immediate moment. They are part of the tradition, past and future, yet they are not imitations of the past so much as a wholly creative and new pastiche. The artist swims in tradition and must certainly include it in any new creation.
Midway through the piece, Eliot takes on the Romantic notion of sublimity, or the experience of the sublime. Romantic literature praises intensity of feeling as a high attribute, yet Eliot argues against that value. It is not the feeling within the artist, he argues, but rather the the feeling accurately conveyed by the artist through the poetic medium that matters. Eliot’s own love of Homer, Dante, Shakespeare, and the metaphysical poets seems to inform his sense that poetry is best when poets remove themselves from their work and instead focus on the artistic process itself:
The poet has, not a “personality” to express, but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.
Eliot’s theory aligns with the modernist desire to make art a more objective endeavor. Another of Eliot’s theories, that of the objective correlative, reflects a similar aim. Eliot writes in his essay “Hamlet and His Problems” that a poet must find a set of objects, a string of actions, or some other tool by which to convey the characters’ emotions precisely and reliably to the reader. Without the necessary textual artifacts to support a character’s emotions, readers must rely too heavily on the author’s intentions and biography, rendering the work personal rather than poetical.
In Eliot’s view, the more personal a work of poetry is, the more remote the ideas being expressed will be from the experiences of readers. The effective poet, then, speaks not for herself but rather for a wide span of past, present, and future readers. In order to do so, the poet must “depersonalize” the artistic process and instead become attuned to the ever-expanding traditions of intellectual and philosophical thought.