Tradition and the Individual Talent

by T. S. Eliot

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Last Updated on September 5, 2023, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 454

“Tradition and the Individual Talent” by T. S. Eliot is a work of literary criticism and thus does not have characters in the same sense as works of imaginative literature. Instead, it discusses many individual writers and critical traditions. It should be noted, though, that Eliot’s focus is on authors’ works, not their lives, as he considers literary works in relation to their tradition as important and the individual biographies of authors uninteresting. Some of the important figures mentioned in the essay include the following.


Homer is the name traditionally attributed to the author of the archaic Greek epic poems the Iliad and Odyssey, as well as the “Homeric Hymns.” These works were gradually composed in an oral tradition, and scholars debate whether there actually existed an individual named Homer who produced the versions of the poems that were eventually written down. Eliot mentions Odysseus (the hero of the Odyssey) as well as Homer to exemplify the scope and scale of the Western literary tradition. 

William Shakespeare

The Elizabethan poet and playwright Shakespeare is a touchstone of the English literary tradition. Eliot wrote scholarly and appreciative work about Shakespeare as well as other important Elizabethan and Jacobean dramatists, arguing for the value of the tradition as a whole rather than the cult of a single playwright. This attitude toward drama is brought forward in Eliot’s extended quotation from Thomas Middleton’s The Revenger’s Tragedy, which he juxtaposes with a more general discussion of Shakespeare’s Othello.

Magdalenian Draughtsmen

Eliot offers the anonymous rock art of the Paleolithic Magdalenian culture (17,000 to 11,000 years ago) of southern France as an example of an artistic tradition.


Plutarch is a Greek philosopher and historian who lived from approximately 46 to 120 CE. He wrote many essays and an important series of biographies, which were standard fare in British schools during much of the early modern and modern periods. Several of Shakespeare’s plays were based on stories from Plutarch.

Dante Alighieri

Dante Alighieri (ca. 1265–1321 CE) is the most influential poet in the Italian literary tradition. Eliot cites canto 15 of Dante’s Inferno as an example of the following principle: “Great poetry may be made without the direct use of any emotion whatever.”


Aeschylus (ca. 525/524–ca. 456/455 BCE) is a Greek playwright. Eliot specifically references his play Agamemnon, which details the homecoming of the Greek general Agamemnon after the end of the Trojan War. Notably, Aeschylus—as well as most classical Greek writers—contributed to a robust body of literature concerning the various figures of Greek mythology and history. Though Homer’s Iliad and Aeschylus’s Agamemnon were composed centuries apart, they focus on the same characters and events, illustrating the ways in which literature and poetry interact across time.  

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