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Last Updated on June 8, 2022, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 900

Tradition in Poetic Practice

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Eliot begins his essay by offering several corrections to what he sees as misunderstandings of the notion of literary tradition. He argues that “tradition” is a largely unexamined attribute of poetic practice, often discussed only in negative commentary upon works that are seen as too “traditional.” This critique, he suggests, stems from a larger intellectual blind spot: The critical tendencies of any particular culture remain unconscious and unexamined by members of that culture. Included among these untested assumptions is the notion that what is most praiseworthy in a work of poetry is the extent to which it departs from any recognizable predecessors:

We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.

He disagrees with the idea that what is good in poetry is what is new, though he does see intellectual innovation happening in good poetry. Tradition, he argues, must not be seen as simply a falling back upon previous ideas. Instead, Eliot demands of writers an active engagement with history: “[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour.”

Eliot describes the poet’s “historical sense,” an awareness of the full scope of literature, from its beginnings to the present moment:

A sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

Eliot argues that to be timely as a writer—to most fully practice a literature that is not a copy of earlier historical periods—one must, paradoxically, become acutely aware of one’s own place in that larger history.

The Poet’s Depersonalization

As he transitions from the first to the second section of his essay, Eliot turns his attention to the hypothetical poet’s relationship to poetry. Invoking, if indirectly, the Keatsian theory of “negative capability,” Eliot describes an artistic process in which the poet removes the self from the writing process:

What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.

To better explain what he means by this “depersonalization,” Eliot offers the metaphor of a chemical process in which the poet is not an active ingredient, but a catalyst.

Eliot claims that the “poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle,” accumulating images, emotions, and experiences in order to recombine them later. Key to his theory is that it is not simply the intensity of the poem’s emotional content but also the formal choices that its creator makes which determine the work’s power.

In posing this distinction between feelings and the act of their representation, Eliot makes a larger argument that poetry isn’t a simple expression of the poet’s personality. Rather, the depersonalized writer can deftly wield accumulated experience for artistic effect:

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.

Eliot concludes the second section of his essay with a final statement on emotion and writing:

Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.

Essentially, an understanding of tradition and the possession of an individual talent are interdependent. In Eliot’s view, a poet’s individual talent is born from her ability to depersonalize her craft and instead serve as a medium through which the literary and intellectual spirit of the past and present can be channeled.

Talent and Effort

In addition to his commentary on the poetic craft itself, Eliot explores how conceptions of “great art” are often dependent on perceptions of the greatness of the artist. Throughout “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot refers to titans of the Western literary canon, including Shakespeare, Homer, and Dante. However, he does not attribute the supposed greatness of their works to any innate genius. Instead, he remarks that “Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum.” He further explores how Dante and Keats used stylistic and formal elements—such as the placement of a given image or the choice of a given symbol—to enhance the significance of the emotions in their works. 

These acknowledgements of craftsmanship and effort undermine the myth of genius and instead reinforce Eliot’s argument that “tradition” is more of an intellectual legacy than any specific form or subject. In order to create “great art,” a poet must be a student of poetry. Furthermore, if the poet is merely a medium through which the “mind” of society takes shape, then the cultivation of “individual talent” necessarily entails a relinquishment of individual genius in favor of learned tradition, careful craftsmanship, and steady effort.

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