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Last Updated on February 25, 2020, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 898

Tradition in Poetic Practice

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:

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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...

(The entire section contains 898 words.)

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