T. S. Eliot’s 1919 critical essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was first published in the London literary magazine The Egoist. It was republished a year later, alongside nineteen of Eliot’s other essays, in the 1920 collection The Sacred Wood. Though “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was composed early in Eliot’s career, it remains one of his best-known and most influential essays, having contributed heavily to the founding of the New Criticism movement. New Criticism practices close reading and emphasizes the aesthetic and stylistic elements of poetry rather than the ideological or biographical ones. In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Eliot advocates for the separation of art from artist and argues that tradition has less to do with imitation and more to do with understanding and expanding upon the intellectual and literary context in which one is writing. The essay is divided into three sections, with the first section outlining Eliot’s definition of tradition, the second expanding upon the relationship between poetry and the poet, and the third offering a brief conclusion.
In part 1, Eliot articulates his concept of literary tradition. He argues that often what marks great poetry is the degree to which it is in conversation with the poetry of the past. In his view, to be “traditional” is not to lack originality, but rather to possess an awareness of the “whole of the literature of Europe.” Innovation and creativity are important, but truly accomplished poets must understand how their works relate to both the present and the past. Essentially, Eliot claims that poetry does not exist in a vacuum and that the meaning of a poem is never defined solely by its contents. Instead, all art is in conversation with itself, with each new generation’s contributions expanding and altering the ways in which the literary canon as a whole is understood. Thus, tradition is a constantly evolving construct, one which accomplished poets must give themselves over to, resulting in a “continual self sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
In part 2, Eliot expands on his belief that the creation of poetry is an act of depersonalization. He argues that the mature poet writes not because he has “more to say” but because his technique has made it possible for him to more finely articulate emotion. He explains this using an analogy from chemistry: platinum, in the presence of oxygen and sulfur dioxide, acts as a catalyst to create sulfurous acid, but remains itself unchanged. The poet is akin to the platinum in this reaction: through the creation of art, new work is brought into being, but the poet is unchanged.
Building on his concept of the poet as an impersonal medium, Eliot asserts that great art is not an expression of the poet’s personal emotions but rather an act of aesthetic distillation. Instead of depicting novel or uniquely potent emotions, the poet must instead collect ordinary “feelings, phrases, [and] images” and synthesize them into a “new compound.” This new compound does not achieve greatness from the intensity of its components but rather from the rigors of the “artistic process” that the poet subjects them to. The end result should transcend the more personal experiences of emotion and feeling. Thus the poem arrives at a broader aesthetic sensibility that is self-contained yet converses with the works of the past, present, and future.
Part 3 offers a short conclusion and advocates for shifting critical focus away from poets and onto the poems themselves. Eliot reiterates his argument that “the emotion of art is impersonal.” In his view, the work of poets is not to convey their own “sincere emotion,” but rather to act as a medium through which the collective thoughts, feelings, and emotions of the living “mind...
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