Thomas Stearns Eliot, the writer of Tradition and Individual Talent, is perhaps the greatest English poet, critic, and dramatist of the century. His famous poem, The Wasteland, and his advanced theory of poetry called Imagism.
The most significant of critical essays are anthologized in selected Essays Edited by Frank Kermode. His earlier writings are known for their Motive power to attempt to fuse poetic and critical production. They are the uses of poetry (1933) and on poetry and poets (1957).
Analysis of Tradition and Individual Talent:
This is one of the seminal essays in the Literary criticism of the 20th century. Eliot attempts to relate the art of an individual artist to the tradition of the whole of European Literature. He describes the British tendency of using the term tradition in its deploring sense or as a “phrase of censure.” While attacking contemporary critics for isolating those parts of a creative writer’s work distinctive for the praise, he argues that those same parts of his work may be most derivative of other earlier writers.
The heart of the essay is his definition of tradition, which cannot be inherited; one must strive to acquire a sense of tradition. Then he says it involves Historical significance; Eliot argues:
“The historical sense involves perception not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence, the historical sense compels a man to write not merrily with his 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 country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”
This is Eliot’s concept of seeing literature as an organic whole. It involves a “sense of the timeless and the temporal,” which he asserts makes a writer genuinely traditional. That is, Eliot insists that an Individual writer will have no meaning “alone,” i.e., No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. He insists on evaluating a work of art by constructing the same with the works of his dead ancestor’s works. He argues that a new work alters and changes the “order” formed by existing works and consequently necessitates alteration and readjustment, i.e., “past should be altered by the present as much as the past directs the present.”
He must be aware that the mind of Europe, the mind of his own country, a mind which he learns in time to be much more important than his private mind, is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which abandons nothing in route, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare or Homer…….. Based on this argument, he comes to his assertion that.
“The difference between the present and the past is that the conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show.”
After all, the coming up of a work of art becomes meaningful only when the work is perceived against a literary tradition, i.e., about the past writers. Eliot argues that “it is a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.” Notice how Eliot builds up a debate between the poetry of the present and the past; this also explains how genuinely good work of art causes a revolution in new alteration and changes in the existing order of works and vice-versa.
Yet, one can see the point of relevance when Eliot underlines the need to develop a “historical consciousness.” Here we should see how Eliot comes in the line of poet-critics like Arnold, who did categorically declare that one should be studying languages other than one’s own that is “a poet should cross-breed English with the continental and classical tradition.”
For many critics, this essay is a manifesto of impersonality. Writing about the process of creation in the essay, Eliot states:
“What happens is a continual self-surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”
He further adds:
“It remains to define this process of depersonalization and its relation to the sense of tradition. It is in this depersonalization that art may be said to approach the condition of science. I, therefore, invite you to consider, as a suggestive analogy. This action occurs when a bit of finely foliated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide.”
This is Eliot’s analogy for the role of the poet’s personality in the act of creation. His analogy tries to explain the “chemical process” of creation in which the mind, like a catalyst, accelerates or decelerates the reaction, but it remains unaffected. Similarly, says Eliot;
“It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates, the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”
For Eliot, the poet’s mind is;
“A receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.”
If a poet has to write with any enduring excellence, he must convert his mind into a receptacle for storing myriad human emotions, numberless feelings, phrases, and images. This is the ground on which, in the creative process, various particles unite to form a compound.
This essay’s significant emphasis is Eliot’s call to “divert interest from the poet to the poetry.”
One can’t afford to ignore Eliot’s emphasis on tradition, the impersonality of art, and his organic view of poetry. His idea of participating in the tradition from Homer to the present day is rooted in its classicism. His appeal for a historical consciousness and his attempts to rehabilitate a literary tradition remains unparalleled. Some still believe that tradition and individual talent are a poet’s version of living Babbitt’s Roseau and Romanticism.
Eliot is to British literary criticism what Einstein is to modern physics in our century. He is easily the most influential poet and critic of the twentieth century in the English-speaking world. Eliot argues that a contemporary writer acquires meaning only in terms of his literary ancestors and tradition with which comparison of his work is inescapable. He sees poetic tradition as a growing continue comprising all the poetry ever written in a given language. He can never be represented by an individual poet or a school of poets. He also challenged Wordsworth’s dictum of ‘spontaneous overflow…tranquillity’. He argued that the poet’s contribution does not lie in the ‘peculiar essence’ of that poet or how he differs from tradition but “that part of his work is important where it is most harmony with the dead poets who preceded him.”
For Eliot, a poet’s work is in “The degree to which he fits into tradition.” His most significant contribution lies in focusing the critic’s attention away from the poet, i.e., upon poetry, not upon a poet. For him, a poet does not express his personality in a poem but uses a medium with an impressive way of uniting myriad experiences and impressions in the most unpredictable ways. Such poets’ experiences may not be crucial in the poet’s life but maybe just marginal experiences.
Critics like M . K. Heiser and W. Allston have shown how a term like “objective correlative” today has become the standard term to denote the expression of complex emotions in art. The other term which has drawn global attention is “dissociation of sensibility.”
Eliot feels that a good critic must have a keen and abiding sensibility and highly discriminated reading; on such critics, even the most potent personalities dominate.
Eliot believes that every age should revalue the literature of the past ages according to its standards. This is what he tried to achieve in his career. He has given a fresh interpretation of Elizabethan dramatist, metaphysical poet the Caroline poets, poets of the eighteenth-century poets and romantics. Describing Eliot’s criticism, Watson says, ‘The formal properties of Eliot’s criticism are clear enough.’
T.S. Eliot as Classicist in Literature
Eliot declared himself a classicist in literature and Anglo-Catholic in religion, and a royalist in politics. He is a classicist because he believes in order in literature, faith in the writing system, and that a work of art must conform to the tradition. The new classicists thought that the writer must follow the rules and ancients and that literature must be didactic. In ‘tradition and the individual talent,’ he says the existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for the order to persist after the supervention novelty, the whole existing order must be, altered towards the whole, and this is conformity between old and new.
Pointing out the difference between Eliot and the neo-classicist of the eighteenth-century poetry Maxwell says :
The structure of modern classical poetry is analogous to that of the eighteenth century. Each accepts a poetic framework, and makes a conscious effort to work within that framework. Satirical wit plays a vital role in both, and with it goes a concern for the necessity of cultivating precision of form and word. This requires an intellectual rather than an emotional, intuitive approach to selecting words or relating them to each other and the whole. Yet each of these similarities also involves a difference. Eliot’s system relates his poetry has a greater scope than Augustan classical authority, and it becomes a more vital part of the poetry that depends on it. By its relationship with Eliot’s poetry, the traditional system acquires a new significance, and it becomes a living part of the poetic experience transcribed in the poetry. The tradition clarifies the relation between symbol and object, reducing the need for elaboration and adding a dimension to the poem. Still, it is itself altered by relationship and so shown to be a vital force.
Summing up, despite these shortcomings, Eliot’s reputation as the leading critic of the twentieth century is secure. He made a valuable contribution to the literary criticism. He emphasizes the need for a strict critical method of applying the science of study of literature. He has faith in the draftsman – critic, provided that he possess a highly developed ‘sense of fact.’ There are clarity and severity in his prose style, which all eminent critics admire. He is more successful in judicial criticism than theoretic criticism. He analyzed the works of specific writers with clarity and subtlety. He has a vast influence in the modern age and has influence writers like F.R. Leavis. He has been rightly recognized as the leader of contemporary criticism.
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