T. S. Eliot is a well known critic, poet and writer who has done a great amount of literary work. Eliot has his own views for judging and analyzing poets and poetry. In "Tradition and The Individual Talent", Eliot has given some significant ideas, which are essential to understand in order to understand Eliot’s perceptions regarding poetry and poets.
T.S Eliot’s critical essays are the one, which cause a mind to think over a situation, he has described. Eliot’s importance as a critic is linked with his importance as a poet. Some critics are of the view that Eliot was trying to make a ground for his own productions (Poetry) by the help of his criticisms. Tradition and The Individual Talent is such an essay in which, Eliot talks about poetry, tradition and talent of the poets.
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Geoffrey G. O’ Brien identifies “Tradition” and “Individual Talent” as synonyms for Eliot. , “the moments of reciprocal constitution, two aspects of the same substance”. Taylor Sharpe emphasizes that Eliot is himself not clear about the word “tradition”. Because of this reason, he is unable to explain the word “tradition” in his essay. The word “tradition” may stand for religion. By “tradition”, he also means that all the European Literature from Homer till present time is a continuity and forms a simultaneous whole. Every new work has meaning only in the context of what has come before, and it should be capable of changing the past. Therefore, the word “tradition” has multiple interpretations, as the critic, Eliot himself is unable to provide it a singular meaning.
Eliot begins his essay with an opposition between criticism and creativity, which Mathew Arnold has made famous in “The Function of Criticism at the Present Time”. Arnold has called for a new spirit of critical thinking to replace the emotional immaturity of the Romantics. According to Eliot, “criticism is inevitable as breathing” and also that every nation and race has the creative as well as critical turn of mind. Eliot’s consideration of criticism’s inevitability gives criticism the utmost importance and that, it should be there in each nation’s mind.
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Eliot points out that “tradition” cannot be inherited and if one wants to obtain it, he can get it by “great labour”. One should have the historical knowledge from Homer onwards, as, it is a continuous idea in the development of European Literature. According to Eliot, knowledge of time and timelessness is necessary to be a traditional writer. For Eliot, knowledge of tradition will add to a poet’s eligibility to write fine poetry. Eliot says:
“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”.
Eliot elaborates the idea that a poet or artist is not liked because of his uniqueness but for his sameness. One should be compared to the classics. He also emphasizes that a poet should be conscious of the main current (canon). He should have the knowledge of past and also try to gain more and more knowledge throughout his career.
After tradition, the idea of “individual talent” is described by Eliot. By “talent”, Eliot means one’s ability to impersonalize art and to keep it away from his personality as Eliot says:
“The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”.
Eliot propounds the doctrine that poetry should be impersonal and free itself from Romantic practices. The poet must efface himself. Eliot also has formalistic idea that poetry should be considered more important than the poet should. Poet’s mind is only a medium, where feelings are stored to enter into new combinations, as, he says:
“The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing numberless feelings, phrases, images which remain there until” next creation.
He further elaborates that depersonalization of art associates it to science and gives an example of poet as a catalyst, which should participate in creation without affecting the creation with its personality and also remains unaffected itself. A poet’s personality should not intrude in the artistic procedure. Eliot says:
“The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates……”
The above quote depicts Eliot’s definition of talent. One who is more talented will keep his personality and art as two separate objects. According to Eliot, poet is not a personality but “a more active sensibility.” He must be impersonal. Mind and personality should work separately. Eliot expresses:
“the poet has not a ‘personality’ to express, but a particular medium.”
A poet’s medium is his mind, which passes tradition. Personality must not take any part in creation.
According to Eliot, art is formed by a combination of emotions and feelings, however, feelings are necessary for the creation. Eliot gives examples of Shakespeare’s Othello, Homer’s Ulysses and Keats’s Ode to a Nightingale. Eliot explains that in all the given examples, it is the artistic process, which is great, not emotions. These works according to Eliot are able to create emotions in the readers’ mind by their “artistic effect”. Eliot says:
“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.”
Therefore, unlike Romantics who expressed their personalities in poetry, a poet should be able to work scientifically like a catalyst, should remain unchanged, and should give value to his poetry instead of his personality. From the title of the topic, it seems that the essay is about tradition of criticism but in actuality, it is about poetic minds.
Eliot, T. S. (1972). “Tradition and the Individual Talent (1919)”. Selected Essays. London: Faber and Faber. pp. 13 – 22.