Tradition and the Individual Talent by T S Eliot| Summary & Analysis

Thomas Stearns Eliot or T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) is the most acclaimed poet-critic of Modern Period. He is known for his experimentation in poetry employing new techniques of composition. He paved the way for new ideas and theories in literature. He became so famous a critic that his age is named as the Age of Eliot; because the sensibilities of the contemporary time are finely reflected in his poetry and criticism. He was creative poet and critical thinker who, like Dryden, first formulated theoretical ideas of composition and then implemented them into poetry. He was against the notions of Romantics and Victorians about poetry and literature providing the brand new interpretations of poetry through his critical ideas. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1948 and Order of Merit in the same year, both highest awards in the field of literature. He is the author of a vast body of the works of literature and criticism including poems, plays, essays, short stories, reviews, non-fiction, etc. Some of his major critical works are:
1. Tradition and The Individual Talent (an essay, 1919).
2. The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism: it is a collection of essays which include his most argued essay Hamlet and His Problems; the present essay also republished in this volume (1920).
3. The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933).
4. Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948).
5. Poetry and Drama (1951).
The essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent can be held as the manifesto of Eliot’s most acclaimed critical ideas. He divides this essay into three sections:
Section I: in this section, he talks about the word tradition and what is tradition in literature, its value.
Section II: in this part, he formulated the theory of impersonality—how poet is detached from poetry, depersonalization.
Section III: this is a short single paragraph section in the form of conclusion.
The following elements are dominant in the essay, through it, we can dissect the essay and understand the prominent critical ideas of Eliot:
1. What is Tradition and its Value? It is in the beginning of the essay where the word tradition is explained with negative connotation that it is used not as good entity but as a criticism. Generally we praise poets or authors for their individual merits neglecting the contribution of tradition in their poetry:
“One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man.” (Eliot).
In judging a poet or an author, we often did not pay attention to the part of historical predecessors of that work which is needed to find out the real strengths of that work and poet. For Eliot, tradition is a historical scheme of attributes consisted of age long works of literature. According to him, no good work is devoid of the past elements, moreover, the tradition is evident in any work of literature; every work has past influences over it which binds the poet or that work with a tradition. No author or poet can be isolated from the past. The best work is that which manifests the tradition vigorously. Here we have his own words:
“Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find not only the best, the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.” (Eliot).
Consideration of the past poets is essential for criticism. Tradition is not something that is inherited from the past, it is the matter of toil or labour. It is not mere imitation of the past but to build own genius through it. Tradition is not repetition but bringing about the novelty in literature. There should be a historical sense in the author or poet and historical sense means:
“….the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe…This histotica sense which is 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.” (Eliot).
A writer is an embodiment of what is good in the past i.e. lofty tradition and the present. There is relation with the dead poets which contributes to the present. So the tradition becomes a dynamic process which modified the past and directs the present. Without comparing or contrasting the works of past, one cannot form a judgement on the present poetry or literature. It should be tested through the standards of the past (dead) poets and artists. Further he explains that here should not be the blind imitation of the past and makes poets conscious about the tradition:
“He can neither take the past as lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period….The poet must be very conscious of the main current which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations.” (Eliot).
It means only the significant should be taken into consideration i.e. what was the current of the past and how it can be incorporated into the present. A poet should be conscious, while composing poetry, about the present of past and think of the great only. The past need to critically examine and the great or famous poets only comprise of the tradition does not mean they should be followed. There may be minor or not so famous poets but they can be imitated as the part of tradition. It means, the concept of tradition is not fix or static, it is constantly flowing, changing, improving and contributing to the present body of literature. He provides the example of Shakespeare that how he could know the Roman history through Plutarch and built his genius in literature that sense of the tradition must be acquired by an individual poet or author.
This is his concept of tradition fully covered in the first section of the essay. Now let’s move to his next concern in the second section i.e. impersonal theory of poetry or depersonalization theory.
2. Impersonal Theory of Poetry/ Depersonalization of Emotion: Eliot propounds the theory of impersonality or depersonalization of poetry in the second section of his essay. He states that an artist or a poet should surrender himself to the past literary tradition than to himself. There are valuable things than the sorrows and joys of a poet. He must acquire and practice the sense of the tradition throughout his career as an artist. He must be objective at the same time. The poet or artist is a complete objective person and impersonal did not think his own sorrows or happiness more significant than his sense of tradition. Eliot compares the poet with a scientist saying the work of the poet is like a catalytic agent, only instigate the process of composition of poetry. Poet is only a medium. He explains this analogy between the scientist and poet through the following example:
“When the two gases previously mentioned (Oxygen and Sulphur dioxide) are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral, and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum.” (Eliot).
The poet’s task is to work as a filament of platinum and it should remain unaffected, unchanged and neutral throughout the process. There should not be any trace of personal elements, the poet becomes catalyst—platinum. This idea of Eliot is debated a lot by scholars for how is it possible to remain neutral in the process of composition or writing poetry? But his idea of impersonality seems firmly rooted when he says:
“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.” (Eliot).
Meaning the trace of any personal element must be avoided. He lays emphasis on the creation and not the creator because a poetry can be the whole representing the tradition or the past: “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.” (Eliot). The personality of the poet is not the part of the poetry rather the poet is a catalytic agent transforming his experiences to form hew combinations.
Then he talks about emotions and feelings, the two separate entities but we do not have a clear distinction between the two. Poetry can be composed out of emotions only or feelings only. Further he stated:
“The experience, you will notice, the elements which enter the presence of the transforming catalyst, are of two kinds: emotions and feelings…It may be formed out of one emotion, or may a combination of several; and various feelings,…Or great poetry may be made without the direct use of any emotion whatever: composed out of feelings solely.” (Eliot).
Here we find, the clear use of the words as distinct but do not have more specification of what kind of distinction it has. The personal emotions of the poet are different than that of the emotions expressed in poetry. His personal emotion may be crude or flat but the emotions of poetry are more complex and redefined: “The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all.” (Eliot).
So the poetry is impersonal and the poet do not create new emotions but find them in tradition and transforms them and combines his individual talent to find a great effect.
At the end of the essay, he explains how poetry is not the expression of personality. Here, he opposes the idea of poetry by Wordsworth that “poetry is a spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings….recollected in tranquillity”, because for him, poetry is not a spontaneous activity but a deliberate and conscious act. It is not a formula worth implementing. Most of the time a bad poet remain unconscious where he has to be conscious and conscious where he need to be unconscious; and hence for him poetry is a more conscious process:
“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. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.” (Eliot).
In the third section, the ending, he provides the aim of the essay and concludes his ideas of tradition and impersonality in poetry with central focus on: “The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done.” (Eliot).
Thus are the major critical ideas manifested in the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent by T. S. Eliot who became a landmark in the theory of poetry in Modern and Postmodern Period.

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