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Home » , » Discuss in details the theory of impersonality in T.S. Eliot's Tradition and the Individual Talent?
Eliot's impersonal conception of art and the fullest expression of his Classicist attitude towards art and poetry is essentially given by him in his essay tradition and the Individual Talent. Eliot opposes the Romantic conception by advancing his theory of the impersonality in art and opines that the process of depersonalisation is the process of art's creativity. Eliot particularly objected to the great Romantics as well as Victorians who exaggerated the need to express the human personality and subjective feeling so much so that poetry in their hands became a kind of self-worship. The time has come to react against such preponderance of the personality and the emotionality in poetry and to reinvigorate with objective and impersonal attitude. In Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot spells out what he thinks the ideal of poetry should be. He stresses the ant-Romantic conception of the poetry by saying that, the artistic process is a process of depersonalisation and the artist will surrender himself as he is at the moment which is more valuable. He must surrender himself totally to the creative work: "The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality". This conception of poetry and the poet, is not new in the history of English literature's revolutionised poetry in the 20th century but comes from much earlier times.
theory of impersonality in t.s. eliot


Eliot elucidates his theory of impersonality by examining first, the relation of the poet to the past and secondly the relation of the poem to its author. The past, Eliot says, is never dead; it lives in the present: " 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". Above all, the poet or artist has to work in the long established tradition of the literature to which he belongs. We cannot value the poet alone, we must set him for contrast and comparison among the dead poet of his language because- If we approach a poet with an open mind, we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his works may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors assert their immortality most vigorously. Therefore, it is quite natural that an individual is significant only so far as he belongs and contributes to a tradition and he is as a person of less importance than as a member of the cumulation. His subjective and personal theory are transmuted beyond recognition so that they enter into new combination, achieve new significance.

In the next part of the theory he examines the relation of the poet to the poem; the poem according to him, has no relation to the poet. The difference, between the mind of a mature poet and, that of an immature one is that of a mature poet has more finely perfected medium in which special, or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combinations. According to Eliot the poet and the poem are two separate things and that the feeling, or emotion, or vision resulting from the poem is something different from the feeling, emotion, vision in the mind of the poet. The art emotion is different from personal emotion. A successful artist is he, who can generalise emotion in the reader's mind while he, himself seems to be unaffected by any emotion. In other words the poet should be passive and impersonal I.e. depersonalised in the experience he describes in the poem.

But this depersonalisation process has to be explained and Eliot brings the analogy of chemical reaction to explain it when oxygen and sulphur-di-oxide are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they from sulphurus acid. This combination takes place only when platinum is present, although the new acid contains no trace of platinum. Platinum is the catalyst that helps the process of chemical reaction, but it itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, neutral and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum, it's presence may be necessary for partly or exclusively to operate for the combination of the experience in order to give birth to a piece of poetry. Eliot puts it beautifully:   "......     the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates, the more perfectly will be the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material". Eliot believes that the greatness of the poet does not depend on the greatness of the intensity of the emotions but on the intensity of the artistic process; the pressure under which the fusion takes place. He says that the business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and in working them up in poetry, to express feeling which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him. Eliot rejects Wordsworth's definition of poetry as " emotion recollected in tranquillity ". It is neither emotion; nor recollection, nor without distortion of meaning tranquility. The poetic process is a process of concentration, and not recollection of a very great number of experiences, and this concentration, is not conscious or deliberate.

When T.S. Eliot says that 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, he emphasises the same theory of impersonality in art. The emotion of art is impersonal. It has its life in the poem and not in the history of poets. So,honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry. The poet's biography is not to be studied, the structure of the poem and its evocative powers are important. The poet's mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to from a new compound are presented together. A poet's work is deliberate and conscious and a poet cannot reach impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. The past and present fuse in his work into a new compound and there is complete depersonalisation of his art.

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