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Home » , » Bring out clearly the defence of T. S. Eliot for 'Tradition?

T.S.Eliot, a classicist in literature, was constantly preoccupied with the theme of tradition, and it is very important both to his criticism and to his creative work. In fact Eliot was basically opposed to the Romantic theory which regarded poetry as the expression of the personality of the poet. The Romantic theory, which had been debased first into ninetyism and then into Georgian bucolics, did not attach any significance to tradition. On the contrary, freedom all from tradition was considered to be very necessary for artistic creation. 

Believing in the natural and fundamental goodness of man, the Romantics, from Rousseau onwards, blamed the social, political, and religious institutions for hampering man's freedom, and thus turning everything good into a source of misery and evil. Rousseau said that "man was by nature good, that it was only bad laws and customs that had suppressed him." According to the Romantic view man was "an infinite reservoir of possibilities" and not as in the classical view a creature "intrinsically limited, but disciplined by order and tradition to something fairly decent." Following the idealistic view of the world as an expression of the Immanent Spirit which pervaded all living things and all objects of all thoughts the Romantics strove to find the expression of the one in their own selves.

In his anti-romantic attitude Eliot was deeply influenced by Ezra pound, Irving Babbitt, Paul Elmer More, and T.E. Hulme. Eliot believes that the human nature is essentially " impure" and finite. He is more influenced by Hulme who rejected the view of man's essential goodness, and asserted that for really great creative work a belief in the Original Sin was indispensable. In his essay on Baudelaire, Eliot quotes with approval the words of Hulme: "In the light of those absolute values man himself is judged to be essentially limited and imperfect. He is endowed with Original Sin. While occasionally he can accomplish acts which partake of perfection, he can never himself be perfect". Hulme, therefore, thinks that poetry must recognise its limitations and that it can in way be a substitute for religion as Arnold and pater tried to prove. Hulme, like Eliot, found the classical view to be " identical with the normal religious attitude ", and both, therefore, wanted to return to orthodox doctrine.

In the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot says that the Englishmen have a tendency to insist, when they praise a poet upon those aspects of his work in which he least resemble any one else. In these aspects of his e they try to find out what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of that man. They try to find out the difference of that poet with his contemporaries and predecessors. But if we study the poet without bias or prejudice, we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality forcefully and vigorously. We find the dead poets in the present poets not in their impressionable period of adolescence, but in period of their full maturity. Thus, according to Eliot, tradition and individual talent go together.

Eliot's Concept of culture 

It will be here to have some idea of Eliot's theory of culture which will greatly help us in understanding properly his theory of tradition. In Notes towards the Definition of Culture Eliot essays that there are three ways of regarding culture; as that of the individual, of a group or class, and of a whole society. These three are , no doubt, interdependent, but the truest and fullest idea of culture is to be found in the third one of them (i. e. the culture of a whole society), because other cultures derive from it. Eliot defines it as the way of life of the whole society. The culture of a whole society comprises of urbanity or civility, learning in all branches, philosophy, and the arts. Culture is something alive and its effects are seen in the whole society. As Eliot describes it as a way of life of the whole society, it is quite clear that it cannot be found complete in any individual or group within that society. For a proper understanding of the culture of any particular society we have to study the culture of that society as a whole, and not of any one particular individual or group within that society. It is for this reason that Eliot does not approve of any attempt by an artist to form himself upon some particular period of the past tradition, or upon some particular favorite authors.

"The theme of the cultural unity of Europe," says Sean Lucy, "runs like a thread through all his (Eliot's) writings. He looks at the culture of Europe as a whole. European culture is a living growth and a unity of the cultures of Greece, Rome, and Christianity. It is still alive and has a profound influence on the present. Eliot's ideas on culture can also be applied to his theory of tradition. In After Strange Gods Eliot defines tradition in the following manner: " Tradition is not solely or even primarily, the maintenance of certain dogmatic beliefs; these belief have come to take their living form in the course of the formation of a tradition. What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits and customs from the most significant religious rites to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of "the same people living in the same place". It is also " a way of feeling and acting which characterise a group throughout generations, and it must largely be unconscious. " Tradition he says, is "the meanest by which the vitality of the past enriches the life of the present.

"What is Tradition?

In all his work Eliot is mainly concerned with the problem of order as it arises in various ways. In Tradition and the Individual Talent he takes up this problem of order by enquiring whether the works of literature coming down to us through the entire Western tradition from a recognisable and definable order and the existence of which is to effect the creative work of the present. Eliot emphasises the presentness of the past order and strives to show that the needs of the present age can only be expressed in the perspective of past tradition. Again the present also has relevance of the past, because the traditional order is modified by the production of a truly great work of literature in the present. Eliot considers tradition as a part of the living culture of the past and working in the order of the present. Tradition is a dynamic force; it does not mean standing still.

              And do not call it fixity Where past and future          are gathered Neither movement from nor towards. Neither ascent nor decline

The Historical Sense 

In Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot says that tradition is not the handing down, or following the ways of the ancients blindly. It cannot be inherited. It can only be obtained with great labour. It involves a historical sense which enables a poet to perceive not only the pastness of the past but also its presentness. A creative artist, though he lives in a particular milieu, does not work merely with his own generation in view. He does not take his own age, or the literature of that period only as a separate identity, but acts with the convention that in general the whole literature of Europe from the classical age of the Greeks onwards and in particular the literature of his own country, is to be taken as a harmonious whole. His own creative efforts are not apart from it but a part of it. And writer thus learns to value tradition by acquiring the historical sense, which enables his to feel vividly the times he belongs to, and at the same time, not to lose sight of that timelessness that belongs to the creative art as a whole. It is sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of timeless and of the temporal together. It is what makes a writer traditional. It also makes him most acutely conscious of his place in time: by a right evaluation of what is called tradition, he becomes conscious of his own contemporary. This unity of time is expressed by Eliot in Burnt Norton also:

Time present and time past Are both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past.

Conformity between the old and the new 

Eliot says that no poet or artist of any kind has his full meaning and significance alone. His importance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his kinship with the poets and artists of the past generations. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the poets and writers of the past. This, Eliot says, is a principal of aesthetic, and not merely of historical criticism. The necessity for the individual talent to conform to tradition is not one sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. "The existing monuments from an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new work of art) among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea of order, of the from of European, of English literature, will not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past." (Tradition and the Individual Talent)

The relation of a poet's work to the great works of the past 

The poet who understands the presentness of the past, also understands his responsibilities and difficulties as an artist. Such an artist will fully realise that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. In saying that an artist is finally to be judged by the standards of the past, Eliot does not imply that he is to be pronounced better or worse than the previous poets or that the standards prescribed by the previous critics are to be applied in  judging their works. This really implies that a contemporary work is to be compared with the great works of the past, and each is measured by the other. To conform merely would be for the new  work not really to conform at all. There would be nothing new in it, and it would not be a work of art at all. If a new work of art emerges as successful when compared with and measured by the old masterpieces, it is a clear indication of its value as a work of art. A work may be individual and appear to conform or a work which seems to be individual may conform. It will be a fallacy to classify the works of art into the categories of 'individual' and 'traditional'.
Literature as a continuity--the main current

Eliot points out a significant difference between the past and the present. The difference 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." The poet cannot take the past as something remote from him, static and fixed, the past is not again merely such poets and writers of the previous generations which appeal to a poet on his personal estimates, though for a young poet such preferences  come naturally. The past also does not mean any particular preferred period of literature. To be traditional in Eliot's sense means to be conscious of the main current of art and poetry. Eliot says: "The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the some. 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 own private mind-- is a mind which changes and that this change is a development which abandon nothing- enroute, which does not superannuate either Shakespeare or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian draughtsman" (artists of  late paleolithic period). In Dry Salvages Eliot defines the sense of tradition in the following manner:

         The past experience revived in the meaning Is not the experience of one life only But of many generations  Time the destroyer is the preserver

Criticism of Eliot's views

Eliot's idea of tradition and its relation to the individual talent has been criticised by Sean Lucy in a very balanced and cogent manner. He agrees with Eliot that tradition is necessary to art but he  doubts the validity of Eliot's remark that a conscious cultivation of the sense of tradition by the individual creative artist is always necessary. Sean Lucy says Eliot has exaggerated the facts as they are, though he concedes that Eliot might have been impelled to adopt such an attitude "by the danger of literary anarchy which was present in the extreme individualism of the 'spirit of revolt' which infected so much of European art and thought during the 1920s and part of the 1930s". The earlier part of the twentieth century was rather an exceptional period in the history of European thought and culture. It was a period of great revolt against all the, aspects of European life, society and culture. Even the period of the Romantic Revolt was not so radical, because its leaders were opposed or hostile to a particular technique only, and not to everything found in the preceding age. But the early twentieth century was skeptical not only of any one particular system of standard but all the standards and values held good by preceding generation. This exceptional quality of the age made Eliot over emphasise the value of tradition and a conscious cultivation of the sense of tradition by the individual writer. The secret of art is discipline and therefore at a time when all the bonds and restriction on artistic activity were being rejected, Eliot realised the imperative need of emphasising the great value of tradition for the individual writer Sean Lucy, therefore concludes that tradition is necessary to art no doubt, but a conscious cultivation of the sense of tradition is not necessary for the individual writer in all epochs there may be an age when the "society is in a healthy state, developing with the minimum degree of friction, its culture is so much part of its life and growth, and its educational system so closely controlled by the needs of its culture, that the sense of the past is an integral part of all activity, including art. At such times the very fact that a person is an artist implies that he is a traditional artist. In English literature we may call the eighteenth century to be such an age. The writers of the eighteenth century thought that they had reached the pinnacle of civilisation, and wrote with the consciousness of the whole Latin tradition behind them. Therefore their work possesses a homogeneity of its own; and it is for this reason also that Eliot, a classicist bestows so high tributes to the work of Dryden, Pope, and Dr.Johnson.


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