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Home » , » Examine T.S Eliot's theory of 'Tradition' and "the Individual Talent' ?

T.S. Eliot belongs to the tradition of Dryden, John, Coleridge, and Matthew Arnold in being the poet and the critic at the same time. He was greatly interested in literature and tried to bring criticism and creation in closer contact. He strongly believed that criticism and creation were complementary activities and therefore a good poet could only be a good critic. He exercised a very wide and deep influence on the literary criticism in the present century. He has rendered a great service to literature by reforming taste and by revitalising literature. The most distinguishing quality of Eliot's criticism is its sincerity and freedom from any preconceived standards of judgment. He places before the artist as well as the critic the goal of attaining nothing less than excellence and insists that the critic in order to see the object as it is must take unremitting pains and discipline his powers. He also points out that mature art is created only in a society which is prepared to receive and grasp fresh ideas. He knows that though perfection is rather unattainable, he would, in poetry and criticism, be content with nothing less than that. In literature he was a classicist and supported order and discipline, authority and tradition, and organization and pattern.

There was an anti-romantic tendency in the early parts of the twentieth century, which found its most definite pronouncement in the works of Eliot. He strongly supported the reaction against subjectivism and individualism. In this he was greatly influenced by Irving Babbitt and Paul Elmer More. T.E. 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, also influenced Eliot in his critical views. Like other classicists, Eliot is of opinion that the writer must have faith in some system of writing and that a work of art must conform to the past tradition. But there is a significant difference between him and the neo-classical critics of the eighteenth century. The neo-classicists believed that the writer must follow rules of the ancients and that poetry must be didactic. Eliot's idea of "conformity to tradition" is totally different from this. A work of art must conform to tradition is such a way that it alters the tradition as much as it is directed by it. According to Eliot's conception tradition and the individual talent go together.

The theme of tradition is central both to Eliot's criticism and to his creative work. His instance on the value and importance of tradition for the individual talent is essentially anti-romantic. The romantic theory, which regarded poetry as the expression of the personality of the poet, laid emphasis on inspection and intuition. The romantics believed that the poet should follow his "inner voice" in writing poetry. But inspiration is fitful and unreliable; it is only a matter of chance and accident. In the hands of lesser poets the unrestrained and unlimited freedom is likely to degenerate into chaos and confusion. The romantic theory did not attach any significance to tradition. On the contrary, freedom from all tradition was considered to be very essential for artistic creation.

Eliot's views on the comparative importance of tradition and the individual talent in literature have been explicitly expressed in his essay Tradition and the Individual Talent. At the very beginning of this essay Eliot deplores the fact that in English literary criticism 'tradition' is used as a phrase of censure. He says that the word 'tradition' has not been given correct interpretation and due weight and importance so far. In English literature and criticism we rarely come across passages which illustrate the right use and meaning of the term 'tradition'. From time to time the English critics have been applying the word in expressing their grief for its absence. They do not make a reference to "the tradition" or to "a tradition"; at most they use the adjective in saying that the poetry is so and so 'traditional' or even 'too traditional'. The word appears rarely and when it does appear, it is used as a phrase of censure. Rarely used in a commendatory sense, the term 'tradition' is at best applied by English critics for vaguely approving a work of art as traditional as preserving in it some antique, out-of date, literary curiosities of old times, which are yet pleasing to the present age. Thus in English criticism, according to Eliot there is a deplorable lack of that critical insight which views a particular literary work or writer in the context of a wider literary tradition. The English literary critic does not give due weight and importance to tradition in evaluating the writers of the past and in appreciating the poets of the present. He uses 'tradition' in a derogatory sense.

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 resembles any one else. In these aspects of his work they try to find out what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of that man. They try to find out the difference of the poet with his contemporaries and predecessors especially with his immediate predecessors, they try to find out something that can be separated in order to be enjoyed. 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 the period of their full maturity. Thus, Eliot believes, tradition and the individual talent go together.

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 beliefs 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 characterises a group throughout generations, and it must largely be unconscious ". Tradition he says, is " the means by which the vitality of past enriches the life of the present ".

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 affect the creative work of the present. Eliot stresses 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 the past tradition. The present also has relevance to the past, because the traditional order is modified by the production of a truly original 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. As he says in Burnt Norton:

             And do not call it fixityWhere past and futureare gathered.Neither movement fromnor towards.Neither ascent nor decline.


referring to the unity of time he says:Time present and time Past Are both perhaps present in time future And time future contained in time past.(Burnt Norton)

Tradition does not mean 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 a conviction 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. Eliot firmly believes that no poet or artist 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 generation. 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 work of art which preceded it. In Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot says: "The existing monuments form 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 supervision 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 re-adjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new". This means that " the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past".

The conscious or unconscious cultivation of the sense of tradition is very important both for the poet and the critic. The poet, according to Eliot, must consciously try to make his work form a part of a larger and more important unit than itself, namely the whole literature of Europe to which it belongs. In Tradition and the Individual Talent he says: "What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career". He believes that it is the awareness of tradition that sharpens the sensibility, which has a vital part to play in the process of poetic creation.

The other thing, which is to be discussed in this connection is Eliot's impersonal theory of poetry which has a strong bearing on his concept of tradition. Eliot firmly believes that poetry is not the expression of the personality of the poet. He elucidates his impersonal theory 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. You cannot value his alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead". Eliot insists on the importance of the relation of the poem to other poems by other authors and suggests the conception of poetry as a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written.

The artistic process, according to Eliot, is a process of depersonalization, the artist's continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something 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". He also points out the relation of the poem to its author; 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 the mind of a mature poet is " a more finely perfected medium in which special or very varied, feelings are at liberty to enter into new combination ".

It is in this depersonalisation that art may be said to approach to the condition of science. Eliot explains this process of depersonalisation and its relation to the sense of tradition by comparing it with the chemical process - the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide. The analogy is that of the catalyst. He says: " When the two gases previously mentioned (oxygen and sulphur dioxide) are mixed in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. The 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. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material ".

The elements of the experience of the poet are of two kinds-emotions and feelings. They are elements which, entering the presence of the poet's mind and acting as a catalyst, go to the making of a work of art. 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. Eliot believes that the greatness of a poem does not depend on the greatness or the intensity of the emotions but on the intensity of the artistic process; the pressure under which the fusion takes place. He strongly believes that "the difference between art and the event is always absolute. Eliot illustrates his view by a few examples, among which one is of Keats's Ode to a Nightingale, which contains a number of feelings which have nothing particular to do with the nightingale, but which the nightingale, partly perhaps because of its attractive name, and partly because of its reputation, served to bring together.

Eliot believes that the main concern of the poet is not the expression of personality. He says that " the poet  has, not a 'personality' to express, but a particular medium (the mind), which in only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those which became important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality". Again, there is no need for the poet to try to express new human emotions in poetry. The business of the poet, Eliot says, is not to find new emotions, but use the ordinary ones and, in working them up in  poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as will as those familiar to him. The poetic process is a process of concentration, and not of recollection (as Wordsworth thought) of a very great number of experiences. Eliot's final definition of poetry is: "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".

In the last section of the essay Tradition and the Individual Talent Eliot says that the poet's sense of tradition and the impersonality of poetry are complementary things. He tried to divert the interest from the poet to the poetry, for it would conduce to a juster estimation of actual poetry, good or bad. He says that " very few know when there is an expression of significant emotion which has its life in the poem and not in the history of the poet. The emotion of art is impersonal. And the poet cannot reach this impersonality without surrendering himself wholly to the work to be done. And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living ". Thus, Eliot concludes, a constant and continual awareness of tradition is very necessary for the poet. Tradition greatly helps the individual talent to produce good poetry. Both are inextricably inter linked and inter dependent.


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