Thursday, March 25, 2010

critical review of "Tradition and Individual Talent" by Eliot (Part-2)

"Tradition and Individual Talent" is the essay of lasting significance in the history of modern criticism. The essay brought into being two principal aspects of Eliot's critical domain – tradition and impersonality in art and poetry, that rated over the realm of criticism. The essay also brings forth Eliot's views on the inter–relation between traditional and individual talent. The essay brought into being the new approach with poets of everlasting significance and it also provided the parameters for the assessment of the genius and the shortcomings of the masters but contributed to the history of English Literature. The idea of tradition with all its magnificence, has a meaning beyond the conventional sense of term. It begins with a historical sense and goes on acquiring new dimensions along political and cultural dimension, and this creates a system of axes for the assessment of the worth and genius of a poet.
The idea of Eliot's theory of tradition is based on the inevitable phenomenon of the continuity of the values during the process called civilization. Eliot beings with a description that makes tradition a term of abuse and develops to a metaphor of unquestionable authenticity. 'Seldom perhaps', he says, 'does the word appear except in a phrase of censure'. He further says :
You can hardly make the word aggreable to English ears without this comfortable reference to the reassuring science of archaeology.1
The above quoted lines from one of the most celebrated critical endeavours make it clear that Eliot aims at developing a new concept and structuring a new approach to the very phenomenon called poetry. Eliot, after beginning with the seemingly derogatory implications of the term imparts a new meaning and magnificence to the term when he identifies tradition with historical sense. The identification discussed above makes it clear that the tradition according to Eliot is something more than mere conglomeration of dead works. The identification of tradition with historical sense serves to ratify the stature of tradition in assessing the works and function of pets and poetry. He elaborates the idea of historical sense and says :
and the historical sense invokes a perception not only of the partners of the past but also 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 whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.2
Eliot in the above quoted line puts forth a dynamic manifestation of tradition which shapes the minds of different poets of different generation. Eliot also inkles that the poet's conformity into tradition is an act of rigorous intellectual efforts that constitute a poet in him. Eliot further defines the idea of historical sense and says :
The historical sense which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal, and of timeless and temporal together, is what makes a writer tradition. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acute by conscious of his place in time of his contemporaneity .3
The excerpt from the essay makes it clear that Eliot pus the whole term in a much wider context than it is otherwise used before. Eliot takes tradition to be an embodiment of values and beliefs shared by a race which leads to the idea that there is a process of natural selection and rejection. The values and the belief that die with the passage of time are subject to rejection. The values and beliefs that constitute the tradition are living one with capacity of mutual interaction. The old and the new interpenetrate and this interpenetration results into a new order defined in terms of the simultaneous existence of the values of the past and the present. The survival of past ratifies the presentness of it. The simultaneous existence of the past and the present, of the old and the new. It is, thus, evident that the poet is guided chiefly by the dynamics of the tradition. Eliot further elaborates:
No poet, no artist has a complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation in the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone, you must set him from contrast and comparison among the dead.4
Eliot reaffirms that the poet, in order to survive as a poet must invite close contrast and comparison with the dead poets. Unless, a poet is capable of doing that he ceases to matter in the history of poetry. Richard Shusterman rightly observes that the 'enduring demands preserved in a tradition make it capable of functioning as a synchronize structural system'.5 Raman Selden observes that 'the standard theories of literature often combine these apparently disparate modes of thinking'.6 It is remarkable that these apparently disparate modes of thinking are disciplined by values.
The relation between the new work of art and the tradition is another very complex idea enshrined in the essay. It is, however, true that the complete meaning of the poet is realized through his relationship with the tradition but the importance of individual talent cannot be set aside in a discussion on the Eliot's poetics. It is again noteworthy that the tradition and individual talent are not at a sharp contrast with each other but they are mutually complimentary. Eliot conceives tradition and individual talent as unifiable and show that the two have an equally important role to play in poetic creation. The views of Jean Michael Rabate capture our attention. He commenting on the function of historical sense in the caste of an individual talent says :
This requires that the "bones" belong to the individual who recomposes simultaneity at every moment without losing a combination of the timeless and the merely temporal.7
Individual talent is needed to acquire the sense of tradition. Eliot lays good emphasis on the idea of interactivity between the tradition and individual talent. If the individual talent needs to acquire tradition, then the individual talent in turn modifies tradition. Eliot ratifies the dynamic nature of tradition.
The existing monument 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 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 towards the whole are readjusted; and this in conformity between the old and the new.8
The above quoted lines make clear the cyclic interdependence between tradition and individual talent. Shusterman's view again oblige inclusion, 'Old and new elements', he points out, 'derive their meaning from their reciprocal relations of contrast and coherence, in a larger whole of tradition which they themselves constitute as parts'.9 It is evident from the views of Shusterman that tradition is not anything fixed or static but it is something dynamic and everchanging. Every new participation in the tradition results into restructuring of the same tradition with different emphasis. It is constantly growing and changing and becoming different from what it has been earlier. The past directs the present and is modified by the present. This is an apt revelation of the traditional capabilities of a poet. The past helps us understand the present and the present throws light on the past. The new work of art is judged by the standards set by the past. It is in the light of the past alone that an individual talent can be. This is the way Eliot subtly reconciles the tradition and the individual talent.
Eliot's views on tradition paves way for the theorization of the impersonality in art and poetry. Divergent views about Eliot's theory of objectivity have been discussed but it is observed that critics tend to generalize the theory to a common experience. It is noticeable that the impersonality that Eliot discusses in his criticism does not imply a mechanical objectivity of a hoarding painter, but, it owes its genesis to the personality that emerges out of the creative personality of the poet. It is understandable that Eliot denies an outright and blind adherence to some peculiar faiths and belief but an emancipation from what is very personal on peculiar. He says :
...... the poet has not a personality to express but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experience combine in a peculiar and unexpected ways. Impressions and experiences which are important for the man may take no place in the poetry, and those important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.10
It is clear from the above quotation that Eliot lays heavy stress on the two different aspect of a creator what he is as an individual and at the same time what he is as a creator; It is an easy inference from the above equation that Eliot's to his critical theories discards the emotion of strictly personal significance and centers his ideals on the transformation of what is personal but something of universal significance.
The above quoted excerpts from "Tradition and Individual Talent" put forth a belligerently anti romantic view of poetry which lays emphasis on poetry and discards the very idea of the personality of the poet. It is obligatory to remember Aristotle as this point of time who, against all odds takes 'plot' to be the 'soul of the tragedy' and claims that 'there can be tragedy than a character but not without a plot'.11 Eliot in these lines discovers a new possibility of a universal meaning, which free from the whims and eccentricities of the poet and has a wider significance. The comparison made out by Eliot between the mind of the poet and the catalyst in a chemical reaction further confirms the point of view. He says :
When the two gases, previously mentioned 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.12
The analogy that Eliot puts forth makes it clear that the poetry is something entirely different from what is the personal identity of the poet. This is principally the reason that Eliot, all along the length and breadth of his critical writings, makes frequent use of terms like 'transmate', 'transform', 'digest', etc. He further suggests :
... but 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.13
Eliot puts forth similar views in his celebrated essay – "The Metaphysical Poets", and emerges with a more candid elaboration of the mechanism of poetic expression. He asserts :
When a poet's mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamatic disparate experience; the ordinary experience is chaotic, irregular and fragmentary. The latter falls in love or reads spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with noise of a typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.14
It is obvious that Eliot aims at the recreation of a non–mechanical unity and of the store of impressions and experiences in the poet's mind. The views of William K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks invite our attention. They point out :
Such an emphasis was bound to bring down upon Eliot, the charges that has had reduced the poet to an automaton who secreted his poet in same unconscious and brainless way and that he had thus committed himself to the most romantic theory possible.15
Edward Lobb comes out with a just explanation of the possibility of levelling such charges against the theory of Eliot. Lobb points out that 'as a living thing, the poet's mind can create a non–mechanical unity out of diverse, even contradictory elements.'16 Lobb compares him with Coleridge who 'found this ability to reconcile "opposite on discordant qualities" to be the characteristic of power of the living imagination'.16 The views of Lobb make it clear that the impersonality that Eliot aims at is not a mechanical impersonality but the impersonality of that owes its genesis to values prevailing in spatio–temporal continum. He in his essay – "Yeats" (1940) reiterated the importance of personality in considering his later poetry to be superior to his earlier poetry as that is more profound revelation in the last phase of poetic existence. He says :
There are two forms of impersonality; that which is natural to a skilful craftman and that which is more and more achieved by a maturing artist. The first is that of what I have called 'anthology pieces' of lyric by Loveless or Suckling or Campion a fine poet than either. The second personality is that of the poet who out of intense and passionate experience, is able to express a general truth; retaining all the peculiarity of his experience and make it a general symbol.17
It is obvious from the above quoted excerpt that the impersonality of first type is the impersonality without a personality. He makes the idea more clear in "Tradition and Individual Talent" when he says :
Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emtion; it is not an expression of the personality but an escape from the personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from them.18
It is obvious from the above quotations that personality and emotions are pre–requisites of the impersonality.
In order that Eliot's views on impersonality of poetry acquire the clarity of vision and theory, it is obligatory to compare Eliot's view on poetry with those of Wordsworth who represents the apex of Romantic idealogy. Wordsworth in the Preface to Lyrical Ballads, defines poetry and says :
Poetry is spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings : it takes its origin from the emotions recollected in tranquility till by a species of reaction tranquility gradually disappears and the emotion, kindered to that, which was before the subject of contemplation, is gradually produced and does actually exists in the mind of the poet.13
It is clear from the above definition of William Wordsworth that he aims at purifying the emotion to the most personal by 'a specie of reaction' and the possibility of 'concentration' or 'digestion' or 'transmutation' or formation of 'new wholes' is virtually in existent in the Romantic view of poetry.
Eliot's theory of impersonality of art gets apt justification in his essay, "Hamlet and His Problems". He says :
The only way of expressing an emotion is by finding an "objective correlative"; in other words a set of objects, a situation, a chain of events, which shall be formula of that, particular emotion, such that when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experiences are given, the emotion is immediately evoked. If you examine any of Shakespeare's more successful tragedies, you will find this exact equivalence; you will find that the state of mind of Lady Macbeth walking in her sleep has been communicated to you by a skilful accumulation of imagined sensory impressions; the words of Macbeth hearing of his wife's death strike us as if given the sequence of events, these words were automatically released by the last event in the series.20
Eliot's views expressed earlier, make the idea very clear that the emotion to be expressed in a work of art has a contextual significance only, and outside the context of the work of art, the emotion ceases to mean, and this results into a chaos. Eliot further says that 'Hamlet (the man) is dominated by an emotion which is inexpressible, because it is in excess of the facts as they appear'.21 The theory of objective–correlative fully ratifies Eliot's adherence on the inevitability of impersonality of the emotion of art. Wimsatt and Brooks rightly observes that 'the doctrine of the objective correlative' places thoroughly anti–romantic stress on craftsmanship.'22
It is also observed that the concept of impersonality continually grows and acquires new shades. Later by the time of the pulication of After Strange Gods the idea of impersonality was apparalled in new form. Later Eliot propounded the view that the great work of art conforms to the idea of Christian orthodoxy. What Eliot exalted most in his earlier writings, the development of a point of view, and his concept of impersonality, later merged with the confinement of the work to the principles and dogmas propounded by Christian orthodoxy. In After Strange Gods he categorizes writer according to the faith and beliefs expressed in their works.
It is thus clear that "Tradition and Individual Talent" is one of the most important essay of Eliot. It puts forth two very important aspects of his critical mindset – tradition and impersonality of art and poetry that determine the nature and scope of his criticism.


1T. S. Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", The Sacred Wood (London : Metheun, 1965) 47.
2Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", The Sacred Wood, 49.
3Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", The Sacred Wood, 49.
4Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", The Sacred Wood, 49.
5Richard Shusterman, The Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism (London : Duckworths, 1988) 181.
6Raman Seldon, The Theory of Criticism (New York : Longman, 1990) 405.
7Jean Michael Rabate, "Tradition and T.S. Eliot", The Cambridge Comparison to T. S. Eliot, ed., A. David Moody (London : Cambridge University Press, 1994) 214.
8Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", The Sacred Wood, 50.
9Shusterman 187.
10Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", The Sacred Wood, 56.
11Aristotle, The Poetics, Trans. S. H. Butcher. Aristotle's Theory of Poetry and Fine Arts (New Delhi : Kalyani, reprint 1987) 27.
12Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", The Sacred Wood, 54.
13Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", The Sacred Wood, 54.
14T. S. Eliot, "The Metaphysical Poets", Selected Essays (London : Faber and Faber, 1976) 248.
15William K. Wimsatt and Cleanth Brooks, Literary Criticism : A Short History (New Delhi : Oxford and I.B.H. Publishing, 1957) 665.
16Edward Lobb, T. S. Eliot and the Romantic Critical Tradition (London : Rowledge and Kegan Paul, 1981) 129.
17Eliot, "Yeats", Selected Essays, 149.
18Eliot, "Tradition and Individual Talent", Selected Essays, 58.
19William Wordsworth, Preface to Lyrical Ballads (New Delhi : Macmillan, 1981) 23.
20Eliot, "Hamlet and His Problems", The Sacred Wood, 100–101.
21Eliot, "Hamlet and His Problems", The Sacred Wood, 101.
22Wimsatt and Brooks 668.