Tradition and Individual talent by T.S Eliot

T.S Eliot

What are the main ideas of Tradition and Individual talent?

T.S Eliot is one of the greatest critic English literature has witnessed. His essay Tradition and Individual talent was first published in The Egoist (1919) and later collected in The Sacred Wood (1920). The essay has been foundation to New Criticism. The essay is viewed as criticism against Romanticism.

T.S Eliot discarded the expression of personality and inspiration and believed that poet’s personal emotion must be depersonalised and made general. Without a sense of tradition artist cannot be a good artist. The consciousness of the past and present, being an medium for creation of poetry. It includes three major aspects about poet and poetry, they are;

  • Tradition and it’s meaning
  • Relation of Individual talent and Tradition (historical sense)
  • Theory of Impersonality or Depersonalization

What is tradition according to T.S Eliot?

The introduction of the essay deals with the meaning and reference to word “Tradition”. According to T.S Eliot “we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionnaly apply its name in deploring its absence.” where the word tradition is usually used to make criticisim of any work as we categorize it as either “traditional” or “too traditional”. But the word is least used in the case of living or dead poets.  Though each country has the ability to make criticism on creative works but is unaware of the knowledge on limitations of its critical habits. Author puts up a general opinion that, we belive French are “more critical” and less spontaneous in comparision  to English.

T.S Eliot tries to describe the process of criticism, a prejudice that a reader typically holds. He says “criticism is as inevitable as breadthing” and when a reader  reads a work, he tries to experience its emotion and start critizing the work. A work of a poet will be praised when it is unique and is little similar to any other work (prejudice that a reader holds).  Reader  makes an attempt to judge the poet with an extend to how dissimilar he stands to his predecessors. But if a reader reads a work without this prejudice, he shall discover the best and the most individual part of the work which is a contribution of dead poets and his ancestors. In other words, T.S Eliot says that a poet always has the influence of tradition in his work.

While speaking about tradition, T.S Eliot also opines that “novelty is better than repetition”. It simply means that new talent is better than  passing on the only form of tradition. Poet is not expected to imitate his ancestors but to borrow the skills and adopt it in his poetry along with the present knowledge.Tradition is a matter of wider significance which cannot be inherited but earned only with great hardwork. Traditional skill acquired by a poet  involves including of historical sense where he carries not only the knowledge of  his own generation but also the knowledge of past generations. This historical sense is not inherited but gained out of great labor and hard work. The example author quotes in this context is that a poet should know literature from the start of Homer till his own generation.  Historical sense makes a writer (Eliot at times also uses the phrase writer and artist)  traditional because of timeless and temporal.

How is individual talent related to Tradition?

T.S Eliot describes the relation between a poet’s individual talent and tradition. According to him, “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.” Whatever the recognition that a poet or artist recieves should be contributed to ancestors or dead poets (tradition). A principle of aesthetic is refered as a need for comparision and constrast between the poet and the acquired tradition. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives. Then there will be some altration in the form of  tradition due to the novelty which means present is directed by the past. There should be this awareness to the poet of great responsibilities and difficulties. This comparision leads to the judgement of two things measured by each other. It is a test to new work which should meet the great value.

The poet must not forget that art never improves, but that the material  of art is never quite the same. T.S Eliot says that traditional mind ( also referred as past mind) is more sound and learns to be more important than a private mind of present time. The difference between these two minds are the conscious presesnt has the awareness of past which past mind lacks the knowledge of present. In other words “dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did”. T.S Eliot says that the most essential need that a poet must procure is the consciousness of past and to nurture this knowledge. A self sacrifice is a continual extinction of personality.

In the  essay T.S Eliot with reference to  the Metaphysical theory of substantial unity of soul ( theory proposed by Aristotle in his De Anima, Hylomophoric is a philosophical term describing the relation of body and soul) makes an argument that “poet has not a personality to express , but a particular medium which is only a medium of personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways”.The important aspects for a man (impressions and experiences) might not be important in the poetry. Looking at the piece of passage drawn from The Revenger’s Tragedy, author observes the application of positive and negative emotions in the lines. This balance of contrasted emotion is structured where number of feelings connected to this emotion will create a new art emotion.

The business of the poet is not to find a new emotion, but to use the ordinary and transform them into a form of poetry. While writing poetry, one must be conscious and deliberate. A wrong poet usually remains unconscious where he ought to be conscious and remains conscious where he ought to be unconscious. This means his focus will not attend the right content. Thus both situation makes him personal. The best part of the essay is, T.S Eliot defines poetry as ” it is not turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion, it is not expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” A pereson who is aware of personality and emotions will only be able to escape from them.

T.S Eliot has written this essay to confine with what has Aristotle proposed in his work De AnimaOn the Soul“, ” The mind is doubtless something more divine and unimpressionable” and opines, to divert the interest from poet to poetry is laudable. The emotion of art is impersonal and the poet who cannot reach this impersonality remains ignorant until he lives in the present of the past and conscious of  what is living.

The thoery of Impersonality in Tradition and Individual talent

Whenever a reader reads a work of a poet ( author or artist), he might either accepts the content as poet’s personal opinion or he considers it to be an piece of work which doesnot include poet’s personal views. This is basically Depersonalisation thoery that T.S Eliot speaks in the essay. he says “honest criticism and sensitive appreciation are directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry”. A mind of a mature poet differs from a mind of an immature poet. He makes this argument not based on the personality of any poet but on the excellence of a poet in writing poetry.

In order to explain this Impersonal theory, T.S Eliot presents an example of an experiment. To produce sulphurous acid, oxygen and sulphur dioxide requires the presence of a filament of platinum. The role of platinum is to make combination of oxygen and sulphur dioxide into sulphurous acid. At the end of this process,  platinum remains unchanged and acts as a mediator in the whole process. Thus, it is the Catalyst. With this reference, he says that poet plays the role of catalyst while he creates any work, he should be impersonal while presenting the content. This will help him present the content more perfectly. Emotion and feelings acts as Sulphur dioxide and oxygen. The work produced by the  combination of two leaves a different experience to a person than  with a single element either emotion or feelings. But he also admits that great poetry may be produced only with use of feelings without the interference of any emotion ( example of Dante’s Canto XV of the Inferno is mentioned).

Impersonal theory of Catalyst:

Sulphur dioxide+ Platinum+ Oxygen= Sulphurous acid

Emotion + Poet’s mind+ Feelings= Poem

According to T.S Eliot, a poet is not just a catalyst but his mind acts as a Receptacle ( container) where he stores number of feelinngs, phrases, images which remain until he transform it into a new work.  A work attains its greatness not due to its emotion, component or intensity but through its artistic process and the pressure to speak leads to a fusion. The episode of Paolo and Francesca employs a definite emotion where as Canto XXVI, Ulysses has not direct dependence on emotion. Agamemnon,and Othello gives an artistic effect.

How is T.S Eliot’s theory of Tradition and Individual talent against Romanticism?

This essay is a revolution created against Romanticism, specifically it is a reaction to Wordsworth’s Preface to Lyrical Ballad. T.S Eliot attacks on the idea of, poem is primarily an expression of the personality of the poet. The comparison of T.S Eliot’s text and Wordsworth’s text has been presented below:

  • Wordsworth opines “poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings. It takes it’s origin from emotion recollected in tranquility”,where as T.S Eliot opines ” it is not turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion, it is not expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”

T.S Eliot says in the essay that expressions are not recollected and finally unite in an atmosphere which is tranquility. He rejects this argument of Wordsworth and says it is an inexact formula. A poet must be conscious where he ought be conscious and remain unconscious which is not his concern, the reciprocal of these will transform him into a bad poet. Thus, poetry is not something that is connected to poet’s personality and emotion.

  • Wordsworth believes that job of the poet is to find new emotion and convert it into poem. But T.S Eliot says it is not poet’s job to find new feeling but to express the ordinary emotion in an artistic way.
  • According to Wordsworth, “a poet should bring his feelings near to person whose feeling he describes” where as Eliot argues the thoery of Impersonal. A poet is expected to be like a Catalyst who should be a mediator in the process of creation of poetry.

Wordsworth’s concept of poetry

  • Reaction against classicism
  • Subjective
  • Expression of personality
  • Individual
  • Liberty to express personal emotion
  • Poetry should be simple
  • Poetry is a man

T.S Eliot’s concept of poetry

  • Reaction against romanticism and humanism
  • Objective
  • Escape from personality
  • Universal
  • Personal emotion must be transformed I to generalised emotion
  • Poetry should depict complexity
  • Poet is a craftman

Quotes from the essay Tradition and Individual talent

  • we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionnaly apply its name in deploring its absence.”
  • criticism is as inevitable as breadthing”.
  • “novelty is better than repetition”.
  • “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.”
  • “dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did”.
  • “poet has not a personality to express , but a particular medium which is only a medium of personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways”.
  • ” it is not turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion, it is not expression of personality, but an escape from personality.”


T.S Eliot’s essay provides reader a better perspective about criticism, nature of poet and poetry and the theories which he proposed. Though it seems to be against Romanticism, as a reference we gain picture about the twentieth century through his writing. His ideas are rational, objective, organised and realistic. The need of historical sence along with the knowledge of present is acceptable. Therefore, through this essay we can recognize the significance it holds.


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