Tradition and the Individual Talent, T.S. Eliot, Analysis & Explanation

Historical Background: With the upheaval of the post-war era, modernism was mirrored in fresh and inventive literary forms like free poetry and stream-of-consciousness. Meanwhile, the New Criticism, a novel method of literary analysis, gained popularity. Before the New Criticism, literary works were frequently discussed in relation to the author's biography and the times in which they were written. The New Criticism advocated removing literary works from their setting and analysing them independently. By advocating that poetry should be an impersonal and objective discipline, Eliot's "Tradition and the Individual Talent" made significant contributions to the development of the New Criticism. Eliot argued that "art may be said to approach the condition of science," yet this assertion drew a lot of criticism.

The Concept of Tradition

“The historical sense involves perception not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence, the historical sense compels a man to write not merrily with his generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order.”

Eliot conceptualises organic tradition that keeps progressing through every new work written and the tradition is altered in relation to the new writer while tradition also lives on through the new art. This reciprocal relation develops "mind of Europe."
  • Tradition doesn't mean blind adherence to the ways of past generations.
  • Tradition cannot be inherited; it can only be obtained by hard labour.
  • Tradition can only be obtained by those who have historical sense.
  • Tradition isn't fixed and static; it keeps progressing constantly.
  • Every new work created modifies the whole literary tradition.
  • Past and present inform and alter each other.
  • The tradition lives through new writings and is also altered by them.

The Role of Individual Talent

Individual talent is the artistic creation which is groomed and shaped by traditional texts.

“past should be altered by the present as much as the past directs the present.”

The mind of Europe, the literary tradition is altered by new individual talent and the balance between tradition and new writers is needed to be established for new writers to be mediums through whom the tradition and whole mind of Europe may become organic, living, moving, growing and changing in new ways still informed by the totality of its existenced from past to present as a singularity.

Theory of Impersonal Poetry

The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice a continual extinction of personality is the individual talent. To make the concept of depersonalization clear, Eliot brings analogy of creating sulphuroic acid.

“Sulpher dioxide (Feeling) + oxygen (Emotion) + platinum (Mind of Poet) = Sulphurous Acid (Poem) (No trace of Poet’s Personality)

As the platinum itself remains unaffected, the mind of the poet remains unaffected also. Poet's personality is just an agent or medium to active the relation between emotion and feelings. So, the poet is never a creator, but like catalyst. Eliot believes that the artist must consistently give up control of themselves to something greater than themselves, specifically the literary heritage. He must let the past to mould and influence his poetic sense. He must maintain a feeling of tradition throughout his professional life.

The Historic Sense

The historical sense entails an awareness of "the past's existence as well as its pastness." The historical sense forces a person to write not just from the perspective of his own age but also from the perspective that all of European literature, from Homer to the present, including that of his own nation, is part of one continuous literary tradition. He comes to understand that the past is still present in the present and that the past and the present exist simultaneously. This historical notion encompasses both the timeless and the temporal, as well as both simultaneously. A writer is considered traditional if they have this feeling of history.

Eliot further points out that no writer has his value and significance in isolation. The work of a poet in the present is to be compared and contrasted with works of the past, and judged by the standards of the past. Such comparison and contrast is essential for estimating the real worth and significance of a new writer and his work.

Rejecting Romantic Theory of Poetic Process

According to the Romantics, poetry is an expression of the emotions and the personality of the poet. Wordsworth says, Poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings; it takes its origin from emotion recollected in tranquillity. According to Wordsworth, there are four stages through which poetic composition takes place:

  1. Observation
  2. Recollection
  3. Contemplation
  4. Imaginative excitement of the emotions which were experienced earlier.
However, Eliot challenges the Romantic idea in Tradition and the Individual Talent by developing his thesis of the impersonality in art. He contends that the creative process is a process of depersonalization and that the artist will give himself completely to the work. Eliot says,

"The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality."

According to Eliot, the poet and the poem are two distinct entities, and the sentiments, emotions, or visions that arise from them are distinct from those that the poet experiences when thinking about the poem. As a result, T.S. Eliot clarifies his idea of impersonality by looking at two separate relationships: the poet's relationship to the past and the poem's relationship to its creator.

Objective Correlative Theory

Eliot contends that both the play and the character of Hamlet are problematic in the essay "Hamlet and His Problem." He claims that Hamlet is a failure as an artistic creation because it lacks an objective correlative. Shakespeare struggled to strike a balance between fact and emotion in this play. For character feelings to be expressed, an external circumstance is required. But in Hamlet, there is no connection between Hamlet's feelings and the outside world.

Hamlet's insanity is not properly related to his mother's guilt. There are no obvious occurrences that line up with the conveyed mood. What Eliot refers to as objective correlative is the matching of circumstances with stated emotion.

Objective refers to situation, events, condition and objective correlative means the proper relationship between situation and expression of feelings.

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