A reading of Eliot’s classic essay by Dr Oliver Tearle
‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ was first published in 1919 in the literary magazine The Egoist. It was published in two parts, in the September and December issues. The essay was written by a young American poet named T. S. Eliot (1888-1965), who had been living in London for the last few years, and who had published his first volume of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, in 1917. You can read ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ here.
‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919) sees Eliot defending the role of tradition in helping new writers to be modern. This is one of the central paradoxes of Eliot’s writing – indeed, of much modernism – that in order to move forward it often looks to the past, even more directly and more pointedly than previous poets had.
This theory of tradition also highlights Eliot’s anti-Romanticism. Unlike the Romantics’ idea of original creation and inspiration, Eliot’s concept of tradition foregrounds how important older writers are to contemporary writers: Homer and Dante are Eliot’s contemporaries because they inform his work as much as those alive in the twentieth century do.
James Joyce looked back to ancient Greek myth (the story of Odysseus) for his novel set in modern Dublin, Ulysses (1922). Ezra Pound often looked back to the troubadours and poets of the Middle Ages. H. D.’s Imagist poetry was steeped in Greek references and ideas. As Eliot puts it, ‘Some one said: “The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.” Precisely, and they are that which we know.’
He goes on to argue that a modern poet should write with the literature of all previous ages ‘in his bones’, as though Homer and Shakespeare were his (or her) contemporaries: ‘This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.’
In short, knowledge of writers of the past makes contemporary writers both part of that tradition and part of the contemporary scene. Eliot’s own poetry, for instance, is simultaneously in the tradition of Homer and Dante and the work of a modern poet, and it is because of his debt to Homer and Dante that he is both modern and traditional.
If this sounds like a paradox, consider how Shakespeare is often considered both a ‘timeless’ poet (‘Not of an age, but for all time’, as his friend Ben Jonson said) whose work is constantly being reinvented, but is also understood in the context of Elizabethan and Jacobean social and political attitudes.
Similarly, in using Dante in his own poetry, Eliot at once makes Dante ‘modern’ and contemporary, and himself – by association – part of the wider poetic tradition.
Eliot’s essay goes on to champion impersonality over personality. That is, the poet’s personality does not matter, as it’s the poetry that s/he produces that is important. Famously, he observes: ‘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. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.’
This is more or less a direct riposte to William Wordsworth’s statement (in the ‘Preface’ to Lyrical Ballads in 1800) that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. Once again, Eliot sets himself apart from such a Romantic notion of poetry. This is in keeping with his earlier argument about the importance of tradition: the poet’s personality does not matter, only how their work responds to, and fits into, the poetic tradition.
‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ is a major work in Eliot’s prose writings, and perhaps his most famous essay. The argument he puts forward (summarised above) is perhaps surprising given modernism’s association with radical departures from artistic norms and traditions. As a modernist, Eliot might be expected to reject the great ‘canon’ or tradition of poetry that had gone before him.
But no: poetry, including Eliot’s own and that of his fellow modernists, derives its distinctiveness – and even its newness – from engaging with what earlier poets have done. Indeed, it is by drawing on the work of earlier writers and, as it were, standing on the shoulders of literary giants that a new poet asserts their own voice among the crowd.
And this is why Eliot’s other key argument in ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ is relevant. The poet should not seek to be ‘original’ by disregarding tradition altogether, but by looking for minimal ways in which they can alter what has gone before and create something slightly different and fresh. And the poet should forget about expressing an individual ‘personality’ for the same reason: a poet should be plugged into the common shared tradition of poetry rather than thinking they are working alone.
Eliot’s example of Homer is pertinent here: we know nothing of the poet who wrote The Odyssey for certain, but we don’t need to. The Odyssey itself is what matters, not the man (or men – or woman!) who wrote it. Poetry should be timeless and universal, transcending the circumstances out of which it grew, and transcending the poet’s own generation and lifetime. (Eliot’s argument raises an interesting question: can self-evidently personal poetry – e.g. by confessional poets like Sylvia Plath, or Romantics like Wordsworth – not also be timeless and universal? Evidently it can, as these poets’ works have outlived the poets who wrote them.)
But is this too simplistic an analysis of Eliot’s argument? His criticism of the idea of poetic personality sounds anti-romantic: a move away from the Romantic idea that, to quote Wordsworth again, ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. But as the critic C. K. Stead argues in his brilliant The New Poetic: Yeats to Eliot (Continuum Impacts), Eliot’s talk of escape from personality is not a call to escape from the self but a call to escape further into the self.
For Eliot, the more mature the poet, the more his mind is able to synthesise various influences and emotions to produce something varied and complex. These influences and emotions are worked into great poetry by the self: it is inaccurate to view Eliot’s essay as a critical rejection of ‘self’ altogether. If anything, he is arguing that great poetry is forged in the deeper self, rather than the surface ‘personality’ of the poet.
We might also bear in mind that Eliot knew that great poets often incorporated part of themselves into their work – he would do it himself, so that, although it would be naive to read The Waste Land as being ‘about’ Eliot’s failed marriage to his first wife, we can nevertheless see aspects of his marriage informing the poem.
And in ‘Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca’, Eliot would acknowledge that the poet of poets, Shakespeare, must have done such a thing: the Bard ‘was occupied with the struggle – which alone constitutes life for a poet – to transmute his personal and private agonies into something rich and strange, something universal and impersonal’.
For Eliot, great poets turn personal experience into impersonal poetry, but this nevertheless means that their poetry often stems from the personal. It is the poet’s task to transmute personal feelings into something more universal. Eliot is rather vague about how a poet is to do this – leaving others to ponder it at length.
Lyndall Gordon observes a curious paradox regarding Eliot in this regard, in her biography of Eliot, The Imperfect Life of T. S. Eliot. She points out that although Eliot claimed that drama was less personal than poetry, the cover of drama actually gave Eliot the freedom to expose his private crises. We might extend such an idea to the earlier work, too, and see a character like J. Alfred Prufrock, not as a stand-in for young Eliot per se, but as a Laforgue-inspired mask which Eliot could adopt in order to transmute private attitudes or emotions into something more universal. In other words, Eliot knew that the best way he could plumb the depths of his own emotions and experiences was by speaking as someone else. As Oscar Wilde said, ‘Man is least himself when he talks in his own person. Give a man a mask and he will tell you the truth.’
About T. S. Eliot
Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) is regarded as one of the most important and influential poets of the twentieth century, with poems like ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (1915), The Waste Land (1922), and ‘The Hollow Men’ (1925) assuring him a place in the ‘canon’ of modernist poetry.
Modernist poets often embraced free verse, but Eliot had a more guarded view, believing that all good poetry had the ‘ghost’ of a metre behind the lines. Even in his most famous poems we can often detect the rhythms of iambic pentameter – that quintessentially English verse line – and in other respects, such as his respect for the literary tradition, Eliot is a more ‘conservative’ poet than a radical.
Nevertheless, his poetry changed the landscape of Anglophone poetry for good. Born in St Louis, Missouri in 1888, Eliot studied at Harvard and Oxford before abandoning his postgraduate studies at Oxford because he preferred the exciting literary society of London. He met a fellow American expatriate, Ezra Pound, who had already published several volumes of poetry, and Pound helped to get Eliot’s work into print. Although his first collection, Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), sold modestly (its print run of 500 copies would take five years to sell out), the publication of The Waste Land in 1922, with its picture of a post-war Europe in spiritual crisis, established him as one of the most important literary figures of his day.
He never returned to America (except to visit as a lecturer), but became an official British citizen in 1927, the same year he was confirmed into the Church of England. His last major achievement as a poet was Four Quartets (1935-42), which reflect his turn to Anglicanism. In his later years he attempted to reform English verse drama with plays like Murder in the Cathedral (1935) and The Cocktail Party (1949). He died in London in 1965.
Continue to explore Eliot’s work with our short summary of Eliot’s life, our introduction to his poem The Waste Land, our exploration of what makes his poem ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ so ground-breaking, and our pick of the best biographies and critical studies of Eliot. If you’re studying poetry, we recommend these five helpful guides for the poetry student.
The author of this article, Dr Oliver Tearle, is a literary critic and lecturer in English at Loughborough University. He is the author of, among others, The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History and The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem.
Below is a short video written and presented by Tearle, which introduces a few of the key themes of Eliot’s most famous poem, The Waste Land. It explores how Eliot’s poem puts his theory of ‘tradition’ into action through using lines from Shakespeare and classical antiquity.
Image: T. S. Eliot (picture credit: Ellie Koczela), Wikimedia Commons.