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A Short Analysis of T. S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’

A reading of Eliot’s classic essay

‘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. Read the rest of this entry

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‘I am the master of my fate’: A Short Analysis of William Ernest Henley’s ‘Invictus’

A summary of a classic poem

‘Invictus’ is a famous poem, even to those who haven’t heard of it. This is because, although the title ‘Invictus’ may mean little to some (other than, perhaps, as the title of a film – of which more shortly), and the author of the poem, William Ernest Henley, is not much remembered now, the words which conclude the poem – ‘I am the master of my fate, / I am the captain of my soul’ – are well-known. The poem is sufficiently famous to warrant closer attention and analysis.

William Ernest Henley, like his most famous non-famous poem, is somebody whom we both know and don’t know. Even those who don’t know his name are aware of his influence. Henley (1849-1903) was friends with Robert Louis Stevenson, and when Stevenson wrote his first novel, Treasure Island (1883), he was inspired by Henley’s distinctive appearance to create the famous fictional pirate. (Henley, who had suffered from tuberculosis from an early age, had his left leg amputated below the knee while still a teenager, so was the inspiration for Stevenson’s one-legged pirate.) Read the rest of this entry

A Summary and Analysis of Edgar Allan Poe’s ‘The Oval Portrait’

A reading of Poe’s classic short story

‘The Oval Portrait’ (1842) is one of the shortest tales Edgar Allan Poe ever wrote. In just a few pages, he offers a powerful story about the relationship between art and life, through the narrator’s encounter with the oval portrait of a young woman in a chateau in the Appenines. The story repays close analysis because of the way Poe offers his story as a subtle commentary on link between life and art.

First, a brief summary of this briefest of stories. The narrator, wounded and delirious, has sought shelter in an old mansion with his valet or manservant, Pedro. He holes up in one of the rooms, and contemplates the strange paintings adorning the walls of the room, and reads a small book he had found on the pillow of the bed, which contains information about the paintings. At around midnight, he adjusts the candelabrum in the room and his eye catches a portrait he hadn’t previously noticed, in an oval-shaped frame, depicting a young girl on the threshold of womanhood. Read the rest of this entry