MA English Criticism: T.S. Eliot’s idea of tradition and talent

By tradition Eliot means all those habitual actions and customs, from the most significant religious rites to our conventional ways of greeting a stranger. Tradition is a need of an outside authority of the poet. Allegiance to ‘inner voice’ simply means doing what one likes. The poet must allow allegiance to some other authority outside himself. He must learn and practice inner self-control. He must revise his artistic work. Mature art is only possible in this way. Eliot’s concept of tradition is dynamic because when a great work is produced, the tradition is modified to some extent. In ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’, Eliot regards the whole of European literature from Homer down to his own day as forming a single literary tradition. A great artist must have a sense of tradition and pass this tradition to the next generations; otherwise, he will be isolated. Eliot says:

“You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead”

The idea of tradition is essential for it makes us realize our kinship with “the same people living in the same place”. But we must remember that the conditions of life which produced some particular tradition have changed and so the tradition, too, must change. Tradition is not something immovable, it is something constantly growing and becoming different from what it previously was. We must learn to distinguish between the essential and the unessential, the good and the bad, in a particular tradition and only the good and the essential must be followed. While we should justly be proud of our own tradition, this should not make us look down on other people who are not so lucky to have it. Tradition must be used intelligently, changes in the conditions of life must be taken into consideration, and only the best should be preserved. Eliot’s tradition continues and lives in the present. When a really great work of art is produced, this tradition is modified. A great work of art can only be possible when the artist has a sense of this literary tradition. Great artists modify the existing tradition and pass it on to the future. A sense of tradition is essential for the creation of good poetry, but individual talent, too, is of paramount importance. Indeed, tradition and individual talent are not opposite concepts. Eliot reconciles the two, and shows that both have an essential role to play in the process of poetic creation. Individual talent is needed to acquire the sense of tradition, and this individual talent also modifies the tradition so acquired. So Eliot propounds:

“The poet must develop the consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career”

But the question is how should the individual writer have this idea of tradition and how can he invest his individual talent in it? The artist must have the historical sense so that his individual talent may be differentiated. Tradition represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of ages, and so its knowledge is essential for really great achievements. Thus, tradition is not anything fixed, it is constantly changing and becoming different from what it is, and it is the individual talent which modifies it. A writer in the present must seek guidance from the past, he must confirm to the literary tradition. The past directs the presents and is itself modified and altered by the present. 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. But this judgment does not mean determining good or bad. The comparison is to be made for knowing the facts about the new work of art. The comparison is made for forming a better understanding of the new. It is in this way alone that we can form an idea of what is really individual and new. In this way, does Eliot reconcile the concept of tradition with individual talent.

“Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and it you want it you must obtain It by great labour”

According to Eliot, it is the duty of every poet to acquire this knowledge of the past, and he must continue to acquire this consciousness throughout his career. Such awareness of tradition sharpens poetic creation. Thus the individual talent of the artist is observed, and evaluated. In this way, his art is better perceived, valued and appreciated. Eliot further emphasizes the point in the following lines:

“No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”

The poet must also realize that art never improves. The mind of Europe may change, but this change does not mean that great writers like Shakespeare have grown outdated. The great works of art never lose their value, for there is no qualitative improvement in art. For example, it will not be correct to say that the art of Shakespeare is better and higher than that of Eliot. Their works are of different kinds, for the material on which they worked was different. Eliot’s view of tradition requires, as most criticize him, a ridiculous amount of erudition. It will be pointed out that there have been great poets who were not learned. However, knowledge does not merely mean bookish knowledge. It is wisdom, which can also be learnt from the school of life as Dickens did.

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