Monday, 1 December 2014

T. S. Eliot: Tradition and Individual Talent

Short Video Lectures and Quiz on T.S. Eliot's 
Tradition and Individual Talent (1919/1920-22)

T.S.Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent” was published in 1919 in The Egoist - the Times Literary supplement. Later, the essay was published in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism in 1920/2. (Gallup). This essay is described by David Lodge as the most celebrated critical essay in the English of the 20th century. The essay is divided into three main sections:
* the first gives us Eliot’s concept of tradition;
* the second exemplifies his theory of depersonalization and poetry. And in
* the third part he concludes the debate by saying that the poet’s sense of tradition and the impersonality of poetry are complementary things.
At the outset of the essay, Eliot asserts that the word ‘tradition’ is not a very favourable term with the English who generally utilize the same as a term of censure. The English do not possess an orientation towards criticism as the French do, they praise a poet for those aspects of the work that are individualistic.
 However, they fail to realize that the best and the most individual part of the poet’s work is that reflects maximum influence of writers of the past. Tradition does not imply a blind adherence to the literary tradition of the past tradition. This would amount to mere copying or slavish imitation.
For Eliot, Tradition has a three-fold significance. Firstly, tradition cannot be inherited and involves a great deal of labour and erudition. Secondly, it involves the historical sense which involves apperception not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence. Thirdly the historical sense enables a writer to write not only with his own generation in mind, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature from Homer down to the literature of his own country forms a continuous literary tradition.
As claimed by Chris Baldick that Eliot had created an inverted literary history in which history being second to the permanent quality of literature, is readjusted to accommodate it to literature. Therefore, Eliot’s conception of history is a dynamic one and not static; and is forever in a state of flux.

Short Video Lectures:

1. Introduction:

2. The Concept of Tradition:

3. Explanation of "Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it":

4. Explanation of The Chemical Reaction: The theory of Depersonalization:

5. Summing up:

Critique of Eliot’s Critical Thought:
Until the middle of the last century, Eliot’s ideas of tradition were extraordinarily influential. His essay was a major contributor to Modernism’s rise and hegemony. Like its author, the essay came to be regarded as conservative, elitist, obsessed with order and backward-looking. (Gareth Reeves – T.S.Eliot and the Idea of Tradition in Patricia Waugh’s Literary Theory and Criticism)
Eliot’s theory of literary tradition has been criticized for its limited definition of what constitutes the canon of that tradition. He assumes the authority to choose what represents great poetry, and his choices have been criticized on several fronts. For example, Harold Bloom disagrees with Eliot’s condescension of Romantic poetry, which, in The Metaphysical Poets (1921) he criticizes for its "dissociation of sensibility." Moreover, many believe Eliot’s discussion of the literary tradition as the "mind of Europe" reeks of Euro-centrism. (on the same note it should be recognized that Eliot supported many Eastern and thus non-European works of literature such as the The Mahabharata. Eliot was arguing the importance of a complete sensibility: he didn't particularly care what it was at the time of tradition and the individual talent.) He does not account for a non-white and non-masculine tradition. As such, his notion of tradition stands at odds with feminist, post-colonial and minority theories. Kenyan author James Ngugi advocated (in a memo entitled "On the Abolition of the English Department") a commitment to native works, which speak to one’s own culture, as compared to deferring to an arbitrary notion of literary excellence. As such, he implicitly attacks Eliot’s subjective criterion in choosing an elite body of literary works. Post-colonial critic Chinua Achebe also challenges Eliot, since he argues against deferring to those writers, including Conrad, whom have been deemed great, but only represent a specific (and perhaps prejudiced) cultural perspective.
Harold Bloom (The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry:1975) presents a conception of tradition that differs from that of Eliot. Whereas Eliot believes that the great poet is faithful to his predecessors and evolves in a concordant manner, Bloom (according to his theory of "anxiety of influence") envisions the "strong poet" to engage in a much more aggressive and tumultuous rebellion against tradition.
In 1964, his last year, Eliot published in a reprint of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, a series of lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1932 and 1933, a new preface in which he called "Tradition and the Individual Talent" the most juvenile of his essays (although he also indicated that he did not repudiate it.)
However, now that the dust is settling, when postmodernism is retreating, when we are beginning to live comfortably with the fact of plurality and the notion of literatures rather than Literature, and with canons rather the Canon, it is possible to return to Eliot’s idea of tradition, as critics and theorists have been doing of late, from a more impartial perspective. 

After viewing these short videos on key concepts in the essay 'Tradition and Individual Talent', students shall give their responses to the below given questions/though provokers. The responses shall be given in the comments section below this blog.

  1. How would you like to explain Eliot's concept of Tradition? Do you agree with it?
  2. What do you understand by Historical Sense? (Use these quotes to explain your understanding)
    • "The historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence"
    • 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
  3. What is the relationship between “tradition” and “the individual talent,” according to the poet T. S. Eliot?
  4. Explain: "Some can absorb knowledge, the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum".
  5. Explain: "Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry"
  6. How would you like to explain Eliot's theory of ddepersonalization? You can explain with the help of chemical reaction in presence of catalyst agent, Platinum.
  7. Explain: " 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."
  8. Write two points on which one can write critique on 'T.S. Eliot as a critic'.


Click here to attempt the quiz on this essay.

Further Readings:

  • Brooks, Harold Fletcher. T. S. Eliot as Literary Critic. London: C. Woolf, 1987.
  • Rainey, Lawrence S. Institutions of Modernism: Literary Elites and Public Culture. New Haven: Yale University Press, 1998.
  • Reeves, Gareth. T.S. Eliot and the Idea of Tradition. Ed. Patricia Waugh. An Oxford Guide: Literary Theory and Criticism. International Student Edition. 2006/7. OUP.
  • Shusterman, Richard. T. S. Eliot and the Philosophy of Criticism. London: Duchworth, 1988.
  • "T. S. Eliot." The Johns Hopkins Guide to Literary Theory and Criticism. Ed. Michael Groden, Martin Kreiswirth, and Imre Szeman. The Johns Hopkins University Press, 2005.
Citation credits:
Barad, Dilip. Short Video Lectures on T.S. Eliot. NMEICT Project Playlist. 2012.
Gallup, Donald. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1969. pp. 27–8, 204–5 (listings A5, C90, C7)
IZQuotes-image credit: