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Tradition And Individual Talent T S Eliot English Literature Essay

After studying both ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ by T. S. Eliot, and William Wordsworth’s views in his Preface to ‘Lyrical Ballads’, it became apparent to me that the conflicting ideas expressed by each of the passages commanded assent in particular aspects of their theses.

‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, written by T. S. Eliot and published in 1920, and explores in two parts his views on poetry in relation to literary tradition, and also the intrinsic relationship between the poet and his work. This essay was written shortly after World War I, and certainly Eliot was writing at a very delicate and especially disunited time. After the war there was a sense of what had been and what was to come in terms of literature, and the avant-garde movement really gained momentum at this point, with new ideas and creations being put forward. The Lyrical Ballads were first published in 1798 and comprised of works by both Wordsworth and Coleridge, all of which culminated in instigating the Romantic Movement in English literature; in 1801 Wordsworth added the Preface in which he set about highlighting his poetic ideologies.

The central problem raised in the question is whether there is a place for real-life emotion in verbal art, and certainly T. S. Eliot opposes this, believing that the creation of true art is made by a process of depersonalisation on the poet’s behalf. He has stated in his work that poetics serve the poet as an escape from any emotion that he or she may feel, and therefore that ‘we must believe that "emotion recollected in tranquillity" is an inexact formula.’ [1] 

In complete contrast to this idea, William Wordsworth, along with the other Romantic poets and writers, strongly incorporated his own personal thoughts and feelings into the poetry, as we are told that they are ‘mapped across the terrain of Wordsworth’s poetry and prose’ [2] . Therefore, according to his own beliefs, Wordsworth’s personality is very prominent throughout his work through his emotion.

In the second half of the essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’, T. S. Eliot presents his ideas on the poetry in relation to the author: he expands his theory of depersonalisation and claims that any great work of poetry is not defined by an author with a better or more interesting personality, as opposed to an author with a, perhaps, dull or monotonous character, for it is not, after all, demonstrated in the work. Eliot expresses this view with a scientific analogy, suggesting a filament of platinum to represent the personality of the poet, and oxygen and sulphur dioxide to symbolise the emotions and feelings of the author at hand whilst writing his work. In this scientific experiment, the final outcome would produce sulphuric acid, but, as Eliot stresses to highlight, there would be no trace in the product whatsoever of the filament of platinum, and therefore, the personality of the author in the finished literary work. Eliot draws a distinction between the personality of the author and his creative mind, stating that the better an artist is, ‘the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates’ [3] the final result. In effect, Eliot makes a distinction between the poets’ emotions and feelings: he is suggesting that when the artist is creating his work, the feeling he experiences when the right phrase or idea is formed that he has been striving for is separate from the emotions he used at the beginning of the creative process, and it is the author’s response to the discovery of these which are present in the final work. The personality of the poet and his personal experiences are therefore a necessary component of creating a literary work, but they are not present in the final product, and as a result the impressions ‘which become important in the poetry may play quite a negligible part in the man, the personality.’ [4] Eliot concludes that the poet should use regular emotions, instead of attempting to unfold some new emotions to express, and in doing so he will produce something that has no connection to the emotion at all. He asserts that Wordsworth’s view of the ‘recollection’ of emotions cannot be true in order to produce a great literary work, because it is created through ‘a concentration which does not happen consciously or of deliberation.’ [5] Ultimately he exerts his idea that poetry is not taking from ‘emotion recollected in tranquillity’ [6] , but is instead a welcome avenue of escape from the emotions and personality of the author.

Opposed to Eliot’s theory that poetry is an organised process is the spontaneous method of Wordsworth and the Romantic Movement. The ideology of the Romantics is best emulated in the Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, in which Wordsworth stands to justify his poetry and viewpoints in retaliation to the criticism his philosophy received. Certainly Wordsworth ascertains in his philosophy that there is a firm place for real-life emotion in verbal art. Wordsworth explains that in his own view a good poet ‘has acquired a greater readiness and power in expressing what he thinks and feels’ [7] in his work, and he or she sets out the identify with the reader by attempting to bring his ‘language near to the language of men’. [8] Clearly there is a direct comparison between Eliot’s view that to really be a great poet, and in order to truly rediscover literary traditions, the author must surrender his personality entirely to the work, and Wordsworth’s conviction that the artist’s relationship to his or her work was key. Certainly M. H. Abrams theory is apt in relation to the Romantics, as he claims the analogy of art as a mirror was used, but turned on the author themselves to reveal and reflect the personality of them, instead of the external current state. [9] In addition to this we are told by James Butler that ‘Wordsworth turned inward and backward, writing in blank verse an autobiographical series of adult mediations’ [10] which were reflected in his work.

A similarity between both schools of thought however lies in the realisation that, as described by Wordsworth, the ‘poetic diction’ [11] had been exhausted and was no longer a desired part of poetics. He proclaims that ‘the Poet must descend from this supposed height; and, in order to excite rational sympathy, he must express himself as other men express themselves.’ [12] Eliot concurs with other critics of his time that Wordsworth, along with Coleridge and other Romantics were responsible for this departure from strict poetic diction, although conceding that it was by no means an original thought.

I would be inclined to criticise both of these theories in order to ascertain in which school of thought the majority of my faith might lie. In Eliot’s work it would certainly appear difficult to assume that an author can be completely depersonalised from a work in which he himself has created. His assertion that there will be a distinction made in the natural creative process between the author, his personal emotions and his literary product generated at the end is, to me, doubtful. I would be confident in suspecting that there must be some remnant of the author and his personality, however small, left on his work. I do however agree with Eliot that perhaps to focus entirely on the thoughts and feelings of the author is wrong, and there was a need at this time of writing for the literary critics and scholars to re-focus on the poetry again.

Wordsworth view that ‘poetry is the spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’ [13] is certainly apparent throughout the Lyrical Ballads, and his ‘powerful feelings’ are best represented in his descriptions of nature away from urban centres. Wordsworth’s appreciation of nature was definitely prominent in much of his works, and he tells us that it is important to him ‘because in that condition of life our elementary feelings coexist in a state of greater simplicity, and, consequently, may be more accurately contemplated, and more forcibly communicated’ [14] to the reader of his poetry. The conflicting idea between poetry being an organised, scientific process, and the spontaneity and impulsiveness suggested by the Romantics is interesting to explore. One of the clearer comparisons to be made between the two is Eliot’s assertion that the writer, by depersonalising himself from his work, will be able to provide ‘emotions which he has never experienced [and they] will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.’ [15] He states that whether the experiences employed by the author in order to write his work are real or fictitious make no difference to the quality of the final outcome, because it is not these personal emotions that are being illustrated in the poetry. I think Eliot’s theory may offer valuable insights into some literary texts, but the values and beliefs of Wordsworth are hard to entirely dismiss in his favour.

In conclusion to my assessment of both Eliot’s ‘Tradition and Individual Talent’ and Wordsworth’s ‘Preface’ to the Lyrical Ballads, I would say that both hold important factors and ideas towards the question of whether there is a place for real-life emotion in verbal art. Eliot, it is clear, does not agree that there is a place for the emotion of the author in his final work, and firmly projects his theory of depersonalisation, using his analogy of the catalyst of the filament of platinum as the personality of the author and the chemical reaction which ensues as the literary process to further this philosophy. In this way poetry serves as a retreat for the author from both his personality and the emotions of which he suffers. The Preface and the thoughts therein of Wordsworth’s are therefore diametrically opposed to Eliot, stressing the origin of poetry ‘from emotion recollected in tranquillity’. [16] He highlights in the preface that he desires to show how ‘feeling… gives importance to the action and the situation’ in the poetry, and not the other way around. He uses throughout his poetry a plethora of emotional language, and in many cases, without this, the content of the poems do not amount to much in themselves. My criticism on the text of the ‘Preface’ would be Wordsworth’s inability to provide an example of a ‘spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings’. We, as reader, are only able to guess the ‘overflowing feelings’ of Wordsworth, but we are introduced with many good examples concerning his strong beliefs about what poetry should be.

I agree with aspects of both the theses to a certain extent, but I would support more confidently that there is a place for real-life emotion in verbal art. I cannot wholly conceive that the author is truly able to remove him or herself from their own literary creations, and become wholly depersonalised as a result. Surely there will be a trace, however small, of the personality of the author left in the work. The incorporation of scientific procedures into literature is hard for me to appreciate. Of course the reactions of people to literature are not easy to understand in relation to chemical reactions as they are not mapped out, and have no bound solution. Eliot does however stress that the labour and concentration of the author are important, but I think Wordsworth’s thesis continues to command assent.

Word Count: 1877


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