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Tradition and Individual Talent by T.S Eliot: Analysis

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Published: Thu, 14 Dec 2017

T.S Eliot Tradition and Individual Talent and The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

Tradition and individual talent

Eliot’s essays actually map a highly personal set of preoccupations, responses and ideas about specific authors and works of art, as well as formulate more general theories on the connections between poetry, culture and society. Perhaps his best-known essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was first published in 1919 and soon after included in The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism (1920). Eliot attempts to do two things in this essay: he first redefines “tradition” by emphasizing the importance of history to writing and understanding poetry, and he then argues that poetry should be essentially “impersonal,” that is separate and distinct from the personality of its writer. Eliot’s idea of tradition is complex and unusual, involving something he describes as “the historical sense” which is a perception of “the pastness of the past” but also of its “presence.” For Eliot, past works of art form an order or “tradition”; however, that order is always being altered by a new work which modifies the “tradition” to make room for itself. This view, in which “the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past,” requires that a poet be familiar with almost all literary history – not just the immediate past but the distant past and not just the literature of his or her own country but the whole “mind of Europe.”

Eliot’s second point is one of his most famous and contentious. A poet, Eliot maintains, must “self-sacrifice” to this special awareness of the past; once this awareness is achieved, it will erase any trace of personality from the poetry because the poet has become a mere medium for expression. Using the analogy of a chemical reaction, Eliot explains that a “mature” poet’s mind works by being a passive “receptacle” of images, phrases and feelings which are combined, under immense concentration, into a new “art emotion.” For Eliot, true art has nothing to do with the personal life of the artist but is merely the result of a greater ability to synthesize and combine, an ability which comes from deep study and comprehensive knowledge. Though Eliot’s belief that “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” sprang from what he viewed as the excesses of Romanticism, many scholars have noted how continuous Eliot’s thought – and the whole of Modernism – is with that of the Romantics’; his “impersonal poet” even has links with John Keats, who proposed a similar figure in “the chameleon poet.” But Eliot’s belief that critical study should be “diverted” from the poet to the poetry shaped the study of poetry for half a century, and while “Tradition and the Individual Talent” has had many detractors, especially those who question Eliot’s insistence on canonical works as standards of greatness, it is difficult to overemphasize the essay’s influence. It has shaped generations of poets, critics and theorists and is a key text in modern literary criticism.

According to Eliot, “Every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn of mind…” (page 47 ). And herein lies the impossible task of defining tradition. All we do is based upon this creative or critical turn of mind, based upon our religions or our morals or our art; and this has been true throughout all of history. And this is – on one side – tradition. But when a nation rises and falls, when a kingdom expands or a city dies in a cloud of flame, tradition is lost. I would add to Eliot’s words that every city, every family, every individual has his or her own tradition. Habits, ideas, though process – these are all part of this “turn of mind” that Eliot speaks of in his essay. Thought process is tradition; although Eliot says, “Yet if the only form of tradition…consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us…’tradition’ should be positively discouraged,” still my claim is this: tradition is in one’s own critical and creative turn of mind, within one’s self – the masses have no place in this tradition, no place in its creation, its encouragement, or its defining. And so this word, as many others, goes forever undefined; it eludes the human mind as something invisible and impalpable eludes our fingers, as a scent eludes our grasping hands. This is tradition. And beyond this, we can only speculate.

“Criticism is an inevitable as breathing, and that we should be non the worse for articulating what passes in our minds when we read a book and feel and emotion about it.” (T. S. Eliot Tradition and individual talent, 1920, page 48)

I really never thought about how much we criticize authors and poets. When we read a book we compare it to another author of the same genre or we compare it to another book by that same author. In almost every single one of Literature classes in my secondary school, we compared one writer to another one. Whenever you read a book or a poem there is some kind of criticism going on inside your head. When we criticize a poet, author, or some other writer we always look at their history, we have to find out every part of their background because that may explain why they wrote this or that. I have to ask, why do we do this? I’m sure there are times where the author/poet/whoever is not writing about their life and general experiences but something they are interested in. It is a tradition in schools, that we have to learn not only the poem or a novel, but also we have to know everything about the writer. In my opinion is that, when we getting older and older we realize that we do not need to look after the writer’s life to understand his or her work. Without knowing these facts we can enjoy the book and understand it.

The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock

This poem, the earliest of Eliot’s major works, was completed in 1910 or 1911 but not published until 1915. It is an examination of the tortured psyche of the prototypical modern man – overeducated, eloquent, neurotic, and emotionally stilted. Prufrock, the poem’s speaker, seems to be addressing a potential lover, with whom he would like to “force the moment to its crisis” by somehow consummating their relationship. But Prufrock knows too much of life to “dare” an approach to the woman: In his mind he hears the comments others make about his inadequacies, and he chides himself for “presuming” emotional interaction could be possible at all. The poem moves from a series of fairly concrete (for Eliot) physical settings – a cityscape (the famous “patient etherised upon a table”) and several interiors (women’s arms in the lamplight, coffee spoons, fireplaces) – to a series of vague ocean images conveying Prufrock’s emotional distance from the world as he comes to recognize his second-rate status (“I am not Prince Hamlet’). “Prufrock” is powerful for its range of intellectual reference and also for the vividness of character achieved.

C. S. Lewis once stated, “Love anything and your heart will be wrung and possibly broken. If you want to make sure of keeping it intact you must give it to no one. To love is to be vulnerable.” Throughout T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” a man’s characterization explains why he hides his true self behind an impenetrable shell, unintentionally stunting his personality. This poem uses J. Alfred Prufrock, a nervous and obsessively introspective man, to show readers that only open vulnerability, not fantasy and dreams, can serve as a bridge to meet emotional needs and provide meaning to life.

References

B.C. Southam: A Student’s Guide to the Selected Poems of T.S. Eliot (Fifth Edition, 1990)

T.S Eliot: The Sacred Wood – Essays on poetry and criticism ( Seventh Edition 1950)

George Williamson: T.S. Eliot (1980)

Jay Martin: A collection of critical essays on “The Waste Land” (1968)

B.C. Southam: T.S. Eliot: ‘Prufrock’, ‘Gerontion’, Ash Wednesday and other shorter poems (1994)


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