T.S. Eliot’s essay Tradition and the Individual Talent was first published as an anonymous piece in The Egoist, a London literary review, in September and December 1919 and subsequently included by Eliot in his first collection of essays, The Sacred Wood, published in 1920. That it continues to exert a genuine influence on thought regarding the interrelationship among literary classics, individual artists, and the nature of the creative imagination, is a comment on its value. In any case, Eliot was able to let loose in this comparatively short essay—it runs to little more than 3,000 words—packing virtually every sentence with pronouncements that, in any other context of presentation, might have required far more elaboration and persuasive defense.
Despite these genuine virtues and the essay’s deserved renown, Tradition and the Individual Talent is rather loosely, perhaps even haphazardly constructed and is worthy of consideration far more for the power of its suggestiveness than for the precision of its organization. In essence, the essay proposes a series of key concepts that would subsequently become germane, for one thing, to readings of Eliot’s own poetry and that would also eventually become the root if not the immediate source for major critical approaches with regard to modernism in general and the methodology of New Criticism in particular. In addition to exploring the question of the relationship between the tradition—that is, works already preexisting in a national or even multicultural body of literature—and any one poet in particular (that is, “the individual talent”), Eliot also delves into and, so, makes pronouncements on the relationship between the poet as a person and the poet as a creative intellect.
He comments as well, finally, on how much or how greatly a work of literature ought to be regarded as giving expression to the personality of the poet, giving birth to the impersonal theory of poetry. Coming relatively hard upon the poetry of the English romantics, the longest-lived of whom, William Wordsworth, had been dead nearly 70 years by 1919 and whose subjective, expressive approach toward the writing of poetry still wielded excessive sway over both the composition and the reading of poetry, Eliot’s efforts to found in principle in what would later become known as the impersonal school of poetry can hardly be scanted or overlooked. While his essay may not have initiated the powerful reaction to romanticism that is now thought of as literary modernism, the essay certainly gave that movement voice and a clear agenda.
In keeping with an analytical approach, Eliot structures his central argument around various issues of separation. Specifically, and as will be examined in more detail shortly, there is the matter of the quality and degree of the separation that may or may not exist between the body of past literature, or the created tradition, and the individual living poet creating within the tradition’s most current or ongoing moment. Eliot also considers the degree and quality of separation necessary between that living poet as a fully rounded person (what he calls—perhaps a bit too colorfully—the “man who suffers”) and those aspects of that individual’s intellectual choices and other selective processes that result in the making of an actual work of literature (what he calls the “mind which creates”). Finally, Eliot takes into consideration the degree and quality of separation that is necessary between, on the one hand, the artist as an individual whose utterances may be thought to express a personality and, on the other hand, the semblance of personality that is, or can be, expressed in the work without any need for reference to the author’s own personality.
As may be apparent, there is some considerable overlap and confusion of terms here, as well as some overlap between matters that involve the act of writing—actions that involve the creation of a text—and the act of reading, which, because it is a process that involves the reception of a preexisting text, is a quite different approach. Nevertheless, the essay’s central premise, as well as its continuing critical value, is, in essence, Eliot’s argument that the creative process is an impersonal process, despite the tendencies of many readers to persist in identifying the speaker of a poem with the poet. Keeping this central premise in mind ought to demystify many of Eliot’s pronouncements on similar subjects.
The Living Talent and the Tradition
Eliot begins his presentation by directly addressing the essay’s ostensible topic, the relationship between tradition and the individual talent. What may seem to be the most obvious point in his opening argument is certainly the most salient, that the tradition is at any one time a completed whole that comprises all of the preceding creative endeavor out of which the individual author creates a new work. Tradition, then, is a continuum, and this point is one of the essay’s more daring stances. It may seem by now to stand to reason that the living practitioners of any one discipline add to and, so, shape and alter the accumulated store of their predecessors’ efforts—that, in other words, these past efforts live in a present that is continuously transforming itself into new efforts that then themselves become the efforts of the past, and so on.
Though such a position may sound reasonable and justified, Eliot’s taking that position, as his feeling the need to defend it to his readers should readily attest, flew in the face of the conventional wisdom to that time and that had been in place virtually from the beginnings of the European Renaissance. According to that wisdom, the ancients, meaning the classical writers of Greece and of Rome—Homer, Sophocles, Seneca, Virgil, Ovid, and others—were giants who towered over their puny modern descendants, who consequently characterized themselves as pygmies.
In that older way of casting the debate, the moderns, although by no means capable of being better or wiser than their ancient forbears, still had the advantage of being able to build on and improve such models as those ancients had left behind. Indeed, the term classic, in addition to connoting excellence in its field, implies a representative prototype within the particular genre or kind of work— epic, drama, lyric poem, and so forth. To complete the metaphor, if the ancients were giants and the moderns pygmies, those pygmies could nevertheless stand on the shoulders of the ancients and, in that way—but that way only—surpass them.
Eliot comes out firmly against any notion of couching the tradition in terms of a conflict and competition between the old and the new, the past and the present. In sharp contrast to this older idea of a combative relationship among long dead and living traditions and long dead and living artists, Eliot, who shortly before writing the essay now being considered had visited the underground caverns in southern France where cave drawings that were tens of thousands of years old had recently been discovered, could talk of a mind of Europe that had discarded nothing of its virtually timeless creative traditions along the way, as if there were in fact neither any seam nor any conflict separating the present from the past, the ancients from the moderns, or one work of art from another. Rather, there was only that constant stream of statement and restatement, adjusting and altering and coming back upon itself as each new voice is added to, and adds to, the mix. So, then, Eliot asserts that poets cannot write after the age of 25 unless they have developed what he calls the historical sense, that being a sense not of the pastness of the past, as he puts it, but of its presence.
It is at this point that Eliot’s argument takes a sudden, or at least unanticipated, turn by suggesting that the more perfect they are, the more artists express not their own personal lives and points of view so much as contribute to that living stream of creative endeavor. This abrupt turn makes much logical sense, however. Having just redefined the nature of tradition, one half of his title, Eliot is now obligated to define what he means by the individual talent, the other half.
The Impersonality of Creation
To explain his position on this score, Eliot introduces a simile drawn from chemistry, in which the mind of the individual artist is likened to a catalyst. As such, it allows disparate experiences to combine in new patterns that then form the work of art, like the chemical compound that results from the introduction of the necessary catalyst into the presence of the elements to be combined. While the catalyst initiates and enables the chemical reaction, or poetic process, to take place, resulting in the new compound or poetic composition, the catalyst itself is not otherwise affected and certainly, for all intents and purposes, is unchanged by the event. In other words, poetic composition is an impersonal process, engaging the poet’s creative and critical faculties but not necessarily any more of his or her personal life than, say, the chemical reactions that take place in the laboratory personally involve the chemist.
A romantic notion persists to this day among readers that poets pour forth their souls in their poetry. Eliot says not that that is not the case, but that it ought not to be the case. As cold and dispassionate as this may sound as a description of the creative process, Eliot is responding to nearly a century of that same process’s having been regarded as something akin to Plato’s divine madness. The spontaneous overflow of powerful feelings is how William Wordsworth had defined the poetic impulse more than a century before in his preface to Lyrical Ballads (albeit with some further qualifications that Eliot later will cite). Wordsworth’s idea seems clear: Poetry is an expression of personal emotions that can no longer be contained by the poet unless he expresses them in his poetry.
Eliot is trying to counter that claim by proposing that the creative act is as calculating and conscious an endeavor as any other constructive action and therefore is one that can be regarded wholly in terms of itself and of the traditions out of which it emerges, rather than in terms of the individual poet’s life and experiences. So, then, Eliot can further claim, legitimately for his purposes—which are to separate the poet from the poem and thus give primacy not to personality but to poetry—that poetry is not an expression of but an escape from personality, not a turning loose of but an escape from emotion (emphasizing a bit too coyly in his closing remark that only those who know what personality and emotions are would understand why one would want to escape from them).
As Hamlet says, however, that idea would be “scanned,” or scrutinized, for it must seem that, if the reader takes Eliot at his word, then Eliot is suggesting that the best poetry is escapist because personality and emotions are powerfully dangerous things whose expression ought to be avoided at all costs. In actuality, that is not Eliot’s point. Eliot is trying to propose an entirely different model of what poetry ought to concern itself with, as well as of how people ought to concern themselves with poetry. It is in his attack on the commonplace way of thinking of poetry as a personally expressive and emotive art that he is trying to propose, not that poetry is therefore escapist but that a poem is experience that has been objectified by structuring processes and the conscious selection of language and therefore is, as a statement, self-referential, nothing more and nothing less.
Debates over whether artists in any medium of expression produce out of and, so, comment only on their own personal experiences or whether they can instead express universal and thus objectified human situations are as old at least as Plato’s Republic and his dialogue “Ion” from the fifth century B.C. In the Republic, Plato, through his mouthpiece Socrates, famously banished virtually all the poets from the ideal community because, in his view, they do not speak universal truths openly and sincerely. Rather, they either conceal themselves behind masks, that is, their characters, or else speak only for themselves. In the “Ion,” Plato similarly argues that the poet is merely a medium for divine truths that have their origin elsewhere, so poetry is nothing more than a species of divine madness. Either way, Plato treated the poet, and poetry, as a special case, difficult either to categorize or to discuss. Whatever else he may have done as a result, Plato established a long-running tradition that the relationship between the poet and the poem is a knotty one.
The fact is, however, that Eliot composed the essay in question while he was still relatively young—just turned 30—and not only was he at the time also a relative unknown himself, but the essay was published anonymously. It is more likely, then, that it is the forcefulness, confidence, and clarity with which the central ideas of the essay are expressed that account for its enduring celebrity. It has been argued that the very anonymity that Eliot was able to maintain as he penned his thoughts and opinions on such a weighty and controversial literary question as the source of original poetic impulses might account for that tone of sublime authority in which Eliot conducts his presentation. One is inclined to share ideas more expansively and without fear of easy contradiction or challenge when the source of those ideas can be anyone and, so, becomes that powerfully impersonal force, the expert.
This does not take away from Eliot’s ultimate achievement as a budding literary critic. To add, as Eliot does in his essay, even another sentence or paragraph, let alone another page, to the ongoing debate regarding the relationship among the poet, the culture, and the poem is quite an accomplishment, and Eliot might never have arrived at such an accomplishment on the basis of the considerable reputation as a man of letters that he had achieved by his early middle age. Rather, it is the strength of the idea itself that carries the day. Eliot makes the poetry the important thing.
Another way to put it is to say that poetry is an abstract construct rather than any sort of personal statement and that its “meaning” then can be found in how it is put together rather than in what it is necessarily “saying.” If readers imagine that a poem is nothing more than personal expression, for instance, then poetry wins or loses its authority on the basis not of its own qualities but of matters entirely exterior and thus extraneous to the poem. The poet’s beliefs and attitudes and habits and foibles, not as readers know them but as they become known by the hearsay of gossip and rumor, scholarship and biographies, become more important than his or her poetry. That is a self-evidently absurdist posture. Lost in the process of adhering to the notion that a poem is nothing more or less than prettified self-expression is, of all things, the poem as a thing all its own, the way a flower or stone or bird is all its own thing and not what would be made of it by making it something other than itself.
Such a way of perceiving Eliot’s “impersonal theory of poetry” will lead readers right back to the importance that he places on regarding tradition as a living cultural force in the opening pages of the essay. There Eliot argues that the intensity of poetry is dependent not on the intensity of the poetic process but on the “intensity of the artistic process.” The poet has not a personality to express but a “particular medium” to work with and through, whereby “impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.”
His points are well taken if they can be seen to be emphasizing artistic expression on its own terms, formed by and adding to generations of tradition, rather than as a mere extension of the personality and emotions of the particular poet. Then the artistic product can be viewed, regarded, appreciated, and even criticized not in terms of what it appears to tell readers of the peculiarly limited life and times of its author, as if literature were only second-rate or at least far less rigorous history or social science, but in terms of the universal abstractions it reveals in the concrete terms of language and what Eliot will later call art emotions. Those, he insists, are not the emotions of any single person, however interesting a personality he or she may have been, but of common human experience generalized into those poetic contexts and constructs that form the traditions out of which an endless stream of new individual talents continue to write.
Eliot further insists that the individual talent writes best when it writes not for the sake of expressing itself as a personality, but for the sake of constantly shaping that tradition, whether that individual talent knows of it or not. (Naturally, Eliot would argue that anyone aspiring to practice an artistic endeavor should know its traditions through and through.) By virtue of the radical stance that he takes in Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot argues that the individual talent ought to know what his or her obligations to the tradition are and to know that one must have absorbed the tradition. It is, as it were, a never-ending circle in which personal issues have no place, although their rich variety, transmuted by the intensity of impersonal poetic processes, is indisputably the raw material of art, but only that.