Tradition and the Individual Talent: Or, TS Eliot Shares My Love of Dead Poets

I was recently talking with a new friend of mine about art and tradition and the role of the poet—like I do—and he recommended to me an essay that had influenced his understanding of all of those things, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1921) by TS Eliot.

I’ve been a longtime admirer of TS Eliot and the way he fought against the claims of modernity. As a poet and a critic he repeatedly insisted on the importance of Tradition at a time when everyone was desperate to assert their originality and their individual artistic expression. He saw the madness in this and argued for innovation and variation over originality.

Check out these excerpts:

Tradition:

One of the facts that might come to light in this process is our tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.”

“[Tradition] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. 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. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his contemporaneity.”

Against the modern cult of the artist, which focuses more on the personality of the artist than the art itself:

“What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality.”

On the dangers of seeking originality:

“One error, in fact, of eccentricity in poetry is to seek for new human emotions to express; and in this search for novelty in the wrong place it discovers the perverse.”

Read the whole thing here. Good stuff.

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