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T.S Eliot Criticism Essay

1232 words - 5 pages

Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 09A

1

T. S. ELIOT “TRADITION AND THE INDIVIDUAL TALENT” (1917) Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Critical Theory Since Plato. Ed. Hazard Adams. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1971. 761-764. Eliot’s goal in this essay is to underscore the “importance of the relation of the poem to other poems by other authors” (762) (this is what has traditionally been called ‘literary history’ and, more recently, ‘intertextuality’), and to stress, using an organic metaphor, that poetry is a “living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written” (my emphasis; 762). Eliot argues that, as critics, we tend to “insist, when we praise a poet, ...view middle of the document...

Eliot’s sexism ought to be obvious from his choice of pronouns. Eliot’s point is that the literary works of an artist should not be considered in isolation but in relation to the tradition which precedes him and which his own work, providing it meets certain self-evident criteria of greatness, in turn perpetuates and simultaneously alters. He argues that the existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted. (761-2). However, it is simultaneously true that conformity to certain literary norms or “fitting in is a test of its value” (762) for new work. In short, the past is “altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (762). Eliot argues that the poet must be ‘conscious,’ therefore, of the “main current” (762) of which he is part at the same time that he must be aware that the literary tradition to which he contributes is not static but ever changing due to efforts such as his own. However, he also suggests that the poet must be aware of the past and his relationship thereto in a way that is in fact, paradoxically, unconscious precisely because too “much learning deadens or perverts poetic sensibility” (762). Eliot puts it this way: the “conscious present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the past’s awareness of itself cannot show” (762). The poet must, in short surrender himself to something infinitely more valuable than himself (the tradition), the “progress of the artist” (762) being dependent upon a “continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” (762) in the face of Tradition. Eliot attempts to define this “process of depersonalisation and its relation to the sense of tradition”(762) in Part II of the essay by means of a scientific metaphor for the process of poetic creation. Here, he advances an “impersonal theory of poetry” (762) that is in direct contradiction of the expressive theories of Longinus and his heirs in the nineteenth century such as the Romantics. He proposes a novel view of the “relation of the poem to its author” (762) that reflects, in the chemical metaphor which he uses to describe the creative process,

Richard L. W. Clarke LITS2306 Notes 09A

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the pervasive admiration for the sciences of the era...

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