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Traditional and Individual Talent (1917)

Traditional and Individual Talent (1917)

‘A classicist in literature,’ T.S.Eliot (1888-1965) tried to preserve and restore the classical norms of order and discipline in literature. In his essay Tradition and Individual Talent, he visualized the multiple implications of tradition and its organic relationship with individual talent. He propounded his theory of Depersonalization or Impersonality of Art in this essay.

The essay begins with the assertion that criticism is an unimaginative and intellectual activity. Eliot decries the fact that the criterion of excellence is considered to be novelty and individuality. This, according to Eliot, is a faulty critical attitude that tends to isolate the poet from the tradition he belongs to.

Eliot believed in the continuity of the literature of entire Europe. A work of art cannot be praised for its newness or individuality unless we relate it to the tradition to which it belongs. The old poets, according to Eliot, assert their immortality in the best and the most individual parts of a new poem. Every new work of literature echoes the older poets. So, the older poets live in the works of the new poets.

Referring to the idea of continuity of art/literature Eliot says that a ‘traditional’ piece of writing does not necessarily conform or imitate what has been written earlier. Eliot disapproves of repetition and imitation. ‘Tradition cannot be inherited; it is obtained by great labour’, contends Eliot. It requires reading and critical knowledge of the literature of the past. Tradition involves historical sense, without which a poet cannot sustain.

Eliot talks of two dimensions of the past, pastness of the past and its presence. Pastness of the past means the dated aspect of the past, while its presence is what is relevant today. The perception of the past as a present entity is important. The past is never completely past. It is within and all around us. The poet’s relationship with the literature of the past is a living relationship at the time  of composition. Appreciation of new works is not possible without knowing the past works. The meaning of the individual poet can never be understood in isolation. So, ‘Tradition’ is inevitable.

‘The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice….’ It is one of the seminal ideas of Eliot and marks a departure from the Romantic view of art that is subjective and expressionistic. The process of art is a continual self sacrifice on the part of the artist. This is Eliot’s idea of Depersonalization or Impersonality in Art.

A poet’s mind is a receptacle; he goes on storing feeling’s, emotions, etc. When a right compound is formed a work of poetry is created. Eliot attacks the theory of art given by Longinus and Wordsworth and doesn’t approve of the concept of sublimity.

Depersonalisation is the key word of this essay because of which the process of artistic creation seems to approach the conditions of science. As a scientist is not involved as a person in his research, similarly in poetry the man who suffers and the mind that creates are separate. Eliot compares artistic creation to an experiment in a chemistry lab. The poet’s mind, like a catalyst only accelerates the creative process and remains detached from the end product. The poet’s mind, hence is only a medium. Eliot builds his theory of depersonalisation on this analogy.

This theory has been criticized an escape from the vitality of living experience and a justification of Eliot’s own poetry. F.R. Leavis in his criticism pointed out the incongruity    of Eliot’s propositions. Middleton Murry challenged this theory in ‘Romanticism and the Tradition’.


Dr Sahar Rahman

Associate Professor

Department of English

Patna Women’s College

Patna University