T. S. Eliot’s influence upon Modern Literary Criticism: Defining “Tradition and the Individual Talent”

"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."-
T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
 T. S. Eliot questions the habit of praising a poet especially for those elements in his work which are most ‘individual’, and differentiate him from others. He argues that the best, even the most individual parts of a poet’s work may be those most alive with the influence of his poetic ancestors. No poet or artist is significant in isolation. The whole of past literature will be ‘in the bones’ of the poet, with the true historic sense which recognizes the presence as well as the ‘pastness’ of the past. Eliot’s sense of the interdependence of present and the past is something which he believed the poet must cultivate. Tradition can be obtained only by those who have a historical sense. This sense of tradition implies recognition of the continuity of literature, a critical judgment as to which writers of the past continue to be significant in the present, and a knowledge of these writers obtained through painstaking effort. A writer with the sense of tradition is fully conscious of his own generation, of his place in the present but he is also acutely conscious of his relationship with the writers of the past. In short, tradition represents the accumulated wisdom of and experience of the ages and so its knowledge is essential for really great and noble achievements.


The relationship between the past and the present is not one sided; it is a reciprocal relationship. The past directs the present, and is itself modified and altered by the present. When a new work of art is created, if it is really new and original, the whole literary tradition is modified, though ever so slightly.

Meaning of Eliot’s remark that a poet is concerned not only with the pastness of the past but with its presence

T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
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.

The work of a poet in the present must be compared and contrasted with the works of the past, but this judgment is not to determine good or bad. The comparison is made for the purposes of analysis and for forming a better understanding of the new. Moreover this comparison is reciprocal; the past helps to understand the present and the present throws light on the past. It is by comparison alone that we can sift the traditional from individual elements in a given work of art.

The sense of tradition does not mean that the poet should try to know the past as a whole, without discrimination. The past must be critically examined and only the significant should be acquired. Neither should a poet be content merely to know the ages and poets he likes. To know the tradition, the poet must judge critically what the main trends are and what are not. The poet must possess the critical gift in ample measure and must understand that the great works of art never lose their significance; there may be refinement but no development.

In brief the sense of tradition means:

a)recognition of the continuity of literature, b) critical judgment as to which writers of the past continue to be significant in the present, c) knowledge of these writers through painstaking effort. Tradition represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of ages and so its knowledge is essential for great and noble achievements.

T. S. Eliot’s influence upon Modern Literary Criticism: Unification of Sensibility and Dissociation of Sensibility

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