Is T. S. Eliot A Genuine Classicist in “Tradition and the Individual Talent”?


Eliot’s ideas of ‘tradition’, ‘classicism’ and ‘depersonalization’ in  “Tradition and the Individual Talent” should not mislead us. He is not Orthodox or traditionalist in every sense of the terms. He does not like a retreat to Roman Catholicism. He becomes a citizen of England. The land of his forefathers and adopts the religion of that Nation. In his later essays like ‘Frontiers of Criticism’ he does not insist on Tradition. In essays and lectures, Eliot profoundly influenced modern literary criticism. In the collection The Sacred Wood (1920), he contended that the critic must develop a strong historical sense to judge literature from the proper perspective, and that the poet must be impersonal in the creative exercise of the craft.

The poets and artists and polemicists, with whom he rapports, are not conservatives but aggressive radicals of the Right. T. E. Hulme proclaims that all poetry more than twenty years old should be burnt. Ezra Pound supports Mussolini. Wyndham Lewis writes a book in favour of Hitler. Eliot himself in a ‘criterion’ article expresses sympathy with the reactionary movement of the ‘Action Francaise’. His ideas are far removed from the ideal humanism of Bridges.

Eliot’s work reflects the aesthetic ideas of an age as far removed as possible from the Greek ideals of severity and harmony. Private need and personal impulse play a large part both in Eliot’s style and matter. Though his personality and literary ideals are so -different from Wordsworth’s the whole body of his works deserves as much as “The Prelude” to be called ‘the growth of a poet’s mind’.

When Eliot rejects the idea of progress in relation to tradition (“Art never improves”) we sense the suppressed force of his reaction against the American progress myth. His tastes often run counter to hi theories. A classicist would never say “I can connect/Nothing with nothing”. “He himself confesses that he wrote “The Waste Land” to relieve his feelings. “The Waste Land” is Eliot’s “Hamlet”. It is endlessly puzzling and fascinating and by his own criterion it lacks an objective correlative. The exceptional quality of his age, great revolutions and revolutionary ideas, made Eliot overemphasize the value of tradition.

Eliot is one of the great artists in prose of our time, an artist even in his evasiveness. His style is fascinating, sometimes dry and forbidding, but always severely graceful one. It is full of hints and implications, but never becomes curt of breathless. Its sometimes slightly misleading air of precision comes partly from Eliot’s frequent anxiety to make clear not quite so much what he does, as what he does not want to say. There is a decorous subdued wit, and behind the measured and cautious sentences, the enthusiasms ridden on a tight rein, the prejudices politely flaunted, and the insights reduced to formula, with scholastic tidiness, one can sense a ranging intelligence and profound sensibility, both habitually stretched to almost painful alertness. No critic of our time respects his readers more.

The essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is classic not only in English criticism but in English prose too. It is worth nothing that as in his poems, ‘where every word is at home’, in prose too, he displays an unrivaled flair for verbal precision. In the true symbolic tradition he prefers to work by way of implications and suggestions as to secure the lively co-operation of his readers. Some critics say its tone is dry and authoritative and that its rhetorical qualities show Eliot’s distaste and for a different point of view.

Eliot has spent his life as a wordsmith. He goes on modifying by using words like ‘if’, ‘out’, ‘perhaps’ etc.. Avoids all kinds of digressions, Precision, exactitude, reserve and restriction are the characteristics of his style. Eliot’s language is usually naked of metaphors. But the platinum analogy, which comes at the end of the first part of the essay, is an exception. Sometimes Eliot is ironic in tone.  But his irony never miss the aesthetic sense.

Ardhendu De 


  1. would someone like to discuss Pathetic fallacy by john ruskin


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