Eliot’s concept of tradition and his theory of Impersonality | Tradition and Individual Talent

“Tradition and Individual Talent” (1919) is the most well-known essay penned by T.S Eliot which was first published in the Periodical named “The Egoist” and later published in his  work of criticism “The Sacred Wood”(1920).

In this essay, Eliot develops his concept of tradition and also discusses his poetic theory of impersonality. The essay “Tradition and Individual Talent” is classified into three sections: first Eliot’s concept of “tradition”, second Eliot’s Impersonal theory, and the third the conclusion. 

Eliot’s Concept of tradition:

According to the Oxford Dictionary, Tradition is a belief or practice that lasts for a long time among a specific group. But for Eliot, tradition is a subject of much broader implication. Tradition is not about following and complying with our predecessors blindly. Eliot states that we cannot inherit tradition; it can only be acquired by hard labor which includes the knowledge of past writers. Eliot also declares that this tradition can be acquired by those who possess the historical sense. 

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Eliot says that the Historical sense requires “not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence; the historical sense…composes a simultaneous order” (T.S Eliot, Tradition and Individual Talent). 

So it means not only the past affects the present but the present also affects the past. To explain this concept, Eliot thinks of the literature in an invisible or a simultaneous order in which he includes the literature from Homer to the date. Just as there is an order among the members of a family, similarly all literary works are also in order. So just as the entry of a new member in the family affects the other members of the family, in the same way, a new work of literature affects the other works in that order and modifies the old order.  So in this way, the past reshapes the present and the present reshapes the past.

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Eliot clearly signifies that when a poet composes a poem in the tradition – i.e by keeping in mind the entire order of literature – then all the great works of the past are also alive and assists to revitalize the modern poem. This dynamic interrelation is not concluded when the poem is composed because the modern poem sends forth a new meaning on the great works of the past. So just as the great works of the past help in giving shape to a modern poem, in the same way a modern poem also reshapes the works of the past that shaped it. 

Here it is also essential to remember that Eliot is not implying that poets should openly imitate the great works of the past. Actually, he states that poets should carry something novel into this vast tradition. To imply this Eliot uses the word “novelty”. To bring something new into their works, he says, a poet has to have knowledge of not just his or her own language but also the works of other countries and literatures. 

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Eliot’s concept of tradition is dynamic. According to Eliot, tradition is never stable; it is always changing and flourishing. He also states that tradition is not linear so that the present does not follow the past; on the contrary, the past and the present go side by side.

Eliot’s Impersonal theory:

One of the important themes of Eliot’s “Tradition and Individual Talent” is that of poetic impersonality. If a poet has to write great poetry then he or she must disregard his or her personal life and only after that the poet will manage to produce their own unique work of art. Since the poet is involved in the constant submission of himself to the extensive order of tradition; thereby, poetic creation is an exercise of depersonalization.  According to Eliot, an artist’s personality is not important but his understanding of tradition is important. Here the understanding of tradition means the sense or knowledge of the entire order of literature from Homer to the date. According to Eliot’s view, a poet should forget all his pleasures and sorrows and must concentrate on obtaining a sense of tradition and conveying it in his writing. A poet should be able to set apart personal information from the work of art that is being produced. 

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The analogy of chemical reaction:

To elucidate his theory, Eliot put forward the analogy of chemical reaction. Eliot says that when sulfur dioxide and oxygen are put together in the presence of filament platinum, then sulfurous acid is produced. This combination occurs when platinum is there but in the new acid there is no trace of platinum. So platinum is the catalyst that assists in the procedure of a chemical reaction but platinum itself stays unaltered, static, and irreversible. In the same way, Eliot says that if a poet composes a poem, it should not have the emotions and experiences of that poet just like sulfurous acid does not contain platinum.

In the third part of this essay “Tradition and Individual Talent”, Eliot brings out a crucial end. This work transfers the interpretation of a work of art from an attention on the author as a person, to the interpretation of the work of art detached from the author. After this essay of Eliot, critics would gradually focus on the internal formation of poetry such as metaphor, rhyme, meter etc. Critics would eliminate the personal life of the author from the interpretation of his or her work of art; the author’s personal life, as Eliot appeared to suggest, was insignificant to the artwork composed. The pinnacle of this approach was achieved with the New Critics from about the 1930s to 1960s.  

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So in this way, Eliot dismisses Wordsworth’s theory of poetry as “emotion recollected in tranquility” (William Wordsworth, A Preface to Lyrical Ballads). According to Eliot, the artistic process is not about feelings, and contemplation but the artistic procedure is all about concentration. There should be a constant surrender of himself entirely to the work. As Eliot states, “the emotion of art is impersonality” (T.S Eliot, Tradition and Individual Talent).

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