“You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead” Discuss with reference to Eliot’s Tradition and Individual Talent

By tradition Eliot means all those habitual actions, habits and customs, from the most significant religious rites to our conventional ways of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of the same people living in the same place. Tradition is a need and importance of an outside authority of the poet.

Allegiance to ‘inner voice’ simply means doing what one likes. The poet must allow allegiance to some other authority outside himself. He must learn and practice inner self-control. He must revise and re-revise his artistic work. Mature art is only possible in this way. His concept of tradition is enlightened and dynamic. Tradition is always growing. In Tradition and Individual Talent, Eliot regards the whole of European literature from Homer down to his own day as forming a single literary tradition. Tradition is dead, it lives in the present. When a great work of art is produced, the tradition is enhanced or modified to some extent. A great artist must have a sense of tradition and he must pass this tradition to the next generations; otherwise he will be isolated. Therefore, Eliot rightly says that:

            “You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and          comparison, among the dead”
Eliot’s conception of tradition is an enlightened and dynamic one. An idea of tradition is essential for it makes us realise our kinship with “the same people living in the same place”. But we must remember that the conditions of life which produced some particular tradition have changed and so the tradition, too, must change. Tradition is not something immovable, it is something constantly growing and becoming different from what it previously was. We must learn to distinguish between the essential and the unessential, the good and the bad, in a particular tradition and only the good and the essential must be followed and revived. While we should justly be proud of our own tradition this should not make us look down on other peoples who are not so lucky in this respect. In short, tradition must be used intelligently, changes in the conditions of life must be taken into consideration, and only the best should be preserved and fostered.  Eliot’s tradition continues and lives in the present. When a really great work of art is produced, this tradition is modified and a great work of art can be possible only when the artist has a sense of this literary tradition. Great artists modify the existing tradition and pass it on to the future. A sense of tradition is essential for the creation of good poetry, but individual talent, too, is of paramount importance. Indeed, the two, tradition and individual talent, are not opposite concepts. Eliot reconciles the two, and shows that both have an essential role to play in the process of poetic creation. Individual talent is needed to acquire the sense of tradition, and this individual talent also modifies the tradition so acquired. So Eliot propounds:
            “The poet must develop the consciousness of the past and that he          should continue to develop this consciousness throughout his career”
But the question is how should the individual writer have this idea of tradition and how can he invest his individual talent in it? The artist must have the historical sense so that his individual talent may be differentiated.  This historical sense is the sense of the timeless and temporal, as well as of the timeless and temporal together. Tradition represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of ages, and so its knowledge is essential for really great and noble achievements. According to this view, tradition is not anything fixed and static, it is constantly changing, growing and becoming different from what it is, and it is the individual talent which so modifies it. A writer in the present must seek guidance from the past, he must confirm to the literary tradition. The past directs the presents and is itself modified and altered by the present. The work of a poet in the present is to be compared and contrasted with works of the past, and judged by the standards of the past. But this judgment does not mean determining good or bad.  The comparison is to be made for knowing the facts, all the facts, about the new work of art. The comparison is made for the purposes of analysis, and for forming a better understanding of the new. It is in this way alone that we can form an idea of what is really individual and new. It is by comparison alone that we can sift the tradition from the individual elements in a given work of art. In this way, does Eliot reconcile the concept of tradition with individual talent and stresses their respective roles in the process of poetic creation. What Eliot means in gist is that:
            “Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and it you want it you must obtain It by great labour”
According to Eliot, the impersonal elements, i.e. the ‘tradition’, the accumulated knowledge and wisdom of the past, which is acquired by the poet to produce a great work of art. It is the duty of every poet to acquire, to the best of his ability, this knowledge of the past, and he must continue to acquire this consciousness throughout his career. Such awareness of tradition, sharpens poetic creation. Thus the individual talent of the artist is set against this tradition, observed, and evaluated. In this way, his art is better perceived, understood, valued and appreciated. Eliot further emphasies that point in the following lines:
            “No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His       significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists”
Thus, the idea of tradition for individual talent is unavoidable for a great work of art. The poet must also realize that art never improves, though its material is never the same. The mind of Europe may change, but this change does not mean that great writers like Shakespeare and Homer have grown outdated and lost their significance. The great works of art never lose their significance, for there is no qualitative improvement in art. There may be refinement, there may be development, but from the point of view of the artist there is no improvement. For example, it will not be correct to say that the art of Shakespeare is better and higher than that of Eliot. Their works are of different kinds, for the material on which they worked was different.  His view of tradition requires, as most criticize him, a ridiculous amount of erudition. It will be pointed out that there have been great poets who were not learned, and further that too much learning kills sensibility. However, knowledge does not merely mean bookish knowledge. It is wisdom which can also be learnt from the school of life as Shakespeare, Dickens and many others have done.

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