Eliot’s essay Tradition and Individual Talent (First published in 1919 in the Times Literary Supplement) is an unofficial manifesto of Eliot’s critical creed, for it contains all those critical principles from which criticism has been derived ever since. Eliot is of the opinion that the writer must have faith in some system of writing and that a work of art must conform to the past tradition. According to him, a work of art must conform to tradition in such a way that it alters the tradition as much as it is directed by it. According to Eliot’s conception tradition and the individual talent go together.
Tradition is the gift of the historic sense. A writer with this 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. The historical sense involves a perception, “not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence. One who has the historic sense feels that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer down to his own day, including the literature of his own country, forms one continuous literary tradition.”
In brief, the sense of tradition implies (a) a recognition of the continuity of literature, (b) a critical judgement as to which of the writers of the past continue to be significant in the present, and (c) a knowledge of these significant writers obtained through painstaking effort. Tradition represent the accumulated wisdom and experience of ages, and so its knowledge is essential for really great and noble achievements.
In After Strange Gods, Eliot defines tradition in the following manner: “Trad4tioir is not solely, or even primarily, the maintenance of certain dogmatic beliefs, these beliefs have come to take their living form in the course of the formation of a tradition. What I mean by tradition involves all those habitual actions, habits, and customs, from the most significant religious rites to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of the same people living in the same place.” Tradition, he says, is “the means by which the vitality of the past enriches the life of 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 judgement does not mean determining good or bad. It does not mean deciding whether the present work is better or worse than works of the past. An author in the present is certainly not to be judged by the principles and the standards of the past. 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 purpose of analysis, and for forming a better understanding of the new. Moreover, this comparison is reciprocal. The past helps us to understand the present, and the present throws light on the past. 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 traditional from the individual elements in a given work of art.
The artist must continually surrender himself to something which is more valuable than himself, i.e., the literary tradition. He must allow his poetic sensibility to be shaped and modified by the past. He must continue to acquire the sense of tradition throughout his career. In the beginning, his self, his individuality, may assert extinction of personality. He must acquire greater and greater objectivity. His emotions and passions must be depersonalised; he must be as impersonal and objective as a scientist. The personality of the artist is not important; the important thing is his sense of tradition. A good poem is a living whole of all the poetry that has ever been written. He must forget his personal joys and sorrows, and be absorbed in acquiring a sense of tradition and expressing it in his poetry. Thus the poet’s personality is merely a medium, having the same significance as a catalytic agent, or a receptacle in which chemical reactions take place. That is why Eliot holds that, “Honest criticism and sensitive appreciation is directed not upon the poet but upon the poetry.”
The working of the poet’s mind is like that of a catalytic agent—it is like the shred of platinum which helps in the formation of sulphuric acid but which itself remains unaffected. If that is so it is not the intensity of the emotions which enters into the making of great poetry but “the intensity of the artistic process, the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place.” There may even be an inverse relationship between the private experiences of the poet and their expression in his poetry—the experiences which are valuable for the man may not be important for the man. That is why Eliot considers Wordsworth’s formula ’emotion recollected in tranquillity’ as being inadequate for defining the poetic process, for it is something new which emerges out of the concentration of experience within the poet’s mind and is thus a kind of escape from his personality.
The experiences which enter the poetic process, says Eliot, may be of two kinds. They are emotions and feelings. Poetry may be composed out of emotions only or out of feelings only, or out of both. The poet’s mind is like ajar or receptacle in which are stored numberless feelings, emotions, etc. They remain there in an unorganized and chaotic form till “all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together.” Thus poetry is organisation rather than inspiration. And the greatness of a poem depends on its organization and not on emotions. The more intense the poetic process the greater the poem is.
Rejecting romantic subjectivism Eliot says : “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of the personality, but an escape from personality.” Eliot, however, does not deny personality or emotion to the poet. Only, he must depersonalise his emotions. There should be an extinction of his personality.
To conclude tradition is like taboo. Tradition involves all those habit and customs from the most significant religious rite to our conventional way of greeting a stranger, which represent the blood kinship of the same people living in the same place. Tradition is not a matter of feeling alone. Tradition changes with the change in the conditions of life. Tradition is not something immovable, it is something constantly growing and becoming different from what the essential and unessential, the good and the bad, in a particular tradition, and only the good and the essential must be followed and revived.