Analysis of ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’
Tradition and the Individual Talent was originally published across two instalments of the Egoist in 1919 and later, in 1920, became part of T.S. Eliot’s full length book of essays on poetry and criticism, The Sacred Wood. Literary modernism is visible throughout the essay in the self-consciousness Eliot writes of with regards to writing poetry. The Waste Land, like much literature of the modernist era breaks away from traditional ways of writing and uses Eliot’s own understanding of tradition, literary allusion, in a unique way. This essay will be focusing on the arguments made by Eliot, with regards to literary tradition, in Tradition and the Individual Talent and how The Waste Land relates to those arguments.
Eliot begins Tradition and the Individual Talent by arguing it is the poet’s treatment of their position within the historic context of literature that demonstrates talent. The essay asserts that the poet should use their knowledge of the writers of the past to influence their work. He states that “we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual part of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously.’
Eliot explains that to write with tradition in mind does not mean imitating, as this would lead to repetition and “novelty is better than repetition.” He defines tradition as something only to be gained by the labour of knowing literature of the past and by being critically aware of what techniques and content is of value. The poet should be aware of the simultaneous order of literary tradition, dating back to the classics. Tradition is the accumulated wisdom and experience of literature through the ages and is, according to Eliot, essential for great achievements within poetry.
Eliot argues that no writer or piece of literature has value or significance when isolated from the literary cannon. In order to judge a work of art or literature it must be compared to works of the past. He believes that tradition is constantly changing due to adding new work to the literary cannon. He suggests that the author should conform to literary tradition and be informed by the past, but that by doing so the work of the author modifies the work they have been informed by. It is important for the poet to be aware of their own position within the present but also their relevance in relation to literature of the past. The modern author adds meaning to the traditional text by incorporating its influence into their work. Eliot acknowledges that the new work of art, when original, modifies the literary tradition in a small way. The relationship between past and present is not one-way, the present can alter the past, just as the past informs the present.
Eliot then acknowledges that knowledge of the past as a whole would be impossible. In order to gain a good sense of tradition one must critically examine the past, focusing on works of art that are considered to be of high value. He explains that the definition of a sense of tradition is to be critically aware of trends and techniques which became typical of a particular age, movement or even author, and to have the ability to recognise deviation from this. An author with a good sense of tradition should also be aware that the main literary trends do not come, solely, from the most recognised poets, but they must be aware of trends set by poets of lesser recognition.
Although the work of present poets is compared and contrasted to poets of the past, it does not determine whether the work of the present is better than the work of the past. Standards and principles are recognised to have changed. The comparison is made in order to analyse the new work, creating a deeper understanding of the text. It is only through this comparison the traditional and the individual elements can be determined. Eliot claims that art never improves. He argues that, despite changes in thinking, great writers such as Shakespeare and Homer remain relevant. He recognises that artists work with different materials and their art is a product of different eras, therefore it would be impossible to measure a qualitative improvement in any school of art.
Eliot is aware that questions will be asked about the great level of knowledge that would be required of any one poet in order to meet his understanding of tradition. The essay will be criticised on the basis that there are great poets who did not have the level of education that Eliot is claiming is required. Eliot goes on to argue that it should be the duty of every poet to build their knowledge of the past for the duration of their career. He believes that it is knowledge of tradition that encourages and strengthens the poets ability to write great work.
Eliot recognises that, at the start of a poet’s career, individuality will assert itself, but he notes that it is the sign of an immature poet and that as they continue to write one should lose the sense of the poet’s personality within the work they create. The poet should become objective with maturity. This therefore makes it irrelevant who wrote the poem under analysis, the relevance lies in the poem’s delivery of literary tradition.
Eliot notes the necessity of the poet experiencing new situations and emotions without any changes being visible in their poetic voice. He states “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him “will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.” He notes that the personality of the poet should not be expressed in their work but should remain unchanged by external factors.
Eliot expresses that poetry may be formed from singular or various feelings, emotions or a combination of the two. He argues that poetry is in fact the organisation of emotions and feelings rather than inspiration. He believes that the quality of the poetry is not determined by the intensity of feelings or emotions but the intensity of the process of creating and ordering those feelings as part of poetic composition. The more pressure involved in the creative process the better the quality of the end product.
Eliot goes on to note the difference between personal emotions of the poet and the emotion of poetry itself. While personal emotions may be simple, the expression of these emotions may be complex. While it is not the role of the poet to express new emotions, the poet should express ordinary emotions in new ways. Eliot then goes on to reject Wordsworth’s theory of poetry that is has “its origin in emotions recollected in tranquillity”. He believes that the composition of poetry does not require emotion, recollection or tranquillity, but that original poetry results from concentration on experiences. He also argues that this concentration should not be deliberate but passive. Poetry should be an escape from the poet, not a reflection of them. Eliot is not denying the poet personality but is declaring that the impersonality required to create good poetry can only be achieved when the poet surrenders themselves to the poetry they create.
In part three of the essay, Eliot concludes that the poet is only capable of surrendering themselves to their work if they have acquired a good sense of tradition. “And he is not likely to know what is to be done unless he lives in what is not merely the present, but the present moment of the past, unless he is conscious, not of what is dead, but of what is already living.” By this he means that the poet should be conscious not only of their position within the literary cannon of the past but also where they belong in the literature of the present and how their poetry is relevant as a statement of the world in which it is created.
The arguments made by Eliot suggest he is of the didactic school of poetic literary theory, believing that poetry should educate as well as entertain. Tradition and the Individual Talent sets out rules to be a great poet. Although he does not go to the extreme of being a neo-Classical critic, his theories do bear some resembalance in that he speaks of the classics being as relevant to poetry now as ever. This suggests that Eliot believes alluding to classical poets can improve the quality of the poetry. While Tradition and the Individual Talent does argue for originality it does so in a way that relies upon literature of the past. This still fits with the understanding of literary modernity as suggested by Ezra Pound’s statement “Make it new” as, rather than making something completely original, Eliot is suggesting you take the traditional and make that new by attributing new meanings to what has been expressed.
Eliot does not allow for the expression of new emotions. The arguments Eliot makes for the absence of the individuals experiences within their poetry is limiting the originality and uniqueness of poetry. While Eliot allows for originality in the way in which poets react and respond to the literary and historic tradition, he limits free expression of the self. Whilst the poet often takes influence from the past there should be unlimited freedom for expressing new ideas and emotions relating to the new material and the world in which they live. The ideas expressed in Tradition and the Individual discourages poets who are less well educated and therefore could discourage naturally talented poets from creating truly unique poems.
Overall the essay is flawed not in the expression of Eliots arguments but in the rigidity of rules he places on a creative process, which should be free from rules and allowing for complete creative freedom.
In Tradition and the Individual Talent, Eliot stated that ‘the most individual parts of [the author’s] work may be those in which the dead poetsassert their immortality most vigorously.’ When placing this alongside his argument that the experienced and mature poets converse with literary tradition in their work, it is hardly surprising that The Waste Land is full of literary allusions. The way Eliot alludes to literary tradition is in itself a source of originality, fitting with his arguments, however, emotions, personality and the personal experience of T.S. Eliot are disguised within The Waste Land. These aspects become clear when studied from a biographical perspective. The Waste Land is often read as an attempt to put the ideas of Tradition and the Individual Talent into practice, but the remaining part of this essay will focus on how Eliot fails to separate his personal experiences from the creative process.
The Waste Land was written in 1922 during a period when T. S. Eliot was under orders from his physician to take three months rest. It is generally believed that this was due to a nervous breakdown. As a result of this Eliot was treated for neurasthenia under the care of Dr. Vittoz in Lausanne, Switzerland. Because the majority of The Waste Land was composed during the period of Eliot’s treatment, the poem can be viewed as representative of Eliot’s psychological condition and his healing. It is due to this that Eliot’s emotions and personality are visible in the themes, structure, language and even grammar of the poem. This is something which Tradition and the Individual Talent claims should be absent in the work of a great poet.
It is perhaps due to Eliot’s belief that ‘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’ there have been relatively few critics to study Eliot’s poetry alongside biographical examinations of the poet. Lyndall Gordon states that the more that is known of Eliot’s biographical life ‘the clearer it seems that the ‘impersonal’ façade of his poetry-the multiple faces and voices-masks an often quite literal reworking of personal experience.’
Eliot claimed that Tiresias is the ‘most important personage in the poem, uniting all the rest’ it is therefore likely that Tiresias, as the main consciousness of The Waste Land, represents Eliot in his struggle to gain ‘brain control.’ Tiresias fits Vittoz’s understanding of the neurasthenic as living ‘very little in the present and his thoughts always turn to the past or the future.’ Tiresias figured in this sense can be understood as ‘throbbing between two lives’ (l. 218) where the lives represent the two different aspects of his mind, the conscious and the subjective. Tiresias can be assigned the role of the characterisation of Eliot’s illness as the positive driving force of inspiration within the poem. Eliot himself wrote on the theory of the impact of illness on art in a positive light: ‘it is a commonplace that some forms of illness are extremely favourable, not only to religious illumination, but to artistic and literary composition’.
Eliot took a rest break in Margate in October 1921 which proved unsuccessful:
‘On Margate Sands.
I can connect
Nothing with Nothing. (l. 300-302)
This demonstrates the symptom of hopelessness. There are no connections to be found between the speaker’s thoughts. The conscious and subjective aspects of the mind are unable to communicate with one another.
There are multiple references in the poem to blindness, deafness, muteness and difficulties with the sensation of touch. Vittoz has stated that the neurasthenic ‘often looks without seeing’ and ‘listen[s] without hearing’ (p. 44). The narrator, whether it is considered to be Tiresias, Eliot or another refers to all of these issues:
‘I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of the light, the silence.'(l. 38-41)
It is the neurasthenic condition that could be preventing the speaker from connecting emotions to senses which results in further hopelessness. This is followed by a quotation from Tristran and Isolde, ‘Oed’ und leer das Meer’ (Desolate and empty the sea) which again furthers the state of despair associated with neurasthenia.
Along with the narrator and Tiresias there appears to be another character who, as Vittoz would describe, ‘looks without seeing’ and ‘listen[s] without hearing’:
‘”My nerves a bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me.
“Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak.
“What are you thinking of? What thinking? What?
“I never know what you are thinking. Think.”‘ (l. 110-113)
The reference to nerves in line 110 should be attributed to insomnia, another symptom of neurasthenia. This furthers the argument that Eliot’s neurasthenia has impacted the poem greatly. Here we also see a lack of control in Eliot’s writing, he writes the question “Why do you never speak” without a question mark and the incomplete sentence “What thinking?”
There is a severe lack of control in the poem so any semblance of narrative becomes blurred along with the sense of time, characters and their voices. The poem does seem to progress towards a sense of peace. It is in this way that it can be understood as Eliot’s process of recovery. In order to progress from this state of confusion Eliot must go through Vittoz’s therapy in order to reach the point of ‘shantih.’ Vitozz wrote that several times a day the patient should repeat ideas of calm three times, this can explain the closing line ‘Shantishantishanti’ (l. 434). In the manuscript version this movement can also be seen from the poem beginning with ‘the horror, the horror’ to ending with the words ‘still and quiet.’
In What the Thunder Said the tone of the poem begins to find its direction, or demonstrates the narrator approaching ‘brain control’.
Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands’ (l. 418-423)
At this point in the poem Eliot is approaching a point of recovery. The poem has moved from the uncontrolled nature of neurasthenia to a calmer state of mind thanks ‘to controlling hands.’ When linked to Vittoz’s technique of placing his hands on his patient’s temple in order to feel brain activity this passage is clearly in appreciation of his therapy. He spent time in the mountains recovering the symptoms of insomnia, hopelessness and confusion, ‘In the mountains, there you feel free./I read, much of the night, and go south in winter’ (l. 17-18). These repeated references to symptoms, treatments and Eliot’s own experience of recovery certainly suggest neurasthenia is central to The Waste Land.
This argument does not dispute the understanding of The Waste Land as a reflection on modern society. T.S. Eliot’s neurasthenia was a product of the financially focused post World War Britain in which he lived. The Waste Land can be seen as reflective of the sensibility of the time in Britain, struggling between the wars and trying to gain control, the poem could therefore be understood as diagnosing the society in which he lived. Whichever interpretation one believes, The Waste Land was composed as a result of T.S. Eliot’s mental health problems, whether it be an awareness of neurasthenia in order to diagnose society with or the expression of his internal struggle. This is clear through the fragmented nature of the text. The unannounced changes in speaker, time and location are as a result of Eliot’s mental state and yet have been studied in great depth without considering the biographical aspects of the context of the poem. The reason for neglecting this way of reading the text is likely to be a result of Eliot’s own arguments in Tradition and the Individual Talent, that “The emotion of art is impersonal.” The emotion of The Waste Land however is very personal to the poet, T.S. Eliot.
 The symptoms of neurasthenia ‘were notoriously vague-they included headaches, noises in the ear, bad dreams, insomnia, flushing, and fidgetiness, “flying neuralgia,” spinal irritation, impotence and hopelessness.’ Gold, M. K. 2000. The Expert Hand and the Obedient Heart: Dr. Vittoz, TS Eliot, and the Therapeutic Possibilities of The Waste Land. Journal of Modern Literature, 23 (3), pp. 519–533.
Lyndall Gordon, Eliot’s Early Years (Oxford University Press, 1977), p. 2.
 Roger Vittoz, Treatment of Neurasthenia by Means of Brain Control, trans H.B. Brooke (London: Longmans, Green and Co., 1921). P. 19.
 Eliot, T. S. and Kermode, F. 1975. Selected prose of T.S. Eliot. New York: Harcourt Brace Jovanovich. pP. 237.