Dept of English
Abyss Notes for ReadingT.S. Eliot's
"Tradition and the Individual Talent"(1919)
The title announces the two main parts of the essay: Part I is about"tradition":
Part II is about "the individual talent." Which is Eliot more in favor
Eliot begins his essay with an opposition between criticism and creativity
which Matthew Arnold had made famous in"The Function of Criticism at the
Present Time." In that essay, Arnold had called for a new spirit of critical
thinking to replace the emotional immaturity of the Romantics. When Eliot
says that"criticism is as inevitable as breathing" which side of the Classic/Romantic
debate is he taking?
What is Eliot attacking when he talks about the"prejudice" for looking
at a"poet's difference from his predecessors"? What is his attitude towards
emulation, learning from the masters? What side would he be on the 18thC
Ancients vs. Moderns debate?
1) the idea of"tradition" as a kind of organic entity in itself--
as if literature existed in, even created its own world;
"The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which
is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art
among them." Two important ideas here:
2) the idea that the literature of the present can change (our perception)
of the literature of the past. How does this work? Can you think of any
contemporary work of literature you have read which changed how you saw
an earlier work? This also works for film. Can you think of an example
of a parody film which fundamentally changes the way you look at the original?
If you know anything about Eliot's poetry, can you see this process working
in, say,"Prufrock" or The Waste Land?
Notice how in the first section, the poet subordinates himself ( no
her selves here) to tradition-- the poet's mind is subordinated to"the
mind of Europe." (What does the mind of Europe contain?) In the second
section, the poet is also subordinated, this time to the peculiarly disinterested,
aesthetic emotions of art. NB: Eliot is using"aesthetic" here in a Kantian
sense: referring to the emotion experienced when contemplating art as a
special category. The aesthetic sense is divorced both from concerns of
immediate utility and from all personal emotions. For Kant, we know something
is art because it has no other purpose or use than to be beautiful. This
led eventually to the art-for-art's sake movement in the late 19thC, of
which Eliot is a partial, though unadmitted heir.
Poetry rather than the poet. What kind of shift in critical concerns
(in Abrams's terms: mimetic, rhetorical, expressive, objective) is Eliot
Does the catalyst image really work--logically? How is it anti-romantic?
No one has definitively sorted out"emotions" vs."feelings." In general,
in Eliot, emotions are associated with experiences/events in one's personal
life-- things with a plot that happened to one. Emotions have a cause and
effect component and some sense of structure (the" objective correlative"
which Eliot mentions in his Hamlet essay is a plot structure corresponding
to an emotion). Feelings, on the other hand, are vaguer, more floating
impressions and images that are somehow less personal and more aesthetic.
"How completely any semi-ethical criterion of sublimity misses the mark"
-- here Eliot is complaining about ideas that some particular subject-matter
is intrinsically more poetical, that somehow poems about clouds are better
than poems about mud puddles.
"But of course, only those who have personality and emotion know what
it means to want to escape these things" -- for me, the most interesting
sentence in the essay. Remember this is the man who wrote"Prufrock." What
(Tom) cat comes scratching out of the bag here?