Tradition in TS Eliot's Tradition and Individual Talent - Literary Criticism

Traditions hold an important place in the history of literature. They provide a forum to showcase role-models, say ‘thank you' for the contributions, celebrate diversity, or offer context for meaningful pause and reflection. The significance of tradition becomes apparent the moment an author picks up a piece of paper and pens down the verses conforming to the manners of the past writers. From Virgil's 'the Aeneid' to the 'Paradise Lost' of John Milton, traditions reflect in the works of every great writer.

Traditions form the structure and foundation of many literary works. They remind us that we are part of a history that defines our past, shapes who we are today and who we are likely to become. Thomas Stearns Eliot is among the countless critics who understood the value of tradition. He emphasized its importance at length in his famous essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent".

T.S Eliot was an American-born 20th century critic and poet. Prior to the 20th century, literary criticism largely looked at literature from a historical point of view.

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To understand a text, critics often looked to its historical background and the history of the language used in the text. The early 20th century, post-World War I, school of criticism, known as the New Criticism, was opposed to the critical practice of bringing historical or biographical data to bear on the interpretation of a work.

The New Criticism focused on the text instead of its historical background. In focusing on the text itself, New Critics intentionally ignore the author and the reader.

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According to them, the text itself carries its own value, therefore, the author's intentions in writing a text, or the reader's opinion of it is irrelevant. So, even if we're reading a book by a renowned author like Shakespeare, we shouldn't let the author's reputation taint our evaluation of the text. Beside author and reader, New Critics would also argue that a text's historical and cultural contexts are also irrelevant. Instead, we should read it to see how the work's elements, such as its setting and theme, work together to produce a unified, whole text.

Ordinarily, a 'traditional' writer is usually considered to be an old-fashioned writer, one who uses tried-and-true plots and a steady, understandable style. In the essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent", T.S Eliot indicates that, by "tradition," he does not mean what people usually mean in talking about literature, a blind adherence to the ways of the previous generations would be mere slavish imitation, a mere repetition of what has already been achieved, and according to Eliot "novelty is better than repetition." Rather, Eliot uses "tradition" in a more objective and historical sense.

Eliot elaborates the term 'tradition' by saying, "Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence". He also adds, "This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal, and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional".

Highlighting the significance of the past, Eliot further says, "You cannot value a poet alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison among the dead. This is a principle of aesthetic, not merely historical criticism. The necessity that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. 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”.

According to Eliot, the historical sense is: "a sense of the timeless as well as the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together". Historical sense is a perception that past is not something that is lost or invalid. Rather it has a function in the present. It exits with the present. It exerts its influence in our ideas, thoughts and consciousness. A creative artist, though he lives in a particular milieu, does not take his own age, or the literature of that period only as a separate identity, but acts with the whole literature from the classical age of the Greeks onwards to the literature of his own country taken as a harmonious whole. In this sense, the past is our contemporary as the present is. The artist's own creative efforts are not apart from it but a part of it.

The poet who understands the importance of the past also understands his responsibilities and difficulties as an artist. Such an artist will fully realize that he must be judged by the standards of the past. The value of his work depends on how well it is adjusted into the order of existing literary works. So, highlighting the value of the poet, Eliot says, "You cannot value a poet alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison among the dead".

A new work of art cannot be evaluated in isolation without reference to past literature and tradition. In saying that an artist is finally to be judged by the standards of the past, Eliot does not imply that he is pronounced better or worse than the previous poets or that the standards prescribed by the previous critics are to be applied in judging their works. This really implies that a contemporary work is to be compared with the great works of the past, and each is measured by the other. If a new work of art emerges as successful when compared with and measured by the old masterpieces, it is a clear indication of its value as a work of art.

To Eliot, not only the past influences the present but the present influences the past as well. To prove this idea, he conceives of all literature as a total, indivisible order. All existing literary works belong to an order like the member of a family. Any new work of literature is like the arrival of a member or a new relative. A new work takes its place in the order. Its arrival and presence brings about a readjustment of the previous relationship of the old members and its inclusion modifies the order and relationship among all works. The order is then modified. A new work of art influences all the existing literary work, as a new relative influences the old members of a family. It is this sense that the present modifies the past as the past modifies the present. The past is modified by the present also in the sense that we can look at the past literature always through ever renewing perception of the present.

Tradition no doubt holds an important place in literary criticism and literature in general. Its influence can be seen in every author's work. Everything each author writes is influenced by poets of the past and would influence poetry for years to come. This is true not just for poetry, but for all literary styles, as well as any art form. Although the 20th century New Critics undervalued tradition yet its importance cannot be overlooked.

Updated: May 03, 2023
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Tradition in TS Eliot's Tradition and Individual Talent - Literary Criticism. (2023, Jan 15). Retrieved from

Tradition in TS Eliot's Tradition and Individual Talent - Literary Criticism essay
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