T. S. Eliot Summary
In T. S. Eliot’s essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” he proposes what he feels are the proper method’s for a new artist to assimilate themselves into the literary tradition that has come before them. T. S. Eliot is mainly concerned with what he describes as the tradition of poetry. In Eliot’s opinion, a poet is not an individual separate from the rest of literary history. A poet cannot in a sense make original art without being conscious of the entire past of literature, and how his art relates to that past. For Eliot, the past is still a dynamic entity that shapes the way poetry should be written and interpreted.

The essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” begins with Eliot alluding to the way “tradition” is commonly regarded in English literature as being somewhat absent. Eliot feels that English literature lacks a certain formalized aspect that is prevalent in French literature. Eliot then discusses common conceptions of talent, as being discussed in terms of how different one poet is from another. Eliot says that we should not value poets who are different from their immediate predecessors. In Eliot’s opinion, many of the best traits found in a poet are things that they have learned from their poetic ancestors; implicit things that are not easily distinguishable in poetic style.

Eliot emphasizes the importance of a historical view of tradition, and expresses that this can only be obtained through rigorous work. It appears that Eliot would prefer that poets have a firm understanding every canonical piece of literature ever written prior to attempting to make poetry their own. A poet should additionally be aware of his place in the timeline of poetry, because this will give him allow him to understand that literature is both timeless and temporal. Eliot then begins his theory on the idea of an individual talent as being seemingly impossible.
All poets are interconnected, according to Eliot, and influence the past of poetry just as the past influences them. Eliot does not limit the influence of the past to poetry, rather he broadens his discussion to all art forms, “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” (Eliot 956). In this way, Eliot is almost denouncing the idea of the individual’s importance in poetry. Just as new art must be compared to the art produced previous to it, art from the past is simultaneously effected by new art.

Eliot then expands upon his theory of how new art and past works of art relate to each other in this way. Art should not be judged by comparing it to the art that precedes it, and “certainly not judged by the cannons of dead critics” (Eliot 957). Rather the test is if the new work fits into the history of art, and this is its test of value. It seems that a work of art must conform to certain regulations and conventions in order to be valued as a true work of art. It appears that Eliot is calling for an abandonment of spontaneous originality; you can’t be original without having a full concept of what has been done before you.

Influence is really just viewed as a form of emulating the authors that have come before you. Since one can only hope to emulate what has existed before them, Eliot feels that the best poet is one who leaves himself out of the poem. The poet’s individual personality is not valued in the creation of a work of art; rather he is valued for, “being more finely perfected” in his medium. Eliot then uses an analogy to describe the importance of an artist leaving no personal trace in his work.

Poetry is likened to a craft in the scientific analogy proposed by Eliot. The science experiment described is the combination of two inert gasses that created acid when in the presence of platinum, yet the platinum is left unaltered. The poet’s mind is the piece of platinum, it is used to trigger a reaction; combine things in a new way with the end result being an entirely new creation. In just the same way that the platinum is not affected, the poet’s mind should not interpret details or information, and the most pure art is one that has no trace of the artist. Similarly, Eliot does not think emotion is necessary for the creation of great poetry. Emotion would interject into poetry a remnant of the individual; it is possible to write about emotions without actually having said emotions. Dramatic scenes are quite possible in poetry, even if the emotion being expresses by the artist, have not been felt by the artist.

Eliot emphasizes the importance of a vast knowledge of the literary cannon, or what he refers to as tradition, while down playing the importance of the individual. To create works of art that are truly original or new, an artist must have a full command of all the artists in the field that have preceded them. The artist should also know how their work fits into the ever changing timeline of literary history. There should be no distinguishable trace of the individual artist in the work after it is completed, rather it should stand next to the works that have been created before it. In a sense, Eliot adheres to his literary theory; “The Waste Land” is a series of literary allusions from previous works. This essay defends the style that the is exemplified in “The Waste Land”, an impressive litany of famous literature that is combined into one larger work; fitting nicely into the timeline of literary history.