Eliot and Tradition

The Modernist artist was painfully aware of his or her historical position, and the Tradition that preceded the artist was just as important to the work of art as the artist’s contemporary context. During this historical period in art, critical judgment also begins to look at art through its context and the tradition preceding the artist’s works—a tradition that defines and is redefined by the contemporary work. Russian Structuralism “scientific” approach to literature, the New Critics move from the poet to the poem, and T.S. Eliot’s 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” are just a few examples of this critical shift during the period that moves focus from the artist to the art itself. Eliot’s 1919 essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent”, is probably one of the more cited examples, and understanding how his idea of Tradition and how it functions with the individual artist helps understand Modernist’s relationship to the past.

In his 1919 essay Eliot expresses a preference for a mature poet who sacrifices his own personality in order to situate his work within the artistic Tradition: “His [the artist] significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead”. Eliot’s essay then answers the cliché question, why read dead white poets? On a surface level, Ezra Pound’s Modernist motto of “make it new” can hide the Modernist indebtedness to the past (Eliot’s personal artistic preference is for the Tradition of complex metaphysical poets); this Modernist new, for Pound’s student Eliot at least, is a new reworking of preceding traditions. This reworking of past traditions results in a kind of symbiotic relationship between the past and the present where the present both influences and is influenced by the past: “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. . . Whoever has approved [of] this idea of order . . .[will] not find it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past” (Tradition and the Individual Talent).

Butler suggests the Modernist use of allusion is part of this merging of past and present that can be found in Pound, Joyce, and Eliot (15), and those of us from the Faulkner class can add him to this list. Faulkner’s notion of a past not past seems very similar to Eliot’s notion of Tradition, and his novels are often informed and influenced by past canonical works and literary tradition. The Sound and the Fury takes its title from the famous “Macbeth” soliloquy, and Absalom, Absalom! is a retelling of the King David narrative from the Old Testament. But for Faulkner and the other Modernists as well, these allusions and use of previous form are not mere imitation; there isn’t a direct correlation between the past forms that inform the contemporary works, but frequent inversions and new, playful expressions.

This “really new” then isn’t exactly “new” per say, and Butler points out that many of the avant-garde artists were classically trained (for example Picasso, Eliot, and Schoenberg were all considered experimentalist at part of their careers, and all well versed in their artistic traditions). This fact should be remembered when we read in the M&M anthology excerpt from Eliot’s “The Music of Poetry” that “Forms have to be broken and remade” (53). These broken forms that are to be remade are not to be remade ex nihilo, but must reconstruct the broken forms into more appropriate forms for the contemporary age. The poet’s “task is both to respond to change and make it conscious, and to battle against degradation below the standards which he has learnt from the past” (M&M anthology 53). The two quotes from “The Music of Poetry” come from the same paragraph, and show how the Modernist notion of Tradition and New can often be paradoxical and incorporate both progressive and conservative strands of thought.

There’s a lot of conservative and elitist thought in Eliot’s work, especially in his essay on Tradition and individual talent. His claim that “there are many people who appreciate the expression of sincere emotion in verse, and there is a smaller number of people who can appreciate technical excellence” demonstrates the extreme end of Modernism’s high art spectrum and its exclusive tendency, and there is a potentially alienating effect of this aspect of his criticism. Yet, Eliot is often cited as a forerunner of what is often considered a progressive Modernist movement.

I don’t necessarily have an answer or unique insight into Eliot’s odd mixture of personal, conservative beliefs and his progressive criticism. Eliot alone seems to embody a kind of tension and contradiction inherent in the Modernist movement as a whole, and Eliot’s complex idea of self sacrifice to Tradition speaks towards the way Modernist viewed the past.

Here’s a link to an online source for Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” essay if anyone is interested (I read this for a class a while ago and reread it for this blog entry. After revisiting the essay I would say it isn’t my favorite and I don’t think a lot of fun to read, but that’s just a personal preference): http://www.bartleby.com/200/sw4.html


2 thoughts on “Eliot and Tradition

  1. Eliot provides a much more coherent idea of the way modernists dealt with old forms than Pound. However, Pound offers more insight in the excerpts from his book A Retrospective that bring to light some of the complications and consequences of Eliot’s insistence that, “Forms have to be broken and remade” (Albright 53). Pound aligns himself with Eliot on his opinion of the purpose of free verse, and goes on to almost echo Eliot’s quote (above) when Pound writes, “progress lies rather in an attempt to approximate classical quantitative metres (NOT to copy them) than in a carelessness regarding such things” (Pound 13). The progress Pound wants creates a tension between the creation of new forms, with respect to the old ones, and the old forms simply regurgitated. This tension on the modernists to re-frame classical texts and idea carries the risk of being rejected by critics, as Stravinsky was because of his ballet Pulcinella, and accused of, “having fallen into a state of ‘infantile’ regression which led to neoclassical pastiche” (Butler 31) (Because I felt dumb in class, I looked up pastiche, it means artistic imitation).
    I feel your post really nails down the different ways the artists reacted to this threat against their legitimacy, which they themselves helped create. Pound certainly contributes when he says, “no good poetry is ever written in a manner twenty years old…yet a man feeling the divorce of life and his art may naturally try to resurrect a forgotten mode…if he think he sees in it some element lacking in contemporary art which might unite that art again to its sustenance, life” (Pound 11). Simultaneously rejecting the old forms and admitting that they may be irresistible to the modern artist, Pound attributes the neoclassical urge to a greater need of unity between art and life. This is another common tension for artists during this period, a tension, discussed in class, between presenting life and representing life. For Pound, the knowledge needed to present life as itself can be gained from the art of that period, and not criticism, even his own criticism, “Rightly or wrongly I think my blasts and essays have done their work, and that more people are now likely to go to the sources than are likely to read this book” (Pound 13).


    • I didn’t think about signing my above post for grading. I’m Michael Nation, I picked this ridiculous user name because every iteration of Michael and Nation (and any combination of the two) was already taken.


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