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What does T. S. Eliot mean by Tradition and Historical Sense in his Tradition and Individual Talent?


In his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” Eliot spreads his concept of tradition, which reflects his reaction against romantic subjectivism and emotionalism. He also signifies the importance of the tradition. He opines that tradition gives the reader something new, something arresting, something intellectual and something vital for literary conception.

Tradition, according to Eliot, is that part of living culture inherited from the past and functioning in the formation of the present. Eliot maintains that tradition is bound up with historical sense, which is a perception that the past is not something lost and invalid.

According to Eliot tradition is a living culture which is inherited from the past and also has an important function in forming (shaping) the present. To Eliot tradition is bound up with historical sense of a poet or writer. 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. This is historical sense. It is an awareness not only of the past ness of the past but the presence of the past. On this sense the past is our contemporary as the present is.

Eliot’s view of tradition is not linear but spatial. Eliot does not believe that the past is followed by the presence and succession of a line. On the contrary, the past and the present live side by side in the space. Thus it is spatial.

Then Eliot holds that not only the past influences the present but the present, too, influences the past. 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 or a new acquaintance. Its arrival and presence brings about a readjustment of the previous relationship of the old members. A new work takes its place in the order. Its arrival and 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 perceptive of the present.

A new work of art can not be evaluated in isolation without reference to past literature and tradition. Evaluation is always comparative and relative. It calls for a comparison with the past that is with tradition. The value of a work depends on how well it is adjusted into the order of existing literary works. 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. You can not value him alone. You must set him for contrast and comparison among the dead.

A work of art has two dimensions- it is at once personal and universal. It is an individual composition, but at the same time, its inclusion into tradition determines its worth and universal appeal. A writer must be aware that he belongs to a larger tradition and there is always an impact of tradition on him. Individual is an element formed by and forming the culture to which he belongs. He should surrender his personality to something larger and more significant.

In his conscious cultivation of historical sense, a writer reduces the magnification of personal self, which leads to depersonalization and impersonal act.

When a writer is aware the historical sense, it does not mean that he is influenced by the past or his own self. Rather the writer should minimize the importance of his personal self, which will lead him to depersonalization and impersonal act.

Tradition is a living stream. It is not a lump or dead mass.But the main current does not always flow through the most noted authoress.

Eliot regrets that tradition in English world of letters is used in prerogative sense. This is one reason of the undeveloped critical sense of the English nation. They are too individualistic on intellectual habits.

Eliot criticizes the English intellectuals. According to Eliot to the English intellectual tradition is something that should be avoided. They give much more importance on individualism and are critical about the historical sense or tradition.

Like Arnold , Eliot views tradition as something living. For both the word “tradition” implies growth.Eliot recalls Edmund Burke what Burke did for political thought, by glorifying the idea of inheritance, Eliot has done for English literary criticism.Burke, famous English politician, gave emphasis on the experience of the past in politics. In the same Eliot also gives emphasis on the past regarding English criticism.

Tradition does not mean uncritical imitation of the past. Nor does it mean only erudition. A writer draws on only the necessary knowledge of tradition. He must use his freedom according to his needs. He cannot be completely detached.Often the most original moments of a work of art echo the mind of earlier writers. Though it sounds paradoxical it is true.It is paradoxical but true that even the most original writings sometimes reflect the thinking of the past or earlier writers. So, there is nothing which is absolutely original.

A partial or complete break with the literary past is a danger. An awareness of what has gone before is necessary to know what is there to be done in the present or future. A balance between the control of tradition and the freedom of an individual is essential to art.

Eliot said elsewhere that by losing tradition we lose our held on the present. Hence, a writer should be aware of the importance of tradition.

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