BREAKING NEWS: T.S. Eliot Maybe Not a Lunatic

I know we read “Tradition and the Individual Talent” last week, but I’ve decided I needed to talk about it now. Especially, in light of just reading “Gerontion” by Eliot.

When you first read “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” you sort of think to yourself, “Um. What?” Because Eliot seems to be contradicting himself left and right. Let me get this straight, Eliot. You’re saying that I need to both embrace tradition but also not imitate tradition? And you’re saying that I need to eschew emotion but also have emotion in my poetry?

What’s wrong with you.

Well, after a reread, I’ve decided there’s nothing wrong with Eliot. He was completely sane, and he actually (what a surprise) knew what he was talking about. Shocking. So here I am to inform you in the most simplistic terms possible, what exactly Eliot was getting at in his little exposition on tradition.

At first, Eliot seems to be upholding tradition in a very Edmund Burkeian way. Going on about “we shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of his work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously,” and then throwing in terms like “historical sense” to describe the entire value system of the past and present (942). And we’re like, whoa now, I’m pretty sure you’re pretty iconoclastic and innovative in your language in “Gerontion,” Eliot. For example, what would call this little snippet,

Protract the profit of their chilled delirium,
Excite the membrane, when the sense has cooled,
With pungent sauces, multiply variety
In wilderness of mirrors. What will the spider do,
Suspend its operations, will the weevil

That seems pretty tradition breaking to me, Eliot! What do you have to say for yourself!


So I’ve figured out. Eliot isn’t necessarily saying we should stand in the rain of tradition and let it soak us from head to toe. He’s saying we need to get an umbrella and admire it under our nifty umbrella invention. Or, as Eliot puts it a little more eloquently than I do, “Yet if the only form of tradition, of handing down, consisted in following the ways of the immediate generation before us in a blind or timid adherence to its successes, ‘tradition’ should positively be discouraged” (942).

Eliot is in actuality redefining what tradition means. For him, tradition has become an aesthetic, not a set of cultural regulations, structures, forms, or languages we need to copy, copy, copy for the sake of upholding the mighty and magnanimous forefathers before us. Rather, tradition means being aware of your cultural and historical surroundings at all times, and being aware how they influence your own poetry. This is the “historical sense” he talks about. This historical sense is an “acutely conscious” noticing of where you are at a moment in time (942). You should always be aware of the artists that have come before you, and how, without their contributions to the artistic sphere, you could not create what you do.

The modernists were applauding each other and slapping themselves on the back for being so original in their iconoclastic verse, and Eliot is calling for a little humility and awareness. Marianne Moore touches on the humility aspect and its importance in her essay “Humility, Concentration, and Gusto,” when she states, “Humility, indeed, is armor, for it realizes that it is impossible to be original, in the sense of doing something that has never been thought of before” (995). This is also what Eliot seems to be getting at: to realize that you will never be original.

But do not be discouraged. You will be able to always add something new to the corpus of the past in the way of an alteration. New additions and alterations should be noticeable but subtle, utilizing the past in order to modify the present. Eliot states the poet “must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same” (943). So although the content (which includes structure and syntax–things other than subject) is different, a good poem will always contain what happened in the past before it because of the very nature of history. Also, the additions do not improve upon poetry, they simply alter it. By realizing we’re not smashing down tradition, and we’re really just tacking new stuff onto it, we are able to really appreciate how reflecting on tradition has become an aesthetic technique.

Eliot’s strange denouncement of personality and emotion is a little more difficult to grapple with than his new definition of tradition, however. It seems odd that he wants to do away with emotion and personal intention, but really it’s quite reasonable. Eliot is merely calling for an objective perspective when creating poetry in order “to approach the condition of science” (944). To get at the core and the true emotion of the image, you must do away with your own personal emotions or personal intentions surrounding the image. It doesn’t matter how you feel about the bluebird or even how you want the bluebird to be portrayed. Instead, you should be asking, what is the genuine emotion derived from the bluebird in a specific context? Objectively, what is the tone of a bluebird? Distilling the bluebird down to its “bluebirdness” and feeling what the bluebird brings to you, rather than what you bring to the bluebird, allows you to use the bluebird correctly within an image complex.

That’s all well and good, Eliot. But have you even met Edna Mode from The Incredibles?


About Katherine Bartter

Senior Creative Writing major Poli. Sci. minor Cat enthusiast
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2 Responses to BREAKING NEWS: T.S. Eliot Maybe Not a Lunatic

  1. Ellen Butler says:

    I think this is a very interesting interpretation of Eliot’s seemingly paradoxical thoughts on tradition in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” as compared with the highly stylized “Gerontion.” I agree with your argument concerning Eliot’s definition of tradition not as a historical standard that must be mimicked but as a context about which one makes history new. I think that it’s important to note this very specific conception of the definition of tradition and its proper usage when reading Eliot in order to fully understand modern aesthetic that both informed and was informed by his work. I also agree that it’s hard to make sense of Eliot’s staunch rejection of the importance of personality in poetry, but I understood it, when considered together with Eliot’s unique understanding of tradition, as a proposal to separate the the necessarily fleeting sense of individual personality from the ideally static, universal state of poetry.

  2. Prof VZ says:

    Great conversation here–and great GIFs as well. Eliot’s ideas about the poet-as-medium, or the poet’s mind as receptacle is quite fascinating. His idea of the living tradition and his ideas about impersonality go hand in hand: “the pot has not a ‘personality’ to express,” he writes, “but a particular medium, which is only a medium and not a personality, in which impressions and experiences combine in peculiar and unexpected ways.” It is tradition that allows one to escape personality; and it is pursuit of what he calls “significant emotion” (‘an emotion that has its life in the poem, and not in the history of the poet’) that allows one to escape lower-level emotional experience on a purely subjective level

    I’m also interested in the very different implications or trajectories of Tradition and Gerontion: if the essay on tradition seems to reinvest in tradition in the face of loss, to shield the “personality” from a more direct confrontation with the ills of the day, Gerontion seems rather hopeless and bleak. That poem only refers to the past as that which has not been experience, and cannot be. The only thing left is the degraded and degrading present. What do you make of that remarkable shift?

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