History is often seen as a way of advancing to the next stage and improving the cultural values of the past. However, for T.S. Eliot, modernity had ruptured its connection to a more vital past and was as a result impoverished. History is instead characterized by regression and ruptures. In his essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” his idea of tradition shows retrogression instead of progression. Eliot argues that “the whole literature of Europe from Homer” (49) is an archive of works affecting authors in the present moment and is in turn influenced by those authors in the present. In other words, the poet's predecessors are those to whom he is indebted for all that he has inherited: his language, his rationale, his perspective, and his standards of conduct. He acknowledges his debt by allowing these ancestors deliver their ideas through his literary pieces. Paradoxically, the more willingly he lets them to speak, which is to indicate the less he self-indulgently attempts to make his work appear original with him, the more fully his work brings the impression of his individuality. In a way, for Eliot, the word “tradition” thus is the ability to restructure the elements of collection of works so as to demonstrate a new connection to it and to create a sense of simultaneity between past and present, as demonstrated in his work, The Waste Land.
In the essay, Eliot admires the literary tradition and indicates that poets are those who write with a sense of connection with the predecessors. He argues that “No poet, no artist of any art has him complete meaning alone. His significance…is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets” (49). A poet is thus not an individual disconnected from the foundation of literary history, because the poet cannot create original art without being able to recognize the entire past of literature and how his or her art connects to that past. In this way, when a piece of new art compares or contrasts to the art created previous to it, art from the past is simultaneously affected by the new art.
Eliot also links this literal critical concept of simultaneity between past and present to the act of breathing, indicating the act “as inevitable” (48). Eliot connects the idea to this two-way process of respiration, because literary tradition appears to be a repetitive process of recirculation. Writing in present of the past inevitably results in the action of taking in and then recirculating tradition, similar to the action of inhaling and exhaling. Through this comparison, poets are thus interconnected and influence the past of poetry just as the past influences them, neglecting historical and chronological differences among the works.
The Romantic notion of originality and creativity contradicts with Eliot’s idea of art as having “a simultaneous existence and compo[sing] a simultaneous order” (49). The Romantics assert that the artist must have the ability to create the most exclusive work without learning from any other work. For instance, Coleridge’s Biographia Literaria appreciates poetry as the forming of ‘deep feeling’ through ‘profound thought’ into words that acquire a ‘sense of novelty and freshness’ (166). Similarly, Friedrich Schegel asserts that if poems are “not completely unique, free and true, then…they’re worthless” (15). Shelley emphasizes poetic inspiration of ‘the greatest poet’ as ‘original purity and force’, shaped by ‘labour and study’ (228). The Romantics thus place their poetic value upon originality and unique expression, celebrating sense of creativity and rejecting the idea of imitation. Eliot’s essay clearly initiates a movement away from originality. Instead of perceiving past poets as competition, Eliot views past poets and their works as a medium to cultivate and sharpen contemporary poetry. Eliot recognizes that association with predecessors is seemingly inevitable for all present poets, but emphasizes the shared state of this association, by which all...
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