T.S. Eliot on Tradition and Talent

The poet said truly unique artists understand tradition…but what he meant by tradition might surprise you.

The other day I was skimming a really old copy I have of a collection of T.S. Eliot’s essays, and the very first essay in the series was called “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” It’s an insightful little read that deals with the question of the proper relationship between the talented person (poet, novelist, whatever) and tradition.

The piece made me think of the word “artsy.” It’s funny, we use the word “artsy” to describe someone or something that is intensely individual. That woman I’m friends with is “artsy” because she dresses in a noticeably unusual but very intentional way. Home decor is artsy when it looks  like it was purchased from Anthropologie and then spray painted. The odd thing is, though, that “artsy” people tend to dress and act the same way as each other. Likewise, people who stubbornly try to dress in a way that challenges norms also tend to dress like each other (e.g. goths, hippies, or hip hop moguls). And that’s the funny thing–the more we try to be individual and unique, the more we find ourselves hopelessly enmeshed in traditions. We can’t escape them. And even choosing a smaller, newer, alternative “tradition” based on an oddball from the 1960s requires us to engage (at some level) Tradition itself; the thing from which that oddball was fleeing.

Eliot points out that we usually use the word “tradition” in a negative sense, e.g. “it’s too traditional.” We also tend to think of tradition as mindless habit or repetition. He challenges this understanding of tradition, and with it our understanding of what it means to be unique. He thinks anyone who wants to be a poet past age 25 (and I think we could say this about other artists and even politicians as well) has to grapple with true tradition. Because that’s the only way a creator can become truly individual.

Here’s an excerpt worth reading:

“[We have a] tendency to insist, when we praise a poet, upon those aspects of his work in which he least resembles anyone else. In these aspects or parts of his work we pretend to find what is individual, what is the peculiar essence of the man. We dwell with satisfaction upon the poet’s difference from his predecessors, especially his immediate predecessors; we endeavour to find something that can be isolated in order to be enjoyed. Whereas if we approach a poet without this prejudice 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 I do not mean the impressionable period of adolescence, but the period of full maturity.

“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. We have seen many such simple currents soon lost in the sand; and novelty is better than repetition. Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.”

This post was originally published on February 16 2012.


  • February 17, 2012

    Cindy Tan

    One of my favorite essays! Isn’t it really just a definitional argument, such that what’s ‘new’ or ‘unique’ must be defined by its categorical membership in what already exists? Doesn’t Eliot’s historical sense mean that most art forms are reactive, or does it urge us to go further and confess ourselves reactionaries?

  • February 17, 2012

    Brian Brown

    Hi, Cindy! I don’t think it’s just a definitional argument, because of what Eliot says (paraphrasing) about immersion in the tradition. It doesn’t seem to me that it’s just about having read enough books to say “I’m this, but not that.” I think back to the way I used to explain to people why I thought Christian music since Beethoven (esp recently of course) was so sad. For most of Christendom, religious music drove the development of secular music; it was the Christian “artists” who were in hot pursuit of truth and discovering new things about the science and art of sound. Unlike today’s “artists” who just parrot whatever the popular sound is on the secular stage with no historical knowledge informing their music, those composers were immersed in each other’s work; they built upon each other’s discoveries. Mozart could only do what he did because Bach and Handel and dozens of other great composers had figured things out that he could build on. He had literally been immersed since childhood in hundreds of years of musical development. So when he sat down to write a piece, the best composers of human history informed his pen. Even if he’d been an 18th century hippie and rebelled against all that history and knowledge, he couldn’t have unlearned what he knew–it affected how he wrote, how he thought, who he was. As Eliot noted, he had had to work for that knowledge–it wasn’t just thoughtless habit that he happened to have from when he was a kiddo. But once he had it, he couldn’t pretend it didn’t exist any more than you could try to improvise a new language without your knowledge of English affecting how you thought about it and structured it.

    My wife is a poet and she agreed wholeheartedly with what Eliot said about what you need in order to be a poet past age 25. Sooner or later if you want to be worth anything in the creative sphere (whether it’s the arts or the sciences), you have to be able to express something more than what’s in your own head. You have to not only know where you stand in the greater scheme of things (i.e. the definitional argument you mentioned), so that you don’t burst out “I invented fried chicken!” and look like an idiot; you are also inescapably caught up as you stand on the shoulders of giants (collective giants at any rate).

    Bottom line, I think what Eliot is putting forth is a notion of human progress that we’ve abandoned since the Progressives redefined progress in the early 20th century. It’s easier to understand if you think about it in terms of a science–let’s say electrical engineering. EE comprises a body of existing knowledge made of up the discoveries (and failures) of all EEs in the past, plus a variety of other scientists prior to the existence of EE. You can’t stand up and be an EE from scratch; that body of knowledge already exists, and you can’t invent something worthwhile unless that knowledge is a part of your consciousness. You have to know the state of the field, what has already been discovered and how, in order to know what truly represents PROGRESS (i.e. something new and valuable) as opposed to simply CHANGE (i.e. I invented this thing which may or may not be new and may or may not be valuable). And yet, Eliot points out, while any scientist would consider this an obvious statement, in the arts, we act like it doesn’t exist; like Leonardo was a hermit from birth to the Mona Lisa. Maybe you can call it being reactionary. But it seems like Eliot is saying that if you have talent, fantastic–now go and and study everyone who was better than you throughout history, and when you have eaten and breathed them until their wisdom informs your intuition, THEN come back.

    Then again, I only read the essay for the first time the other night, and you seem to have more of a history with it. What do you think?

  • […] know the answers. You’re better off finding a tradition to join. And as T.S. Eliot showed in last week’s post, while this is a lot harder than seeking myself (understanding a tradition actually requires hard […]