Eliot Tradition And The Historical Sense

Not every poet would describe their work in this way, but Eliot and Pound did: their work is characterized by a remarkably close and self-

conscious engagement with writing by others. In 'Tradition and the Individual Talent', Eliot explains why. He argues that the poet should have a 'historical sense', writing not only 'with his own generation in his bones', but 'with a feeling that the whole of literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order'. It is only with this knowledge that the poet will be capable of writing something genuinely new and worthwhile: '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' (1980: 14). In Eliot's view the most individual poet is likely to be the one who is most 'traditional', in the particular sense explained here.

Eliot's definition of literary tradition is part of what he called his 'Impersonal theory of poetry', his (remarkably successful) attempt to shift critical attention away from the poet to the poem and its literary context. The other component of this argument in 'Tradition and the Individual Talent' is an account of the process of poetic creation. Characteristically, Eliot uses a complex analogy, that of a chemical reaction brought about by a catalyst. He explains that when oxygen and sulphur dioxide are mixed in the presence of the catalyst metal, platinum, they create sulphurous acid. The platinum is necessary to generate the reaction that creates the acid, yet the platinum itself is not affected by the reaction and no part of the platinum is present in the acid. It remains, Eliot writes, 'inert, neutral, unchanged'. The platinum represents the poet's mind: 'the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material' (1980: 18). A more anti-romantic account of poetic creation cannot be imagined, and indeed Eliot quotes and rejects Wordsworth's famous definition of poetry as 'emotion recollected in tranquillity'. For Eliot, 'Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality' (1980: 18, 21).

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