T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) is one of the most remarkable poets of the Modern Age. He expresses his notion of ‘historical sense’ in his famous essay,” Tradition and Individual Talent” (1919). He says that the historical sense is a sense of the timeless and the temporary, as well as a combination of both. This sense makes a writer traditional.
In this essay, Eliot does not illustrate “traditional” as old-fashioned. Instead, for him, traditional means a poem as a part of the general whole of all poetry in history. Individual talent arises from an understanding of the poet’s present poetic contribution.
More Notes: Tradition and Individual Talent
In his essay, Eliot also depicts the good poet as one who does not stay on emotion or his own personality. For Eliot, “emotion reflected in tranquility,” the romantic ethos of sound poetry, is an insufficient procedure for poetry. For Eliot, the poet must depersonalize himself and treat his mind more like a medium for a chemical reaction. Therefore, to create a new poem in a traditional sequence, the poet’s mind must act as an impetus, applying pressure in response to new combinations of already established, traditional elements.
More Notes: Thomas Stern Eliot
This metaphor of the chemical reaction and combining things in new combinations are similar to Eliot’s ideas about the individuality of a poet within a continuing poetic tradition. To know the past practices, the poet must labor as a chemist learns about former experiments, elements, reactions, combinations, etc. By divorcing his personality from his poetic creation, the poet can engage his work within the historical medium of all poetry throughout history. Another way to think of this is that the entire history of poetry is one big chemical reaction. A new poem with individuality and a historical sense will not only be informed by the past, but since it is part of the entire history of poetry, it will affect interpretations of the poems of the past as well. In this sense, the historical sense is vital for the mature poet, and every poem with a historical sense affects every other poem in history.
In conclusion, it may be said that he who has a historical sense experiences the whole literature of Europe from Homer down to his own day. It includes the literature of one’s own country, which constitutes one’s continuous literary heritage.