Tradition and the Individual Talent Key facts and Summary

Some basic information about the essay:  

This essay was written by T. S. Eliot (1888-1965) in 1919 and published in the same year in a London Literary Magazine “The Egoist” (from 1914-1919). Later in 1920, it was published in T. S. Eliot’s 20 collection of essays “The Sacred wood” that was his first book of criticism. Now the essay is also available in Eliot’s selected prose or selected essays. 

Notes: Tradition and the Individual Talent

The essay is divided into three parts; 

  • The concept of tradition 
  • The theory of impersonal poetry and 
  • Finally, the conclusion 

The essayist presents his conception of tradition and the definition of poetry and poets in relation to it or tradition. Actually, Eliot wishes to correct the perception of tradition and individual talent in the this very essay. 


At the very outset of the essay, Eliot says that the word tradition is used only to express the grief for the absence of tradition and criticize the literary work. It can be applied only to describe the pleasing archeological reconstructions because the English readers accept the present poets in worthy manner rather than the past poets. Eliot says that tradition is very much significance for literature but it is a matter of fact that in English literature the word tradition is not used properly to evaluate or appreciate the present or past poets at all. The English people always boast on their creativity or creative genius. They do not think about the significance of criticism but It is different in French literature as it produces a lot of literary criticisms that depict the method of criticism and ways of lives of French people. That is why Eliot has considered criticism to be the breath of literature “Criticism is as inevitable as breathing”. He also asserts that the judgement of English reader goes in favor of individual talent not for the past poets that means tradition. It is not appropriate to judge in such a way for tradition and individual talent go together and they are not separated from each other. 

Eliot defines tradition that it is not handing down or inherited but it is gained by dint of hard labor only. He says that it is the only life blood to enrich the present life because without historical sense none can be a great poet. Historical sense involves not only the perception of the past but also the present. If a poet has a proper historical knowledge, he will be able to write poetry that will exist not in his generation but generation after generation. Past and present are independent but they have close relationship with each other. No poet can be judged alone. Compare and contrast, Arnold’s touchstone method, must be set in the standards of the past poets so that the aesthetic qualities of his writing can be figure out or understood. For right intelligible writing, there is no alternative to achieve historical knowledge because without this a poet can not feel about the difficulties of his time and certainly come out of his limitations. Whenever he looks into the great achievements of the past poets, he must able to evaluate the proper process of novelty or creation. Eliot has talked about the historical knowledge of William Shakespeare, gained from Plutarch who was a Greek biographer and moralist from whom Shakespeare borrowed the plots of his Roman Plays, that has made him very creative and immortal too. In fact, Eliot believes that awareness of tradition sharpens the sensibility and responsibility which are vital parts to play in the process of poetic creation. By the end of the first part of the essay, Eliot talks about the theory of Impersonality and introduces an analogy referring a chemical reaction that is the combination of oxygen and Sulphur dioxide. 

Eliot has defined the theory of Impersonality or the process of depersonalization as the sacrifice or detachment of personality of the poet in his writing. He says that any kind of poetry can honestly be targeted of criticism but the poet who maintains theory of impersonality can not be taken under criticism. A poet is a catalyst, means changer remaining unchanged, that has been illustrated by a chemical reaction.  Sulphurous acid is formed when two gases- oxygen and Sulphur dioxide are mixed in the filament of platinum. Here platinum is catalyst that is apparently unaffected, inert, neutral and unchanged. A poet must play the role of transforming catalyst arousing emotions and feelings within the readers. The poet’s mind in fact is a place or receptacle to bring about feelings, images and phrases together within readers following the theory of impersonality. He says that the great poetry also misses the proper combination of emotions and feelings if there is personality. when a poet reads the past poets, he can be well concentrated from their mistakes about his own personality and impersonality. Artistic emotion is important not recollected one. Emotion can be recollected as it is the result of concentration. In fact, the recollected emotions beget personal expression but poetry is not a turning loose of expression rather an escape from emotion that means that poetry is not an expression of personality but an escape from personality. Finally, Eliot concludes his essay declaring the purpose of his essay. He asserts that metaphysics and mysticism should be halted or stopped and the poets must be conscious for their poetry following the theory of impersonality. For this, tradition is a must for the development of individual talent.  


From the light of the above summary, the following points can be traced: 

  • The word tradition is used as a phrase of censure. 
  • The position of tradition in literary criticism, criticism is as inevitable as breathing. 
  • The definition of tradition.  
  • The close relationship and independence of the past and present. The historical sense involves a perception, not only pastness of the past, but of its presence. 
  • Compare and contrast for judging the present poets. 
  • The consciousness of the past is a must to be a great poet. 
  • Definition and illustration of the theory of impersonality: 

Poets are catalysts, the poet has no personality to express and art emotion is important for the poet not recollected one. 

  • And finally, the presence of the emotion in the poem not in the poet. 
Rashedul Islam
Rashedul Islam

Hi, This is Rashedul. Researcher and lecturer of English literature and Linguistics.

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