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The progress of the artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality” ( 18) only to conclude with the same conundrum: “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.But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things” (, and at the end of the twentieth century, his theories seemed no longer fashionable.Modern literary criticism became suspicious of value judgments and used theory to assault the assertions of tradition (Graff, 1987, 247-62).
The aim of this paper is to explore Eliot’s manifesto from the point of view of both the romantic and the modernist aesthetics, and to revisit the great disparity between Eliot the experimentalist avant-garde poet who advocates the aesthetics of fragmentation and the critic who pleads for self-surrender and the wholeness of tradition.
My intention is, first, to relate Eliot’s concepts of tradition and impersonality to the revolution that took place in the visual arts in the first decades of the twentieth century, whose experimental language he tried to transfer to poetic practice; and second, to show the way in which his theories go beyond romantic limitations and present strong affinities with modern trends of philosophical thinking, such as historicist hermeneutics, relativism and pragmatism, which continue to condition our current postmodern debates.
, in September and December of 1919, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was soon destined to become an “instant classic.”1 By mid-century, this essay was accepted as the “gospel” of literary theory (Schuchard, 73).
Eliot famously proclaimed: “Tradition […] cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour” ( 14).2 Since then, generation after generation of writers and critics have attested to the importance of this essay not only in Eliot’s works but also in the development of modern literary criticism.
His erudite idiom was taken as a privileged and exclusive form of discourse of the dominant ideology.
Poet critics such as Karl Shapiro made a plea (1960).4 Inimical to change, the concept of tradition itself seemed to go against the grain of the intellectual framework of modernity keen on progress and newness.
This essay revisits Eliot’s seminal text “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919) which has been part of the central debates of literary discussions for almost a century.
Although no longer an orthodoxy in our postmodern era, Eliot’s essay continues to influence current critical debates.
Eliot’s restorations are visionary explorations of the mind of Europe that for him stretches from the classical fathers (Homer, Aeschylus, Dante, Shakespeare) back to the Magdalenian draughtsmen.
In essence, Eliot’s argument in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is that great artists are indispensable and that poetry has to be written with a “historical sense” which, different from mere nostalgia, has to be inherited “by great labour,” an endeavor that “involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of its presence” (, 14).