This is an early critical essay by T S Eliot which has had a widespread influence – both on critical readings of Eliot’s work, and on critical reading more generally.
Who published it?
The essay was published across two issues of The Egoist, a magazine for which Eliot had become the assistant editor in 1917. The first section was published in volume six number four in September. The second and third were published in volume six number five, in December.
Between 1914 and its closure in 1919, The Egoist became a key site for innovation in the cultural movement which would become known as modernism. Besides Eliot’s work, and poetry and criticism by his friend Ezra Pound, The Egoist printed James Joyce's first novel, A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man (1916), and parts of Joyce’s Ulysses (1922). These last two books were ‘serialized’, in other words chapters were printed in separate editions of the magazine. But The Egoist also printed Eliot’s Prufrock and other Observations (1917) as a stand-alone book.
What does the essay argue?
The version of the essay printed here has small differences to the one subsequently printed in anthologies. But the argument is essentially the same. Using the example of the differences between the French and the English, Eliot argues that ‘every nation, every race, has not only its own creative, but its own critical turn’. He established that it is difficult to discuss ‘tradition’ in the abstract, and that this is particularly true in England. Instead, Eliot begins to think instead about what it might mean to be ‘traditional’:
… 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 literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless and the temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional.
From here, Eliot moves to thinking more closely about the ‘Individual Talent’ aspect of the title:
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 escape from those things [vol. 5, p. 73].
Though it has not convinced all critics, Eliot tries to strengthen his point with a scientific analogy to a catalyst. Eliot explains that when two gases are mixed
... in the presence of a filament of platinum, they form sulphurous acid. This combination takes place only if the platinum is present; nevertheless the newly formed acid contains no trace of platinum, and the platinum itself is apparently unaffected; has remained inert, passive and unchanged. The mind of the poet is the shred of platinum. It may partly or exclusively operate upon the experience of the man himself; but, 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.
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