Eliot, T. S.

Assigned: Eliot, T. S. “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (885-90); “The Metaphysical Poets” (891-98). Also read the editors’ introduction (881-84).

“Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919)

Section I

1. On 885-86 (“In English writing we seldom…”), what critique of the critics’ search for originality or novelty does T. S. Eliot begin with, and how does he then describe the Western poetic tradition he favors as something other than a static repository of long-revered great works of literature, or as a club that contemporary writers may join by repeating their predecessors’ ideas and styles? How can a writer gain access to “tradition,” if not by repetition? What is the role of the “historical sense” (885, 886) in the poet’s quest to join forces with the European tradition?

2. On 886-87 (“No poet, no artist of any art…”), Eliot explains that poets can hardly develop their art or be understood in isolation from literary tradition, in isolation from “the dead poets” who have preceded them (886). When a significant new literary work is created, what happens, in Eliot’s view, to the “ideal order” (886) into which that work is newly inducted? With regard to Eliot’s description of the literary tradition, how could the “existing order” be “complete before the new work arrives” (886), and yet prove dynamic enough to receive a new literary work? In responding, consider what Eliot writes about “the mind of Europe” (886 bottom-887)—how does this collective “mind” supposedly change over time, yet without abandoning anything it has ever contained? Finally, why is this change not a matter of “improvement” (887)? If the poet’s need to become part of the “mind of Europe” isn’t about cultural progress, what isit about?

3. On 887 (“I am alive to a usual objection…”), how does Eliot answer the charge that his theory requires “a ridiculous amount of erudition”? If an excessive quantity of abstruse study isn’t required, how will poets come by the “consciousness of the past” that Eliot insists they must develop and maintain? How, according to Eliot, is Shakespeare’s way of relating to the literary and historical past exemplary in this regard, and why is the necessary process best described as the artist’s “continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable” and “a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality”?

Section II

4. On 887-89 (“Honest criticism and sensitive…”), how does Eliot explain his characterization of the creative process as given at the end of Section I: “the action which takes place when a bit of finely filiated platinum is introduced into a chamber containing oxygen and sulphur dioxide” (887)? How does his scientific analogy involving a catalyst and likening the poet’s mind to “finely filiated platinum” help him explain the creative process? In what sense does Eliot reject the older Romantic expressive poetics of the century prior to his own career, in favor of a more “impersonal” understanding of literary creation? Why does Eliot apparently prefer the notion that the poet’s mind is a kind of “medium” instead of housing “a ‘personality’ to express” (889)? Why should the creative person disappear in, or from, the completed work of art?

5. On 889-90 (“The point of view which I am…”), what fault does Eliot find with romanticism’s expressive doctrine and with what he calls “the metaphysical theory of the substantial unity of the soul” (889), i.e., the notion that the ego or soul is an unchanging essence? Why, according to him, is the doctrine of romantic expressivism (he mentions Wordsworth’s “emotion recollected in tranquility” description on 890) a wholly inadequate way to describe poetic creation? Finally, Eliot declares on 890 that in a sense, what the poet does is escape from his or her emotions, not express them, and he quips, “But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things” (890). Is this conclusion a defensive move on Eliot’s part, or is he highlighting the dignity of the poet or the value of poetry itself? Explain.

Section III

6. On 890 (“This essay proposes to halt…”), Eliot concludes with an epigrammatic quotation from Aristotle’s treatise On the Soul pertaining to the impassivity or calm of the mind, which the Greek author describes as being ἀπαθές, apathés, not suffering, without passion. How does Eliot divide up the various kinds of readers of poetry, in particular the kind of tradition-conscious poetry he advocates? On the whole, does the supposition on his part that “very few” people can appreciate the fact that “[t]he emotion of art is impersonal” amount to a narrowing of the scope of art from a valuable, society-wide experience to one for a select few erudite and enlightened souls? Or would that be an ungenerous interpretation? Explain.

7. General question: On what level do you connect to poetry or whatever art forms you prefer? Do you agree with T. S. Eliot’s insistence in Section III of “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that “[t]he emotion of art is impersonal” (890), or does that kind of talk, in your view, do literature and the arts an injustice in thus downplaying the personal quality of artistic creativity and engagement? Explain.

8. General question: “The Waste Land,” which T. S. Eliot wrote three years after his 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” seems like a good example of the tradition-conscious poetry he is calling for. If you have studied this poem, how do you respond to it, and how do you think it reflects on Eliot’s claims about the deep value of poetic tradition?

9. General question: In “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” T. S. Eliot clearly rejects Romantic expressive poetics and embraces a theory of art that attempts to separate entirely “the man who suffers and the mind which creates” (888) and, in essence, eliminates the human author from the text. To what extent does this theory place Eliot in the formalist camp of American New Critics such as John Crowe Ransom (Leitch 899-911) and Cleanth Brooks (Leitch 1179-95)? Does his anti-expressive poetics differ in any significant way from Ransom or Brooks, or is he essentially saying the same thing as them about the autonomy of the work of art? Similarly, to what extent might Eliot’s comment on the contents and processes of the artist’s mind be compared to the literary impressionist Walter Pater’s treatment of the same subject in his “Conclusion” to Studies in the History of the Renaissance (Leitch 711-19)? Explain.

“The Metaphysical Poets” (1921)

1. On 891-94 (“In collecting these poems…”), how does T. S. Eliot explore the difficulties of defining metaphysical poetry? What does he apparently think of Samuel Johnson’s famous charge that in metaphysical poetry, “the most heterogeneous ideas are yoked by violence together” (892)? What are some qualities that Eliot reflects on as potentially dispositive of metaphysical status, only to reject them as insufficient to prove the case?

2. On 894-96 (“If so shrewd and sensitive…”), what one key quality does Eliot discover in John Donne and certain other poets that makes them truly “metaphysical” poets? How, that is, do such poets process emotion and intellection, and the combination thereof, in their poetry in a manner that makes them and their verse special?

3. On 896 (“We may express the difference by…”), how does Eliot explain what he means by the “dissociation of sensibility” that he says came to mark English poetry after the early seventeenth century? What were the sixteenth-century poets and dramatists as well as the early seventeenth-century poets able to do that those who came after them were not? In what two ways did Dryden and Milton, according to Eliot, exacerbate this development away from a unified poetic sensibility?

4. On 897-98 (“It is not a permanent necessity…”), why, according to Eliot, must poets of his own time (the early twentieth century) be “difficult”? How does the difficult French poet Charles Baudelaire, along with certain others, offer modern people hope that “the dissociation of sensibility” need not be permanent? At the same time, why is it not sufficient to call, as some critics and readers have, for a revival of the kind of poetry implied by expressive poetics—why is it inadequate simply to “look into our hearts and write” (898) as Eliot’s adapted line from Sir Philip Sidney goes?

5. On 898 (“May we not conclude, then…”), how does Eliot qualify what we may have thought was his unlimited admiration of the metaphysical poets, and show his respect for (if not agreement with) Dr. Johnson’s well-known remark about the overabundance of “heterogeneous ideas […] yoked by violence together” that supposedly marks metaphysical poetry? How, in Eliot’s view, shouldwe regard the metaphysicals in the context of the mainstream English literary tradition?

6. General question: T. S. Eliot wrote “The Metaphysical Poets” not long before he composed “The Waste Land.” Do you find that his practice as a poet deals well with the “dissociation of sensibility” he describes in this essay? Why or why not? To what extent does “The Waste Land” dramatize or otherwise display the fragmented or sundered, alienated quality of experience that Eliot’s critical phrase implies? Explain.

Edition: Leitch, Vincent B. et al., eds. The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism. 3rd ed. New York and London: W. W. Norton & Company, 2018. ISBN-13: 978-0-393-60295-1.

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