T.S Eliot is undoubtedly the greatest critic of modern age, occupying a prestigious position in the field of literary criticism as well. His contribution to literature and literary criticism is varied and manifold. He has not only corrected and educated the taste of his readers, but also brought about rethinking, regarding the functions of poetry and the nature of the poetic process. He also gave a new orientation, new critical ideas and new tools of criticism. John Hayward rightly asserts:
“No critic, indeed, since Coleridge has shown more clearly the use of poetry and of criticism.”
However, his famous essay “Tradition and individual talent” has been regarded as an unofficial manifesto of Eliot’s critical creed. This essay not only states his theory of tradition and that of impersonality of poetry but also serves as the basis of his subsequent criticism. In it he has discussed the close relationship that exist between a poet and tradition, the role of tradition in the whole poetic process, and the extent of involvement of poet’s personality in this process.
Eliot’s Ideas on Tradition
Eliot started writing in an era when the romantic emphasis of individuality, personal inspiration and genius of the poet were at its peak. It was a period when the merit of a good poet was his “individuality” regarding the poetic process. Hence, this essay came as a revolt against the “personality theory of poetry” that advocated freedom from all traditional influences as a necessary pre-condition of artistic creation. On the other hand, Eliot gave the word “traditional” as criteria to judge the worth of a poet. However, he says that the word “tradition”, thus using it in a “Derogatory sense”. He argues that the English people have undue prejudice in favour of originality in literature, praising those aspects of the poet that are “individualistic”. However, Eliot says: “If we approach a poet without this prejudice w…