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tradition individual talent

What is T.S. Eliot's concept of "tradition" and "individual talent" as put forth in his essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent"?


In a sense, Eliot's tradition resembles what structuralist linguists call "langue" and the individual talent or piece of writing resembles "parole." Writers do not invent ex nihilo, as romantics might claim. Instead, one writes in a language that has evolved over millennia. The genres in which one writes are often handed down over centuries, as are stylistic expectations. Even when an artist violates such traditions, such as one might find in a mock epic, absurdist, or avant-garde work, such breaks are only meaningful against the background of the traditions against which they rebel. 

For Eliot, what is to be prized in poetry and other arts is not some unachievable ideal of pure originality, but instead incremental and personal manipulation of an inherited tradition, building on what has gone before. Rather than admire the myth of the untutored naive poet writing from pure inspiration, Eliot suggests that the best poets read widely and deeply, and the very depth of their connection to tradition is what allows them to transmute it into something both old and new, deeply rooted in their culture and yet original. It is not the artist's unique personality in and of itself that matters, but rather the way the artist has something—like Keats's negative capability—that allows tradition to speak through him that is important. Poetry is not an exercise in individuality and egotism for Eliot, but rather an escape from individuality.

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