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TSE  November 2004

TSE November 2004

Subject:

Tradition and the Individual Talent was Re: (OT) Roots....

From:

Carrol Cox <[log in to unmask]>

Reply-To:

T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.

Date:

Sun, 14 Nov 2004 12:23:18 -0600

Content-Type:

text/plain

Parts/Attachments:

Parts/Attachments

text/plain (140 lines)

Nancy Gish wrote:
>
>
> Why cannot we discuss Eliot on this since "Tradition and the Individual
> Talent" is a key text in this notion of a European "mind"

This seems an excellent suggestion.  I have copied below the paragraphs
that I think particularly relevant to our current [OT] topic.

The sentence I should be interested in departing from is "He must be
aware that the mind of Europe — the mind of his own country — a mind
which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private
mind — is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development
which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either
Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian
draughtsmen."

The "Magdalenian draughtsmen" seems out of place in a context focusing
on "the mind of Europe." After all, most (all?) of the writers Eliot
probably included in his tradition would not have known the existence of
those drawings -- and a writer usually claimed for that "mind of Europe"
(Dante) not only knew not of those drawings but knew of Homer only
through the filter of Vergil. (Incidentally, I don't believe there was a
verse translation of Homer between Pope and Lattimore. Kenner usefully
speaks of the Victorian prose translators as taking Homer like wine in
one hand, biblical prose like a bottle in the other hand, and then
bottle away. And already when Eliot wrote Greek was rapidly
disappearing, or had already disappeared, from the education of all but
classical scholars.)

I'm ignorant of some important chronology here. When did Eliot see
Pound's Canto I in anything like its present form? When did he draft
this essay. How do the drafting of Gerontion and the opening lines of
TWL fit into that chronology? Canto I is (among many other things) a
tissue of beginnings: the 'first' poet telling us of the 'first'
European' (Odysseus) read through a 'Renaissance' Latin translation,
translated into modern english in a metric used for a modern translation
of the 'first' English poem, The Seafarer. Has any scholar explored how
all these things intertwined in the development of poetry in English
from (say) 1910 to 1925? The first words of the Canto, "And then," could
perhaps be seen as pointing back not only to the earlier parts of the
Odyssey but to "beyond" Homer -- back, perhaps, to Eliot's Magdalenian
draughtsman?

Carrol

From "Tradition and the Individual Talent":

Tradition is a matter of much wider significance. It cannot be
inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It
involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call
nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond
his twenty-fifth year; and 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 of the
literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the
literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes
a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the
timeless as well as of the temporal and of the timeless and of the
temporal together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the
same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in
time, of his contemporaneity.

  No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His
significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to
the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set
him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. I mean this as a
principle of ćsthetic, not merely historical, criticism. The necessity
that he shall conform, that he shall cohere, is not one-sided; what
happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens
simultaneously to all the works of art which preceded it. The existing
monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the
introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The
existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to
persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must
be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions,
values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is
conformity between the old and the new. Whoever has approved this idea
of order, of the form of European, of English literature, will not find
it preposterous that the past should be altered by the present as much
as the present is directed by the past. And the poet who is aware of
this will be aware of great difficulties and responsibilities.

  In a peculiar sense he will be aware also that he must inevitably be
judged by the standards of the past. I say judged, not amputated, by
them; not judged to be as good as, or worse or better than, the dead;
and certainly not judged by the canons of dead critics. It is a
judgment, a comparison, in which two things are measured by each other.
To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at
all; it would not be new, and would therefore not be a work of art. And
we do not quite say that the new is more valuable because it fits in;
but its fitting in is a test of its value—a test, it is true, which can
only be slowly and cautiously applied, for we are none of us infallible
judges of conformity. We say: it appears to conform, and is perhaps
individual, or it appears individual, and may conform; but we are hardly
likely to find that it is one and not the other.

  To proceed to a more intelligible exposition of the relation of the
poet to the past: he can neither take the past as a lump, an
indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself wholly on one or two
private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred
period. The first course is inadmissible, the second is an important
experience of youth, and the third is a pleasant and highly desirable
supplement. The poet must be very conscious of the main current, which
does not at all flow invariably through the most distinguished
reputations. He must be quite aware of the obvious fact that art never
improves, but that the material of art is never quite the same. He must
be aware that the mind of Europe—the mind of his own country—a mind
which he learns in time to be much more important than his own private
mind—is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development
which abandons nothing en route, which does not superannuate either
Shakespeare, or Homer, or the rock drawing of the Magdalenian
draughtsmen. That this development, refinement perhaps, complication
certainly, is not, from the point of view of the artist, any
improvement. Perhaps not even an improvement from the point of view of
the psychologist or not to the extent which we imagine; perhaps only in
the end based upon a complication in economics and machinery. But the
difference between the present and the past is that the conscious
present is an awareness of the past in a way and to an extent which the
past's awareness of itself cannot show.

  Some one said: "The dead writers are remote from us because we know so
much more than they did." Precisely, and they are that which we know.

  I am alive to a usual objection to what is clearly part of my
programme for the métier of poetry. The objection is that the doctrine
requires a ridiculous amount of erudition (pedantry), a claim which can
be rejected by appeal to the lives of poets in any pantheon. It will
even be affirmed that much learning deadens or perverts poetic
sensibility. While, however, we persist in believing that a poet ought
to know as much as will not encroach upon his necessary receptivity and
necessary laziness, it is not desirable to confine knowledge to whatever
can be put into a useful shape for examinations, drawing-rooms, or the
still more pretentious modes of publicity. Some can absorb knowledge,
the more tardy must sweat for it. Shakespeare acquired more essential
history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum.
What is to be insisted upon is that the poet must develop or procure the
consciousness of the past and that he should continue to develop this
consciousness throughout his career.

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