- T.S. Eliot and the Concept of Tradition
In an age of academic criticism, it is difficult to imagine the effect that T.S. Eliot’s early essays had on the study of English literature in universities. [End Page 230] These essays—many of them short, unscholarly in the conventional sense, and published in periodicals sold on newsstands—redefined the tradition and established in the still-young discipline of “English” the values (wit, irony, complexity, ambiguity) which the New Criticism would enshrine and which would define English studies until the rise of critical theory in the early 1970s. Eliot’s enthusiasms, notably for the Metaphysicals, helped to shape curricula; his aversions, including most of the Romantic and Victorian poets, survived his distaste, but their proponents often seemed vaguely on the defensive.
Late in his life, Eliot admitted what his own critics had long since figured out—that his pronouncements were influenced largely by his own needs as a poet and his sense of what was most useful for the revival of poetry in English when he began to publish during the Great War. This confession, and his sometimes dismissive attitude toward his own criticism, did nothing to diminish Eliot’s stature, and in the last thirty years steadily growing awareness of the complexity and subtlety of his critical positions has enhanced his reputation and made him the most analyzed poet-critic in English. We can now see that Eliot’s anti-Romantic prejudices were more apparent than real and understand some of the ways in which his poetry and criticism were influenced by the Romantics and Victorians; we can see how he anticipated much later critical theory, including deconstruction, and attempted to find a way beyond the impasse of radical indeterminacy; we can begin to untangle the ways in which Eliot’s philosophical training, his contemporaries, and the history of his time affected his formulations.
The idea of tradition has long been recognized as central both to Eliot’s aesthetics and his conservative politics, and commentary on Eliot has sometimes come to grief either by trying to separate art from politics completely or by trying to subordinate art to politics. These two errors, mechanical applications of extreme New Critical and Marxist positions without the subtlety of their better practitioners, are often the result of critical laziness, and one aspect of that laziness is the failure to acknowledge the broader anterior influences which shaped both Eliot’s critical and political writings. The Cianci and Harding collection, which originated in a conference on “Re-Reading T.S. Eliot’s ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’” at the University of Milan in 2004, is an attempt to recontextualize Eliot’s idea of tradition. Most of the contributors are not Eliot specialists, and few of the essays refer to any Eliot criticism that is more than twenty years old. Neither fact is necessarily a disadvantage: non-specialists can bring fresh perspectives to old issues, and what is valuable in older criticism [End Page 231] is often subsumed (and often without acknowledgement) into more recent. But there is a huge Eliot literature, and many of the scholars here seem unaware even of the most recent work, a circumstance that results too often in reinventions of the wheel. Any serious student of Eliot has read about the relation of “impersonality” to poetic personae; anyone who has examined Eliot’s idea of culture knows that he opposed an exclusive focus on one nation’s or one language’s literature and affirmed the importance of pan-European and extra-European influences and standards; anyone who has engaged with Eliot’s politics at a level deeper than name-calling knows about the influence of Julien Benda and Charles Maurras.
This reiteration gives much of the volume an amateur air, a serious problem in a collection aimed at specialists. There are odd errors of omission as well, which perhaps derive from the miscellaneous nature of the papers at any conference, even one with an apparently precise topic. The fourteen articles in this collection are...