Tradition and the Practice of Poetry
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300 ] Tradition and the Practice of Poetry TSE delivered this lecture on the afternoon of 24 Jan 1936 at University College, Dublin, following the inaugural meeting of the English Literary Society the previous evening. The public event was held in the College’s largest lecture hall, with Dr. Denis J. Coffey, President of the College, presiding, and with loudspeakers set up in hallways for the overflow audience. The lecture was reported in the Irish Times of 25 Jan under the bylines “Originality in Poetry / Fertilisation of Literature / Views of Mr. T. S. Eliot” (6). The previously unpublished and untitled lecture was printed posthumously and edited by A. Walton Litz for a special Eliot issue of the Southern Review, in celebration of the 50th anniversary of the journal, 21 (Oct 1985), 873-88 (see textual note). The title I have given is misleading.1 What I shall really be concerned with is not primarily the relation of a literature to other literatures, but the relation of a literature to itself. What, in the practice of a particular art, such as poetry, do we mean by tradition; how does a local, national or linguistic tradition proceed? We must admit, to begin with, that the word “tradition” has a bad sense as well as possibly a good one. When we read, in a newspaper review or an obituary notice, that a poet has been “traditional in the best sense of the word,” we are usually correct in inferring that the poet in question has been traditional in the worst sense of the word, that he has continued and vulgarised the faults or limitations of the last generation, that he has given people what they are used to, and therefore what they want; that he has aroused no excitement and caused no shock of delight or horror in anybody. In this sense, “tradition” means behaving exactly as the last generation did, in quite different circumstances. What I prefer to mean by tradition is something larger, something that includes the revolutionary as well as the submissive, and the reactionary as well as the revolutionary. There are times for doing one thing and times for doing another: the truly traditional poet will be submissive, reactionary or revolutionary according to his perception of the need of his time and place. The perpetual task of poetry is to make all things new.2 Not necessarily to make new things. It is always partly a revolution, or a reaction, from the work of the previous generation. Not necessarily all that is expressed in the consciousnessofpoets:apoetmaybeagoodpoet,therightpoetforhis time, and be either more or less revolutionary than he thinks he is: it is not [ 301 Tradition and the Practice of Poetry the business of poets to be completely conscious and prescient of what they are doing. A poet may have more in common with his immediate predecessors than he thinks he has, or he may have less. He may aim to say exactly the same things that they said, and his personality will make him say them in different rhythms, in different syntax, and the result will be more different than he knows. Or he may reject violently all the “ideas” of his predecessors , and in saying different things in the same rhythms he may prove to be merely saying the same things – so far as poetry is concerned. And only in historical perspective can we form any opinion as to what is going on. For we have to recognise, not only the reaction of each poet to his predecessors , but a dimly perceptible movement in cycles. In English Poetry, for example, we can distinguish so far, four periods. There is the period which includes Chaucer, Langland and Skelton – and I will say Dunbar: for although that great poet is definitely Scots and not English, yet he belongs to a pre-Renaissance versification period in which he is equally remote from [them],3† and similarly remote from us. In the sixteenth century, between Skelton and Spenser, occurred what is probably the greatest revolutionary movement that we have ever had in poetry in the English language. The great revolutions in poetry are revolutions in the sense of rhythm: the difference between Skelton and Spenser is greater than any difference since. The second revolution took place between the murder of Charles I and the return of Charles II: in reading Dryden’s criticism one marvels as much at his understanding of Chaucer as at his lack of understanding of the age of...