In his essays on the subject, Eliot is critical of a sentimental attitude towards the past. For one thing, in even the very best living tradition there is always a mixture of good and bad, and much that deserves criticism, and for another, tradition is not a matter of feeling alone. Nor can we safely, without critical examination, attach ourselves to a few dogmatic notions, for what is healthy belief at one time may, unless it is one of the few fundamental things, be a pernicious prejudice at another. Nor should he cling to traditions as a way of asserting our superiority over less favoured peoples. Rather we should try to ascertain, what in the past is worth preserving and what should be rejected; and what conditions within our power to bring about, would foster the society that we desire.
These remarks make it clear that Eliot’s conception of tradition is an enlightened and dynamic one. A sense of tradition is essential for it makes us realise our kinship with “the same people living in the same place”. But we must remember that the conditions of life which produced some particular tradition have changed and so the tradition, too, must change. Tradition is not something immovable, it is something constantly growing and becoming different from what it previously was. We must learn to distinguish between the essential and the unessential, the good and the bad, in a particular tradition and only the good and the essential must be followed and revived. While we should justly be proud of our own tradition this should not make us look down on other peoples who are not so lucky in this respect. In short, tradition must be used intelligently, changes in the conditions of life must be taken into consideration, and only the best should be preserved and fostered
In his essay on, Tradition and Individual Talent, Eliot regards the whole of European literature from Homer down to his own day as forming a single literary tradition which a man of letters should painstakingly acquire. This tradition is not a dead one; it continues and lives in the present. When a really great work of art is produced, this tradition is modified, to some extent, however little. A great poem or a great work of art can be possible only when the poet or the artist has a sense of this literary tradition. Great artists modify the existing tradition and pass it on to the future.
A sense of tradition is essential for the creation of good poetry, but individual talent, too, is of paramount importance. Indeed, the two, tradition and individual talent, are not opposite concepts. Eliot reconciles the two, and shows that both have an essential role to play in the process of poetic creation.
Individual talent is needed to acquire the sense of tradition, and this individual talent also modifies the tradition so acquired. Tradition in the true sense of the term cannot be inherited, it can only be obtained by hard labour. This labour is the labour of knowing the past writers. It is the critical labour of shifting the good from the bad, and of knowing what is good and useful. Tradition can be obtained only by those who have the historical sense. The historical sense involves’a perception, “not only of the pastness of the past, but also of its presence.” One who has the historic sense feels that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer down to his own day, including the literature of his own century, forms one continuous literary tradition. He realises that the past exists in the present, and that the past and the present from one simultaneous order. This historical sense is the sense of the timeless and temporal, as well as of the timeless and temporal together. It is this historic sense which makes a writer traditional. A writer with the sense of tradition is fully conscious of his own generation, of his place in the present, but he is also acutely conscious of his relationship with the writers of the past. Tradition represents the accumulated wisdom and experience of ages, and so its knowledge is essential for really great and noble achievements.
According to this view, tradition is not anything fixed and static, it is constantly changing, growing and becoming different from what it is, and it is the individual talent which so modifies it. A writer in the present must seek guidance from the past, he must confirm to the literary tradition. But just as the past directs and guides the present so the present alters and modifies the past. When a new work of art is created, if it is really new and original, the whole literary tradition is modified, though even so slightly. The relationship between the past and the present is not one sided; it is a reciprocal relationship. The past directs the presents and is itself modified and altered by the present.
The work of a poet in the present is to be compared and contrasted with works of the past, and judged by the standards of the past. But this judgment does not mean determining good or bad. It does not mean deciding whether the present work is better or worse than works of the past. An author in the present is certainly out to be judged by the principles and standards of the past. The comparison is to be made for knowing the facts, all the facts, about the new work of art. The comparison is made for the purposes of analysis, and for forming a better understanding of the new. Moreover, this comparison is reciprocal. The past helps us to understand the present, and the present throws light on the past. It is in this way alone that we can form an idea of what is really individual and new. It is by comparison alone that we can sift the tradition from the individual elements in a given work of art
In this way, does Eliot reconcile the concept of tradition with individual talent and stresses their respective roles in the process of poetic creation.