According to T. S. Eliot, tradition is significant for the critic as well as for the creative writer. Tradition does not mean a sense of inheritance from some past author or merely a sense of belongingness to the past. Tradition is a dynamic force. It does not mean standing still. Tradition is the historical sense and not the handing down, or following the ways of the ancients blindly. It cannot be inherited. It can only be obtained with great labour. It involves a historical sense which enables a poet to perceive not only the pastness of the past but also its presentness.
Thus Eliot regards traditions as "the historical sense which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal together." It is this sense that makes a writer traditional. The writer or the artist therefore has to belong both to the past and the present and create a work of art that becomes immortal in the future. The historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as 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 conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity. This historical sense implies the presence of a 'collective mind' which is the consciousness of the whole of Europe. And this collective mind "is a mind which changes, and that this change is a development which, abandonss nothing en route". This is a fact the poet must be aware of. He must also learn that this mind is much more important than his own private mind. A creative artist, though he lives in a particular milieu, does work merely with his own generation in view. He does not take his own age, or the literature of that period only as a separate identity, but acts with the conviction that in general the whole literature of Europe from the classical age of the Greeks onwardss and in particular the literature of his own country, is to be taken as a harmonious whole. His own creative efforts are not apart from it but a part of it. A writer thus learns to value tradition by acquiring the historical sense which enables him to feel vividly the times he belongs to, and, at the same time, not to lose sight of that timelessness that belongs to the creative art as a whole. It is the sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of timeless and of the temporal together. It is what makes a writer traditional. It also makes him most acutely conscious of his place in time, by a right evaluation of what is called tradition, he becomes conscious of his own contemporaneity. This unity of time is expressed by Eliot in Burnt Norton also :
"Time present and time past
Are both perhaps present in time future
And time future contained in time past."
In Dry Salvages, Eliot defines the sense of tradition in the following manner:
"The past experience revived in the meaning
Is not the experience of one life only
But of many generations,
Time the destroyer is time the preserver."
Eliot says that no poet or artist of any kind has his full meaning and significance done. His importance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his kinship with the poets and artists of the past generations. You cannot value him alone, you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the poets and writers of the past. This, Eliot says, is a principle of aesthetic, and not merely of historical criticism. The necessity for the individual talent to conform to tradition 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 poet who understands the presentness of the past also understands his responsibilities and difficulties as an artist. Such an artist will fully realise that he must inevitably be judged by the standards of the past. In saying that an artist is finally to be judged by the standards of the past, Eliot does not imply that he is pronounced better or worse than the previous poets or that the standards prescribed by the previous critics are to be applied in judging their works. This really implies that a contemporary work is to be compared with the great works of the past, and each is measured by the other. To conform merely would be for the new work not really to conform at all. Their would be nothing new in it, and it would not be work of art at all. If a new work of art emerges as successful when compared with and measured by the old masterpieces, it is a clear indication of its value as a work of art. A work may be individual and appear to conform, or a work which seefnstobe individual may conform. It will be a fallacy to classify the works of'art into the categories of 'individual' and 'traditional'.0
So to Eliot tradition is dynamic; it cannot be inherited; it can be obtained only by great labour. The artist can neither take the past as a lump, an indiscriminate bolus, nor can he form himself on one or two private admirations, nor can he form himself wholly upon one preferred period. To be traditional in Eliot's sense means to be conscious of the main current of art and poetry. He says : "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 h
e 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."
Thus tradition requires not only the knowledge of the past but also a will to assimilate the best of the past and a desire to relate to the presentness. It requires a ridiculous amount of erudition and effort. He says that there is the distinction between knowledge and pedantry. "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."