Tradition and the Individual Talent

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by Pericles Lewis

T. S. Eliot expressed a typically ambivalent view of the past when he wrote in his essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919). The essay gives voice to the fact that modernist experiments seldom simply destroyed or rejected traditional methods of representation or traditional literary forms; rather, the modernists sought to enter into a sort of conversation with the art of the past, sometimes reverently, sometimes mockingly.

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…. The existing monuments [of art] 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… the past [is] altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.[1]


Eliot emphasizes both the way that tradition shapes the modern artist and the way that a “really new” work of art makes us see that tradition anew.[2]


Full text of "Tradition and the Individual Talent"


  1. T.S. Eliot, Selected Prose of T.S. Eliot, ed. Frank Kermode. New York: Farrar, Straus, and Giroux, 1975: 38-39.
  2. This page has been adapted from Pericles Lewis's Cambridge Introduction to Modernism (Cambridge UP, 2007), p. 27.

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