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Selected T.S. Eliot on Tradition, Poetry, Faith, and Culture

Tradition

"Tradition is matter of much wider significance. It cannot be inherited, and if you want it you must obtain it by great labour. It involves, in the first place, the historical sense, which we may call nearly indispensable to anyone who would continue to be a poet beyond his twenty-fifth year; and the historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but its presence; the historical sense compels a man to write not merely with his own generation in his bones, but with a feeling that the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer and within it the whole of the literature of his own country has a simultaneous existence and composes a simultaneous order. This historical sense, which is a sense of the timeless as well as of the temporal and of the temporal and timeless together, is what makes a writer traditional. And it is at the same time what makes a writer most acutely conscious of his place in time, of his own contemporaneity.

"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. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast and comparison, among the dead. [. . .] The poet’s mind is in fact a receptacle for seizing and storing up numberless feelings, phrases, images, which remain there until all the particles which can unite to form a new compound are present together."

--"Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919)

"I thought of literature then, as I think of it now, of the literature of the world, of the literature of Europe, of the literature of a single country, not as a collection of the writings of individuals, but as ‘organic wholes’, as systems in relation to which, and only in relation to which, individual works of literary art, and the works of individual works of literary art, and the works of individual artists, have their significance. There is accordingly something outside of the artist to which he owes allegiance, a devotion to which he must surrender and sacrifice himself in order to earn and to obtain his unique position. A common inheritance and a common cause unite artists consciously or unconsciously."

-- Function of Criticism" (1923)

"In our age, when men seem more than ever prone to confuse wisdom with knowledge, and knowledge with information, and try to solve problems of life in terms of engineering, there is coming into existence a new kind of provincialism, not of space, but of time; one for which history is merely the chronicle of human devices which served their turn and have been scrapped, one for which the world is the property solely of the living, a property in which the dead hold no shares. The menace of this kind of provincialism is, that we can all, all the people on the globe, be provincials together; and those who are not content to be provincials, can only become hermits.  If this kind of provincialism led to greater tolerance, in the sense of forbearance, there might be more to be said for it; but it seems more likely to lead to our becoming indifferent, in matters where we ought to maintain a distinctive dogma or standard, and to our becoming intolerant, in matters which might be left to local or personal preference."

--"What is a Classic?"(1944)

For Eliot, tradition expresses a continuity with the past.  Our present experience of it is part of who we are.  Present poetic craft is understood within the context of past traditions that form it, for literature as a body of work is complexly related and makes specific claims on the poet.  The danger of a lack of appreciation of the past is that we become limited in our ability to make aesthetic judgments.


Poetry

"The difference is not a simple difference of degree between poets. It is something which happened to the mind of England between the time of Donne or Lord Herbert of Cherbury and the time of Tennyson and Browning; it is the difference between the intellectual poet and the reflective poet. Tennyson and Browning are poets, and they think; but they do not feel their thought as immediately as the odour of a rose. A thought to Donne was an experience; it modified his sensibility. When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience; the ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes."

--"The Metaphysical Poets"(1921)

"That there is analogy between mystical experience and some of the ways in which poetry is written I do not deny. [. . .] it gives me the impression, as I have just said, of having undergone a long incubation, though we do not know until the shell breaks what kind of egg we have been sitting on. To me it seems that at these moments, which are characterized by the sudden lifting of the burden of anxiety and fear which presses upon our daily life so steadily that we are unaware of it, what happens is something negative: that is to say, not ‘inspiration’ as we commonly think of it, but the breaking down of strong habitual barriers. [. . .] [It] is a very different thing from mystical illumination. The latter is a vision which may be accompanied by the realization that when it is past you will not be able to communicate it to anyone else, or even by the realization that when it is past you will not be able to recall it to yourself; the former is not a vision but a motion terminating in an arrangement of words on paper…."

-- The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism (1933)

"It is the function of all art to give us some perception of an order in life, by imposing an order upon it. The painter works by selection, combination, and emphasis among the elements of the visible world; the musician in the world of sound. It seems to me that beyond the nameable, classifiable emotions and motives of our conscious life when directed towards action–the part of life which prose drama is wholly adequate to express—there is a fringe of indefinite extent, of feeling which we can only detect, so to speak, out of the corner of the eye. [. . .] For it is ultimately the function of art, in imposing a credible order upon ordinary reality, and thereby eliciting some perception of an order in reality, to bring us to a condition of serenity, stillness, and reconciliation; and then leave us, as Virgil left Dante, to proceed toward a region where that guide can avail us no farther."

--"Poetry and Drama" (1951)

"And the last thing I would wish for would be the existence of two literatures, one for Christian consumption and the other for the pagan world. What I believe to be incumbent upon all Christians is the duty of maintaining consciously certain standards and criteria of criticism over and above those applied by the rest of the world; and that by these criteria and standards everything that we read must be tested. We must remember that the greater part of our current reading matter is written for us by people who have no real belief in a supernatural order, though some of it may be written by people with individual notions of a supernatural order which are not ours. [. . .] So long as we are conscious of the gulf fixed between ourselves and the greater part of contemporary literature, we are more or less protected from being harmed by it, and are in a position to extract from it what good it has to offer us."

-- "Religion and Literature" (1935)

Eliot suggests that a certain kind of poet feels ideas.  For such a poet, all of experience is brought together.  The poetic experience of breaking through to a creative revelation is not mysticism.  The mystical moment is not communicable in any normal sense.  Art has the purpose of heightening a sense of order in reality, but it cannot replace the high (spiritual) things.


Culture

"For a long time we have believed in nothing but the values arising in a mechanized, commercialized, urbanized way of life: it would be as well for us to face the permanent conditions upon which God allows us to live upon this planet. And without sentimentalizing the life of the savage, we might practice the humility to observe, in some of the societies upon which we look down on as primitive or backward, the operation of a social-religious-artistic complex which we should emulate upon a higher plane. We have been accustomed to regard ‘progress’ as always integral; and have yet to learn that it is only by an effort and a discipline, greater than society has yet seen the need of imposing upon itself, that material knowledge and power is gained without loss of spiritual knowledge and power. [. . .] We need to know how to see the world as the Christian Fathers saw it; and the purpose of reascending to origins is that we should be able to return, with greater spiritual knowledge, to our own situation. We need to recover the sense of religious fear, so that it may be overcome by religious hope."

--The Idea of a Christian Society (1939)

"Yet there is an aspect in which we can see a religion as the whole way of life of a people, from birth to the grave, from morning to night and even in sleep, and that way of life is also its culture…. The dominant force in creating a common culture between peoples each of which has its distinct culture, is religion. Please do not, at this point, make a mistake in anticipating my meaning. This is not a religious talk, and I am not setting out to convert anybody. I am simply stating a fact. I am not so much concerned with the communion of Christian believers today; I am talking about the common tradition of Christianity which has made Europe what it is, and about the common cultural elements which this common Christianity has brought with it. [. . .] It is in Christianity that our arts have developed; it is in Christianity that the laws of Europe have—until recently—been rooted. It is against a background of Christianity that all our thought has significance. An individual European may not believe that the Christian Faith is true, and yet what he says, and makes, and does, will all spring out of his heritage of Christian culture and depend upon that culture for its meaning. Only a Christian could have reproduced a Voltaire or a Nietzsche. I do not believe that the culture of Europe could survive the complete disappearance of the Christian Faith. And I am convinced of that, not merely because I am a Christian myself, but as a student of social biology. If Christianity goes, the whole of our culture goes."

--Notes Towards the Definition of Culture (1948)

For Eliot, tribal societies, as well as the Church Fathers, experience life in a holistic manner: one that brings together the social, religious, and artistic elements.  European society has its origins in Christianity, and it is impossible to conceive of Europe without it -- not even its most anti-Christian elements.

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quotations from Eliot, T.S. Selected of T.S. Eliot. Ed. Frank Kermode. NY: HBJ, 1975

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding