Reading Essays: An Invitation

By G. Douglas Atkins | Go to book overview

The Turning of the Essay
T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the
Individual Talent”

The only way of expressing emotion in the form of art is by finding an
“objective correlative”; in other words, a set of objects, a situation, a
chain of events which shall be the formula of that particular such that
when the external facts, which must terminate in sensory experience,
are given, the emotion is immediately evoked.

―T. S. Eliot, “Hamlet and His Problems”

I INTRODUCE ELIOT’S GREAT, revolutionary essay “Tradition and the IndividualTalent” indirectly, at least to undergraduates, by way and means of Hilaire Belloc’s magnificent, and much more accommodating, “The Mowing of a Field.” Those who have read this work and sympathetically considered the entire essay tradition may be somewhat less resistant to Eliot’s anti-Romantic reinterpretation of tradition, individualism, the nature of poetry—and of the essay. Included in The Sacred Wood (1920), his essay is justly famous, although not eagerly taken up by either graduates or undergraduates, the latter of whom find it “tough sledding” while the former—these days—do not want to hear what Eliot has to say. It deserves the closest reading, itself dependent on sympathetic engagement and the very control of emotion that Eliot discusses. According to Graham Good, writing in The Observing Self: Rediscovering the Essay, “Tradition and the Individual Talent” “must be easily the most commented-on essay in En-

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