T.S. Eliot: Tradition and The Waste Land
In 1917, the literary journal Egoist (where Eliot served as an assistant editor) published an essay of his entitled "Tradition and the Individual Talent." Eliot's manifesto railed against the modern tendency to praise a poet's attempts to be different for the sake of being different. Only by recognizing the poetic traditions he drew upon and suppressing his personal desires, Eliot argued, could a poet truly achieve greatness. (And, yes, Eliot assumed that any great poet would be male.) He elaborated:
We shall often find that not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously. What happens is a continual surrender of himself as he is at the moment to something which is more valuable. The progress of an artist is a continual self-sacrifice, a continual extinction of personality. […] The more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates.7
Eliot's essay was interesting for two reasons in particular. First, Eliot was coming into his own as a poet at the same time that an Austrian psychiatrist named Sigmund Freud introduced the idea that there was something to be gained by plunging deep into the inner sanctums of the self. Eliot's essay disputed Freud's argument, valuing the collective unconscious over the individual subconscious. Though the two men held completely separate viewpoints, both of their ideas came to dominate their age. "In [Freud's] opinion there must be sought a collective and individual balance, which should constantly take into account man's primitive instincts," a member of the Swedish Academy said when Eliot received the Nobel Prize for literature in 1948. "You, Mr. Eliot, are of the opposite opinion. For you the salvation of man lies in the preservation of the cultural tradition, which, in our more mature years, lives with greater vigour within us than does primitiveness, and which we must preserve if chaos is to be avoided."
The second reason we find Eliot's emphasis on tradition interesting is that he was about to write one of the most unique, unprecedented poems in the history of the English language.
By 1921, stuck in a boring bank job and an unhappy marriage, Eliot had a bit of a mental breakdown. As he took leave from Lloyds Bank to recover, he began to reflect on the desolation of post-war European culture. He saw it as a spiritually empty society that had veered too far away from its traditions. It was a level of despair without precedent, and to address it Eliot had to write a poem unlike any other that came before it. In 1922, Eliot founded a literary journal called Criterion, and in its first issue he published the result of his efforts—The Waste Land.
The Waste Land was a five-part epic that journeyed through a ruined and desolate world. With its starkly beautiful language, the poem was—and still is—an overwhelming experience to read. "The Waste Land is easier on the ear than on the mind,"8 Time magazine wrote in 1950. That was putting it mildly. In its 434 lines, the poem wandered into different languages, obscure references, and a cascading riot of images. Some people tossed it aside as too obscure, accusing Eliot of being intentionally confusing ("How better to identify yourself as a serious poet than to be incomprehensible?"9 writer Garrison Keillor said of Eliot many years later).
Once again, though, a generation of poets who understood the alienation and horror that Eliot was talking about embraced the epic poem as a masterpiece. Permanent Secretary of the Swedish Academy, Anders Osterling, spoke of the poem's indelible impact at Eliot's Nobel ceremony: "The Waste Land now lies a quarter of a century back in time, but unfortunately it has proved that its catastrophic visions still have undiminished actuality in the shadow of the atomic age. The horror vacui of modern man in a secularized world, without order, meaning, or beauty, here stands out with poignant sincerity."10