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Reflections of a working writer and reader



Modernism XII

TS Eliot was concerned that poetry attain what he called impersonality.

‘Tradition,’ he said, depended on the poet obtaining an historical sense, and:

this historical sense involves a perception, not only of the pastness of the past, but of 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.

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. You cannot value him alone; you must set him for contrast and comparison, among the dead. What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it. The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, a shape, which is modified by the introduction of the new work of art. The existing order is complete before the new work of art arrives; for order to persist after the introduction of the new, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered. And in this way the past is altered by the present as much as the present is directed by the past.

Eliot was quite sure that the artist must be aware that his culture and the past that has gone into building his culture is much more important than his own private mind. When someone remarked to him: ‘The dead writers are remote from us because we know so much more than they did.’ Eliot replied, ‘Precisely, and they are that which we know.’

What happens within the artist 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.

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