Tradition and the Individual Talent

Every goose is a swan to its publisher until he fails to shift it through the till.

But how to identify the swans? Eliot’s 1919 essay ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ is one of the keys to understanding The Waste Land. He saw the cultural tradition as an assembly of great artefacts which have survived through time, shaping and informing the world which is fortunate to inherit them and being subtly changed in the understanding of later generations by the new art inspired by them and following in their wake.

I have been arguing today with a scholarly friend who thinks Jessie L. Weston deserves a place in my poster collage of writers whose presence haunts The Waste Land. This made me realise that I had instinctively homed in on writers whose influence on Eliot’s poem stemmed from their stature within the same culture he himself celebrated in his work. There is a self-fulfilling circularity in my poster and my Devon friend was right to challenge it.

But Jessie L. Weston? Best known today only for her citation in the notes to The Waste Land? About whose 1920 book Eliot later said that he regretted sending so many readers on ‘a wild goose chase after Tarot cards and the Holy Grail?’ I still think not.

This is what Eliot himself said about the citation of From Ritual to Romance in the Waste Land notes:

‘The notes to The Waste Land! I had at first intended only to put down all the references for my quotations, with a view to spiking the guns of critics of my earlier poems who had accused me of plagiarism. Then, when it came to print The Waste Land as a little book – for the poem on its first appearance in The Dial and in The Criterion had no notes whatever – it was discovered that the poem was inconveniently short, so I set to work to expand the notes, in order to provide a few more pages of printed matter, with the result that they became the remarkable exposition of bogus scholarship that is still on view today.’

The Sewanee Review, Vol. 64, No. 4(Oct.-Dec. 1956)

There is another question of course: How to deal with the way once well-known writers and artists in Eliot’s pantheon have now paled into obscurity for many people who can still read his own poetry with joy. There are writers in my collage many of us may not recognise, and some whose names ring as faintly as Jessie L. Weston’s would if we did not have The Waste Land notes.

This was one of the many challenges that inspired our zoom group’s utterly unpredictable and sometimes irreverent journey towards The Waste Land Revisited. It will explain among other things the delightful appearances of Noel Coward and Marie Lloyd.

Hovering in the wings of Eliot’s Waste Land….

By Sue Boyle

Writer. Bath UK. I also give online poetry workshops and do occasional online mentoring for poets preparing pamphlets and collections for publication.

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