Virginia Woolf Selected Essays 1917-1932

May 15, 1999

Of the Making of Many Lists

f the last millennium was a time of plagues and portents, this one is the time of lists. Fortunately, I enjoy lists. They are a part of the way the human brain works, like floor-plans, and route-maps, like perhaps Euclidean figures. With lists we arrange both the past and the future in our minds. This is what I have read and remembered, these are the events in the mind which made me what I am. Also, this is what I need to know, and don't know. This is what I intend to read, for pleasure or instruction. This is the order of importance of my intentions.

Lists needn't be of books, they can be of cities, or foods, or languages or like Borges's strange lists of unrelated objects and concepts. But my own lists are mostly lists of books, and so, with pleasure and exasperation mixed, I have enjoyed the process of making the Modern Library lists.

Lists can be canons -- the agreed list of essential books in a culture, which at best are those books that its writers would not willingly let die. Or personal canons -- books that have changed you or me, as individuals. Or they can be syllabuses, which are academic and political instruments ordering what those in charge believe should be studied and valued. The Modern Library's lists are part of the arguing process that constantly readjusts canons, and leads to impassioned conversation. Why X and not Y? Z will not last, whilst surely Q is guaranteed immortality? Lists are provisional and incomplete, fleeting and frivolous, useful and enticing.

Lists of great books are more an American thing than a European one. American culture has been forged by discussing its heritage from all cultures, and American literature is more about what it means to be American than British (or other European) cultures are about self-definition. I worried with last year's Modern Library list of novels about the absence of Canadians, Australians, Indians, Africans and other English-writing cultures. Many of the splendid books I voted for which are on the nonfiction list were precisely American acts of self-definition, from William Carlos Williams to Edmund Wilson. But I miss Jane Jacobs, Robert Hughes, Northrop Frye and many others. Women have done much better in the non-fiction voting than they did in the fiction, with two completely different ones in the top five, and the delightfully idiosyncratic Europeans Rebecca West and Isak Dinesen finding places. And my intellectual heroine, the erudite and profound Frances Yates (represented by The Art of Memory).




3. "UP FROM SLAVERY," Booker T. Washington

4. "A ROOM OF ONE'S OWN," Virginia Woolf

5. "SILENT SPRING," Rachel Carson

6. "SELECTED ESSAYS," 1917-1932, T. S. Eliot

7. "THE DOUBLE HELIX," James D. Watson

8. "SPEAK, MEMORY," Vladimir Nabokov



  • Click here for the complete list.
  • What I tried to vote for was first, those books that had made a significant shift in my mental landscape, had changed the way I saw the world, and second, books whose writing was an aesthetic delight. Three of the top five -- Woolf, Carson, and William James had changed my world, and Nabokov and Gertrude Stein (8 and 20) had enlarged my sense of what language could do. T. S. Eliot and Gombrich formed my ideas of art, and D'Arcy Thompson was a revelation about the nature of both art and science and their interconnections. When I thought about all the writing about women that has taken place, it seemed to me that the essential text was still "A Room of One's Own," partly because so many of us remember most of it almost by heart. I was glad that "The Golden Bough" made it, and think it would have been "higher" on the list if it hadn't suffered the centennial list disadvantage of being published over the turn of the century, with one foot each side. Its huge influence is all this side of 1900 and its incantatory prose is a revelation.

    What is missing? All listmakers enjoy the misery of indignation about the omitted essentials. My own include several masterpieces which were felled by the rule that no author could have two books. The one I mind most about is Popper's "The Logic of Scientific Discovery" which is a quite different intellectual landmark from his political work on the "Open Society and its Enemies" (for which I also voted). There are other works I'd have liked to see by Lionel Trilling (I love "Beyond Culture") and Edmund Wilson, and Lawrence Gowing's "Matisse" matters to me as much as his Vermeer. The same goes for Walter Jackson Bates's "Keats" though I would not displace his "Samuel Johnson." Other biographies I regret are Ray Monk's "Wittgenstein," and that odd small masterpiece, for which I'd willingly relinquish Lytton Strachey's sneers at the Victorians, A. J. A. Symons's "The Quest for Corvo."

    Personal landmark books I miss are Chomsky's "Language and Mind," Erving Goffman's "Asylums" and Mary Douglas's brilliant anthropological works, such as "Purity and Danger." I miss also Norman Cohn's "The Pursuit of the Millennium," European, compulsively readable, illuminating a dark part of history. And the wisdom of Michael Oakeshott's political thought -- "Rationalism in Politics," or "On Human Conduct." And what happened to Quine. . .?

    Most of my fellow Board members are not literary critics, and I am alternately surprised and pleased and faintly baffled by the final inclusions and exclusions of the only field which is really within my professional competence. I was pleased to see Richard Ellmann, and delighted to find M. H. Abrams's brilliant "The Mirror and the Lamp" as high as 25. But to be truthful I have never found Forster's "Aspects of the Novel" very interesting or very useful. I don't grieve for F. R. Leavis, but do feel strongly about I. A. Richards, whose "Practical Criticism" changed the techniques of reading, Northrop Frye, whose "Anatomy of Criticism" changed the categories of our thought, William Empson and his "Seven Types of Ambiguity" and all the brilliant insight of Hugh Kenner -- perhaps best exemplified in "The Pound Era." Where is Pound, where is Wallace Stevens's prose masterpiece, "The Necessary Angel?" Where is the book that gave me the single most unexpected understanding of a whole literature and a whole culture, Leslie Fiedler's "Love and Death in the American Novel?" I still invoke him every time I see a routine Hollywood cop film. He explained, credibly, why the novel is so difficult for American women.(This is not what he was setting out to explain. It is an incidental benefit.)

    At the end of the voting we were each allowed one personal book that was essential to us, to fill out the number. I thought of all the ones I've mentioned and finally decided on the book that has most recently caused one of those welcome seismic shocks in my intellectual landscape. But -- I'm not permitted to say which it is.

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    "Tradition and the Individual Talent" (1919) is an essay written by poet and literary critic T. S. Eliot. The essay was first published in The Egoist (1919) and later in Eliot's first book of criticism, "The Sacred Wood" (1920).[1] The essay is also available in Eliot's "Selected Prose" and "Selected Essays".

    While Eliot is most often known for his poetry, he also contributed to the field of literary criticism. In this dual role, he acted as poet-critic, comparable to Sir Philip Sidney and Samuel Taylor Coleridge. "Tradition and the Individual Talent" is one of the more well known works that Eliot produced in his critic capacity. It formulates Eliot's influential conception of the relationship between the poet and the literary tradition which precedes them.

    Content of the essay[edit]

    This essay is divided into three parts: firstly, the concept of "Tradition," then, the Theory of Impersonal Poetry, and finally the Conclusion or Summing up.

    Eliot presents his conception of tradition and the definition of the poet and poetry in relation to it. He wishes to correct the fact that, as he perceives it, "in English writing we seldom speak of tradition, though we occasionally apply its name in deploring its absence." Eliot posits that, though the English tradition generally upholds the belief that art progresses through change – a separation from tradition, literary advancements are instead recognised only when they conform to the tradition. Eliot, a classicist, felt that the true incorporation of tradition into literature was unrecognised, that tradition, a word that "seldom... appear[s] except in a phrase of censure," was actually a thus-far unrealised element of literary criticism.

    For Eliot, the term "tradition" is imbued with a special and complex character. It represents a "simultaneous order," by which Eliot means a historical timelessness – a fusion of past and present – and, at the same time, a sense of present temporality. A poet must embody "the whole of the literature of Europe from Homer," while, simultaneously, expressing their contemporary environment. Eliot challenges the common perception that a poet's greatness and individuality lie in their departure from their predecessors; he argues that "the most individual parts of his [the poet's] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously." Eliot claims that this "historical sense" is not only a resemblance to traditional works but an awareness and understanding of their relation to his poetry.

    This fidelity to tradition, however, does not require the great poet to forfeit novelty in an act of surrender to repetition. Rather, Eliot has a much more dynamic and progressive conception of the poetic process: novelty is possible only through tapping into tradition. When a poet engages in the creation of new work, they realise an aesthetic "ideal order," as it has been established by the literary tradition that has come before them. As such, the act of artistic creation does not take place in a vacuum. The introduction of a new work alters the cohesion of this existing order, and causes a readjustment of the old to accommodate the new. The inclusion of the new work alters the way in which the past is seen; elements of the past that are noted and realised. In Eliot’s own words, "What happens when a new work of art is created is something that happens simultaneously to all the works of art that preceded it." Eliot refers to this organic tradition, this developing canon, as the "mind of Europe." The private mind is subsumed by this more massive one.

    This leads to Eliot’s so-called "Impersonal Theory" of poetry. Since the poet engages in a "continual surrender of himself" to the vast order of tradition, artistic creation is a process of depersonalisation. The mature poet is viewed as a medium, through which tradition is channelled and elaborated. They compare the poet to a catalyst in a chemical reaction, in which the reactants are feelings and emotions that are synthesised to create an artistic image that captures and relays these same feelings and emotions. While the mind of the poet is necessary for the production, it emerges unaffected by the process. The artist stores feelings and emotions and properly unites them into a specific combination, which is the artistic product. What lends greatness to a work of art are not the feelings and emotions themselves, but the nature of the artistic process by which they are synthesised. The artist is responsible for creating "the pressure, so to speak, under which the fusion takes place." And, it is the intensity of fusion that renders art great. In this view, Eliot rejects the theory that art expresses metaphysical unity in the soul of the poet. The poet is a depersonalised vessel, a mere medium.

    Great works do not express the personal emotion of the poet. The poet does not reveal their own unique and novel emotions, but rather, by drawing on ordinary ones and channelling them through the intensity of poetry, they express feelings that surpass, altogether, experienced emotion. This is what Eliot intends when he discusses poetry as an "escape from emotion." Since successful poetry is impersonal and, therefore, exists independent of its poet, it outlives the poet and can incorporate into the timeless "ideal order" of the "living" literary tradition.

    Another essay found in Selected Essays relates to this notion of the impersonal poet. In "Hamlet and His Problems" Eliot presents the phrase "objective correlative." The theory is that the expression of emotion in art can be achieved by a specific, and almost formulaic, prescription of a set of objects, including events and situations. A particular emotion is created by presenting its correlated objective sign. The author is depersonalised in this conception, since he is the mere effecter of the sign. And, it is the sign, and not the poet, which creates emotion.

    The implications here separate Eliot's idea of talent from the conventional definition (just as his idea of Tradition is separate from the conventional definition), one so far from it, perhaps, that he chooses never to directly label it as talent. Whereas the conventional definition of talent, especially in the arts, is a genius that one is born with. Not so for Eliot. Instead, talent is acquired through a careful study of poetry, claiming that Tradition, "cannot be inherited, and if you want it, you must obtain it by great labour." Eliot asserts that it is absolutely necessary for the poet to study, to have an understanding of the poets before them, and to be well versed enough that they can understand and incorporate the "mind of Europe" into their poetry. But the poet's study is unique – it is knowledge that "does not encroach," and that does not "deaden or pervert poetic sensibility." It is, to put it most simply, a poetic knowledge – knowledge observed through a poetic lens. This ideal implies that knowledge gleaned by a poet is not knowledge of facts, but knowledge which leads to a greater understanding of the mind of Europe. As Eliot explains, "Shakespeare acquired more essential history from Plutarch than most men could from the whole British Museum."

    Eliot and New Criticism[edit]

    Unwittingly, Eliot inspired and informed the movement of New Criticism. This is somewhat ironic, since he later criticised their intensely detailed analysis of texts as unnecessarily tedious. Yet, he does share with them the same focus on the aesthetic and stylistic qualities of poetry, rather than on its ideological content. The New Critics resemble Eliot in their close analysis of particular passages and poems.

    Criticism of Eliot[edit]

    Eliot's theory of literary tradition has been criticised for its limited definition of what constitutes the canon of that tradition. He assumes the authority to choose what represents great poetry, and his choices have been criticised on several fronts. For example, Harold Bloom disagrees with Eliot's condescension towards Romantic poetry, which, in The Metaphysical Poets (1921) he criticises for its "dissociation of sensibility." Moreover, many believe Eliot's discussion of the literary tradition as the "mind of Europe" reeks of Euro-centrism. However, it should be recognized that Eliot supported many Eastern and thus non-European works of literature such as the Mahabharata. Eliot was arguing the importance of a complete sensibility: he didn't particularly care what it was at the time of tradition and the individual talent. His own work is heavily influenced by non-Western traditions. In his broadcast talk "The Unity of European Culture," he said, "Long ago I studied the ancient Indian languages and while I was chiefly interested at that time in Philosophy, I read a little poetry too; and I know that my own poetry shows the influence of Indian thought and sensibility." His self-evaluation was confirmed by B. P. N. Sinha, who writes that Eliot went beyond Indian ideas to Indian form: "The West has preoccupied itself almost exclusively with the philosophy and thoughts of India. One consequence of this has been a total neglect of Indian forms of expression, i.e. of its literature. T. S. Eliot is the one major poet whose work bears evidence of intercourse with this aspect of Indian culture" (qtd. in The Composition of The Four Quartets). He does not account for a non-white and non-masculine tradition. As such, his notion of tradition stands at odds with feminist, post-colonial and minority theories.

    Harold Bloom presents a conception of tradition that differs from that of Eliot. Whereas Eliot believes that the great poet is faithful to his predecessors and evolves in a concordant manner, Bloom (according to his theory of "anxiety of influence") envisions the "strong poet" to engage in a much more aggressive and tumultuous rebellion against tradition.

    In 1964, his last year, Eliot published in a reprint of The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism, a series of lectures he gave at Harvard University in 1932 and 1933, a new preface in which he called "Tradition and the Individual Talent" the most juvenile of his essays (although he also indicated that he did not repudiate it.)[2]

    Primary works of literary criticism by T. S. Eliot[edit]

    • Homage to John Dryden: Three Essays on Poetry of the Seventeenth Century. London: L. and Virginia Woolf, 1927.
    • On Poetry and Poets. London: Faber and Faber, 1957.
    • The Sacred Wood: Essays on Poetry and Criticism. London Menthuen, 1950.
    • Selected Essays. New York: Harcourt, Brace, 1950.
    • The Varieties of Metaphysical Poetry. Ed. Ronald Schuchard. London: Faber and Faber, 1993.

    See also[edit]


    External links[edit]

    1. ^Gallup, Donald. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) Harcourt, Brace & World, New York, 1969. pp. 27–8, 204–5 (listings A5, C90, C7)
    2. ^Eliot, T.S., The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism", 1964 edition, Harvard University Press, Cambridge, Preface

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