Literary Tradition, Lionel Trilling and the Transmission of The Literary Work

R.V. Young

T. S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” is widely recognized as a seminal essay in the development of literary critical theory in the twentieth century, finding a place in most anthologies of literary criticism as well as of modern literature. The full implications of Eliot’s typically compressed argument have not, however, been widely acknowledged; and, in the wake of the revolution in theory over the past four decades, the essential thrust of its originality has been neglected. Lionel Trilling’s “The Sense of the Past” remains one of the most perceptive responses to Eliot’s essay. A reconsideration of Trilling’s careful observations may, therefore, bring to light the crucial insights of Eliot’s occasionally oracular exposition and provide a basis for a salutary restoration of reasonable critical discourse. Trilling’s magisterial grasp of the issues at stake is especially evident when set against Harold Bloom’s agonistic theory of literary influence. Trilling, it turns out, offers not merely a critique of certain shortcomings in the New Critical account of literary works of art; he instead refines the conception of literature propounded by Eliot and his New Critical heirs and consolidates their genuine advances in literary understanding.

The restoration of Eliot’s preëminence as a critical thinker is a matter of some urgency. For two decades graduate students in literature have been schooled to regard him as a reactionary formalist who “displays an extraordinary lack of interest in what literary works actually say.”1 Most often this accusation is based on his famous (or perhaps notorious) exposition of the “impersonal” quality of poetry:

The business of the poet is not to find new emotions, but to use the ordinary ones and, in working them up into poetry, to express feelings which are not in actual emotions at all. And emotions which he has never experienced will serve his turn as well as those familiar to him.2

In Eliot’s view “personal” poetry fails to transcend its occasion and the singular circumstances of the poet and thus fails to engage the tradition: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion, but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality. But, of course, only those who have personality and emotions know what it means to want to escape from these things.”3 Critics who think that Eliot is here attempting to deny the importance of personal experience in the genesis of his own poetry and to strip it of meaning have failed to grasp the import of the final sentence.4

More problematic than the effort to make Eliot into a confessional poet manqué, however, has been the singular misapprehension of how profoundly his analysis of the relation between the individual poem and the tradition modifies our understanding of the nature and meaning of any work of literature. The “meaning” that Eliot deprecates is that which is attached to the peculiarities of the individual poet’s particular experiences: “the more perfect the artist, the more completely separate in him will be the man who suffers and the mind which creates; the more perfectly will the mind digest and transmute the passions which are its material.”5 The practical import of this assertion is that the literature professor who worries about whether John Donne’s Elegies or his Songs & Sonnets reveal the poet to have been a “sexist” is engaged in an activity other than literary criticism or scholarship.6 Likewise, the debate over whether Shakespeare’s plays disclose a covertly Catholic playwright who favored the collaborationist Catholic aristocrats and opposed the Jesuit extremists – or just the opposite – will not go very far in explaining the imaginative power of his dramas, which continue to be read, performed, and discussed from New York to New Delhi.7 By the same token, one’s opinion on the conflict between Guelphs and the Ghibellines – and between the White Guelphs and the Black Guelphs – is unlikely to have a useful effect on one’s appreciation of Dante’s Commedia.

But this impersonal theory of poetry does not entail the unimportance, much less the absence, of meaning; rather, it sets that meaning in historical context:

No poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relationship to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him, for contrast, among the dead.8

This “historical sense” is a requirement for both the poet (or any other artist) and the critic. Poems are composed of words, which are phonic complexes of potential meaning, but also of rhetorical tropes, narrative and dramatic devices, representational conventions, and a limitless diversity of cultural ideas and expectations. The origins of poetry are buried in obscurity, and as far back as Homer (at least) the very existence of a poem, as well as its effective significance, depends on the existence of other poems; that is, of a tradition of poetry. A poem cannot be written in a cultural vacuum; a man who sits down to write verse is, by that very action, responding to literary history and tradition. Virgil is inconceivable without Homer, Dante without Virgil, and so on.

Such an assertion of the importance of literary tradition is hardly a novelty, although in 1919 it may have seemed surprising from the pen of the author of Prufrock and Other Observations. Eliot’s more arresting assertion is that literary influence is not a one-way street, that new works of art wield influence over the past:

The existing monuments form an ideal order among themselves, which is modified by the introduction of the new (the really new) work of art among them. The existing order is complete before the new work arrives; for order to persist after the supervention of novelty, the whole existing order must be, if ever so slightly, altered; and so the relations, proportions, values of each work of art toward the whole are readjusted; and this is conformity between the old and the new.9

Even as Virgil is inconceivable without Homer, so we cannot read Homer in the same way once we have seen the Iliad and the Odyssey invented anew in the Aeneid; and once Virgil has guided Dante through Hell and up the mountain of Purgatory, he is not quite the same as the poet who enjoyed the patronage of the Emperor Augustus and Maecenas. Paradise Lost supervenes upon all these works, and The Prelude, Moby Dick, and Song of Myself force us to see Milton’s epic in a new light. Shortly after “Tradition and the Individual Talent” first appeared, Eliot would produce The Waste Land, which similarly altered the “ideal order” of literary tradition.

Lionel Trilling’s contribution to Eliot’s discussion is the aperçu that not only does the emergence of new works alter the significance of the old, but that historical relationship as such is an element in literary meaning. “Mr. Eliot reminds us,” Trilling says, “how each poet’s relation to tradition changes tradition itself, so that the history of literature is never quiet for long and is never merely an additive kind of growth.”10 The particular work of literature, however, the expression of the “individual talent,” does not simply occupy a different position in the tradition as it develops; rather, its historical placement is an essential factor in its actual meaning; that is, as aspect of its mode of being as a literary work:

In the existence of every work of literature of the past, its historicity, its pastness, is a factor of great importance. In certain cultures the pastness of a work of art gives it an extra-aesthetic authority which is incorporated into its aesthetic power. But even in our own culture with its ambivalent feeling about tradition, there inheres in a work of art of the past a certain quality, an element of its aesthetic existence, which we can identify as its pastness. Side by side with the formal elements of the work, and modifying these elements, there is the element of history, which, in any complete aesthetic analysis, must be taken into account.11

Trilling’s exposition is implicit in Eliot’s original argument, constituting a development rather than a departure. The meaning and significance of a poet – and Trilling rightly takes “poet” in its broadest sense to mean “artistic maker” – is the meaning and significance of his works, which cannot be assessed or even imagined apart from their involvement with the whole network of literary relationships. The actual, innate meaning of Paradise Lost emerges both from the tissue of allusions to Homer and Virgil and other earlier epic poets and also from the poem’s self-identification as epic poem. What is more, that same actual, innate meaning is also in part determined by how subsequent writers have reconceived the moral vision of heroic story – Tolstoy, for instance, or Joyce or Yeats.

Trilling’s emphasis on the “sense of the past,” on what Eliot calls the “historical sense,” is quite distinct from – indeed, it is contrary to – the imaginative sterility of the “new historicism” and similar contemporary theoretical perspectives, which confine the meaning of a work to the social and cultural circumstances of its making. What is often nowadays called “historicism” has little respect for history and seems bent on abolishing any sense of the pastness of the past. For example, the editors of a collection of historicist essays on Shakespeare chide more traditional critics for “their avoidance of history,” but their own approach bespeaks less “historical consciousness” than self-conscious preoccupation with the politics of a certain historical situation:

[E]very reading or staging of a play is implicated in ideology in that it produces the play within the codes and conventions sustaining particular, interested constructions of the real. Far from distorting the “true” meaning of an unchanging text, however, such constructions are the text: it lives in history, with history itself understood as a field of contestation.12

In this perspective, Shakespeare is only what we make of him; his very existence is an effect of his rôle in contemporary society, no matter what time is now contemporary. What is more, his plays are worth “constructing” only insofar as they can be conscripted for favored political projects: “A further aim of much political criticism, however, is not only to describe, but to take a position on, the political uses of texts: to challenge some critical, theatrical, or pedagogical practices involving Shakespeare and to encourage others.”13

Nothing could be further from Trilling’s understanding of the sense of the past than such ideological expropriation, which makes a mockery of the poet precisely by robbing him of his own place in history more shamelessly than the most “formal” new critical interpretation ever wrought:

But it is only if we are aware of the reality of the past as past that we can feel it as alive and present. If, for example, we try to make Shakespeare literally contemporaneous, we make him monstrous. He is contemporaneous only if we know how much a man of his own age he was; he is relevant to us only if we see his distance from us.14

In other words, Shakespeare is relevant to us because we have not, could not have, “constructed” him – because he is, in various important ways, different from us. If the old new criticism erred in trying to make the work of literary art too much a timeless formal structure, it at least recognized that history posed an interpretive problem that the great poem or play presumably conquered by transcending. The ill-named new historicism insists upon the importance of history and then obliterates it by simply ignoring, nay denying the existence of, any historical features of the work that fail to meet immediate ideological needs as perceived by the critic.

What is more, Trilling effectively refutes the historicist/materialist assumption that a literary work is merely a cultural product, a writer’s response to his economic or political circumstances:

The poet, it is true, is an effect of environment, but we must remember that he is no less a cause. He may be used as the barometer, but let us not forget that he is also part of the weather. We have been too easily satisfied by a merely elementary meaning of environment; we have been content with a simple quantitative implication of the word, taking a large and literally environing thing to be always the environment of a smaller thing. In a concert room the audience and its attitude are of course the environment of the performer, but also the performer and his music make the environment of the audience.15

This passage, perhaps, best illustrates Trilling’s shrewd development of the insights of T. S. Eliot and indeed of the New Critics, whom Trilling sets out to correct in “The Sense of the Past.” While reproving their rhetorical excesses, their over-emphasis on the formal autonomy of the literary work, he endorses and strengthens their insistence that poems, plays, and novels must not be reduced to ideological effluvia of a social situation. The recognition of the pastness of past works of literature frees them from current political appropriation, but it also highlights the contribution of each work to the cultural past that serves to identify it.

Similarly, when Trilling questions a deprecation of literary ideas in Eliot and in Wellek and Warren’s Theory of Literature, his critique is less a reproof than a precise refinement of the new critical impatience with overly didactic explanations of literary meaning:

In trying to explain a certain commendable quality which is to be found in the work of Hemingway and Faulkner – and a certain quality only, not a total and unquestionable literary virtue – we are not called upon by our subject to show that particular recognizable ideas of a certain force or weight are “used” in the work. Nor are we called upon to show that new ideas of a certain force or weight are “produced” by the work. All that we need to do is account for a certain aesthetic effect as being in some important part achieved by a mental process which is not different from the process by which discursive ideas are conceived, and which is to be judged by some of the criteria by which an idea is judged.16

Trilling has quite rightly set out to restrain Eliot’s “impulse to spirited phrase” that he allows “to run away with him,” when he writes such sentences as “I can see no reason for believing that either Dante or Shakespeare did any thinking on his own.”17 Nevertheless, Trilling’s own careful formulation preserves the main thrust of Eliot’s argument: we do not judge the thought of Hemingway or Faulkner or Dante or Shakespeare by the same standards as we do a systematic philosophy. Dante is not a better poet than Shakespeare because St. Thomas is a better philosopher than Montaigne. Trilling’s important qualification is that ideas are important in literature – that it overlaps philosophy – and some of the same criteria are invoked in judging aesthetic and philosophical value. Nevertheless, the integrity of the literary work as a work of art not reducible to any other category of discourse remains essential to his conception.

The contrast with Harold Bloom, one of the few critics associated with “contemporary theory” who evinces a genuine interest in literary influence, is instructive. Trilling maintains that influence is only one element of tradition and should be taken in an “astrological” sense “producing effects by insensible or invisible means”; that is, as “a word intended to express a mystery.”18 Bloom reduces this mystery to a Freudian family romance in which influence is Oedipal struggle: “Poetic history, in this book’s argument, is held to be indistinguishable from poetic influence, since strong poets make that history by misreading one another, so as to clear imaginative space for themselves.”19 Bloom is certainly right in his effort to liberate Shakespeare, for example, from “Resentful historicists of several persuasions – stemming from Marx, Foucault, and political feminism – [who] now study literature essentially as peripheral social history.” Such a program is an abandonment of literary criticism for political futility: “[Shakespeare] emancipated no one (that we know of) from the power structures of his own day, and cannot liberate us from any societal enclosures in our current squalor.”20 Nevertheless, Bloom severs poetry from history – from the sense of the past – more decisively than any version of new critical formalism by making the poet a kind of trans-historical divinity in the face of the despair that dogs a man who sees no escape from the mortality of mundane reality. Bloom famously insists that the “strong poet” asserts his strength through the “deliberate misinterpretation, as a poet, of a precursor poem or of poetry in general.”21 Lying behind the “misinterpretation” or “misprision” of the “Poet Father,” however, is a more momentous misreading of reality itself, which is what the reader finally takes away: “The idealization of power, in the reading process, or processes, is finally a last brutal self-idealization, a noble lie against our own origins.” It is a “lie,” Bloom insists, “against mortality.”22

This defiant barricading of the desperate mortal self within a Gnostic literary version of Freudian sublimation seems a considerable distance from the dispassionate realism of Lionel Trilling, but Trilling shares with Bloom an admiration of Sigmund Freud. Differing estimates of the import of Freud’s work go a long way towards defining the difference between these two critics’ valuation of literature. Bloom’s theory of literature entails accepting Freud’s theory of the unconscious as a sufficient account of literary meaning and value, insofar as poetry is the mind’s effort to escape from reality rather than represent it:

Freedom and lying are intimately associated in belated poetry, and the notion that contains them both might best be named “evasion.” Evasion is a process of avoiding, a way of escaping, but also it is an excuse. Usage has tinged the word with a certain stigma, but in our poetry what is being evaded ultimately is fate, particularly the necessity of dying.23

But it is just this explicit view of literature and the other arts that Trilling rejects in Freud: “One of its [art’s] chief functions is to serve as a ‘narcotic.’ It shares the characteristics of the dream, whose element of distortion Freud calls a ‘sort of inner dishonesty.’ As for the artist, he is virtually in the same category with the neurotic.”24 In seeing poetry as “evasion,” Bloom happily accepts the classic Freudian assessment of art as a form of neurosis.

Trilling, however, maintains that “the poet is in command of his fantasy, while it is exactly the mark of the neurotic that he is possessed by his fantasy.”25 Failure to make this distinction vitiates the strictly literary “conclusions of Freud and Dr. [Ernest] Jones on the ground that their proponents do not have an adequate conception of what an artistic meaning is.” Freud and his more literal-minded disciples fail to take into account just those subtleties of meaning that Trilling discusses at length in “The Sense of the Past”:

Changes in historical context and in personal mood change the meaning of a work and indicate to us that artistic understanding is not a question of fact but of value. Even if the author’s intention were, as it cannot be, precisely determinable, the meaning of a work cannot lie in the author’s intention alone. It must also lie in its effect.26

Trilling thus dismisses Freud’s rather heavy-handed account of literature, which Bloom seems to have accepted by dressing it up in neo-Gnostic mystification, by invoking just that subtle interplay of individual talent and tradition that Eliot expounds in his famous essay.

Freud occupies, nonetheless, a central position in Trilling’s understanding of literature and art, not because of his psychoanalytic theory of art, but rather because of the analogy between the workings of poetry and psychoanalysis. “For, of all mental systems, the Freudian psychology is the one which makes poetry indigenous to the very constitution of the mind.” Almost in spite of his own positivistic leanings, Freud’s own methods of investigating the mind force him to take poetry seriously as a means of scientific discovery in an era when empirical science seems bent on discrediting all other forms of knowledge:

Freud has not merely naturalized poetry; he has discovered its status as a pioneer settler, and he sees it as a method of thought. Often enough he tries to show how, as a method of thought, it is unreliable and ineffective for conquering reality; yet he himself is forced to use it in the very shaping of his own science, as when he speaks of the topography of the mind and tells us with a kind of defiant apology that the metaphors of space relationship which he is using are really most inexact since the mind is not a thing of space at all, but that there is no other way of conceiving the difficult idea except by metaphor.27

Trilling thus subpoenas Freud as a (somewhat hostile) witness, forced to give evidence against the notion, still very much alive in contemporary society, that the only knowledge that matters is knowledge of facts and their mathematical relationships. Finally, Trilling credits Freud with giving to literature a “certain quality of his thought”: “The idea of the reality principle and the idea of the death instinct form the crown of Freud’s broader speculation on the life of man. Their quality of grim poetry is characteristic of Freud’s system and the ideas it generates for him.”28

What finally stands out about Lionel Trilling’s discussions of literature is his capacity for disinterested reflection. It is surely no coincidence that his first book dealt with Matthew Arnold, for Arnold could have no better successor. There is a great deal in Arnold that Trilling does not accept, but he does accept – and exemplify – “a disinterested endeavor to learn and propagate the best that is known and thought in the world.” It does not speak well of the current academy that this principle is so often treated with derision by professors of literature. The value of the impartial thoughtfulness that Arnold expounded is never displayed to better advantage than in Trilling’s ability to find and elucidate the essential critical insights of two such disparate figures as T. S. Eliot and Sigmund Freud. What is more, he reads the former sympathetically despite severe disagreements on matters moral, political, and religious; and he resists the temptation simply to accept all the latter’s judgments as indisputable science of a kind congenial to his own way of thinking. In an increasingly diverse and often acrimonious society, literature may provide a basis for cultural unity; but it is first necessary that critical discourse be once more conducted with the reflective judgment and civility of Lionel Trilling.29


1 Terry Eagleton, Literary Theory: An Introduction (Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1983), 51. See also Gerald Graff, Literature Against Itself: Literary Ideas in Modern Society (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1979), 48-49, 142-46; idem, Professing Literature: An Institutional History (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1978), 204-06; and Frank Lentricchia, After the New Criticism (Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1980), 110-11. All of these books have been frequently assigned in courses in literary theory or introductions to the “profession.”

2 “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” Selected Essays (New York: Harcourt, Brace & World, Inc., 1950), 10.

3 Ibid.

4 See Cynthia Ozick’s “Critic at Large” column in The New Yorker (November, 1989) for an example.

5 “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 7-8.

6 See, as one example among hundreds, Janel Mueller, “Women Among the Metaphysicals: A Case, Mostly, of Being Donne For,” Modern Philology 87 (1989): 142-58.

7 For these conflicting arguments, see, respectively, Richard Wilson, Secret Shakespeare: Studies in Theatre, Religion and Resistance (Manchester and New York: Manchester University Press, 2004) and Clare Asquith, Shadowplay: The Hidden Beliefs and Coded Politics of William Shakespeare (New York: Public Affairs, 2005).

8 “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” 4.

9 Ibid., 5.

10 “The Sense of the Past,” in The Liberal Imagination: Essays on Literature and Society (Garden City, NY: Doubleday and Co., 1953), 182.

11 Ibid.

12 Jean E. Howard and Marion F. O’Connor, ed., “Introduction” to Shakespeare Reproduced: The Text in History and Ideology (New York and London: Methuen, 1987), 4.

13 Ibid.

14 The Liberal Imagination, 183. In some ways Trilling anticipates the concept of intertextuality, but without the ideological baggage.

15 Ibid., 187.

16 “The Meaning of a Literary Idea,” ibid., 282.

17 Ibid., 271. See Eliot, “Shakespeare and the Stoicism of Seneca,” Selected Essays, 116.

18 “The Sense of the Past,” ibid., 187-88.

19 The Anxiety of Influence: A Theory of Poetry, 2nd ed. (New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1997), 5.

20 Ibid., xxv-xxvi. These remarks come from the new preface to the second edition.

21 Ibid., 43.

22 The Breaking of the Vessels (Chicago and London: University of Chicago Press, 1982), 13.

23 Harold Bloom, “The Breaking of Form,” in Bloom et al, Deconstruction and Criticism (New York: Seabury Press, 1979), 9.

24 “Freud and Literature,” in The Liberal Imagination, 51.

25 Ibid., 53.

26 Ibid., 57.

27 Ibid., 60.

28 Ibid., 63.

29 It is not a good sign that Trilling is excluded from numerous recent anthologies of literary criticism. There is no room for him, for example, in Literary Criticism and Theory: The Greeks to the Present, ed. Robert Con Davis and Laurie Finke (New York and London: Longman, 1989); nor in the more than 2,600 pages of The Norton Anthology of Theory and Criticism, ed. Vincent B. Leitch et. al. (New York and London: W.W. Norton and Co., 2001). The Critical Tradition: Classic Texts and Contemporary Trends, ed. David H. Richter (New York: St. Martin’s Press, 1989) provides an honorable exception by reprinting from The Liberal Imagination “The Meaning of a Literary Idea.”