T.S. Eliot’s “Tradition and the Individual Talent” acts as a key to understanding the importance of any particular poem within the context of the tradition in which it was created. Eliot says,
[T]he 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 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. (Tradition and the Individual Talent)
According to Eliot, writing in “the historical sense” allows one’s poetry to hold a place in tradition not as a follower of tradition, but as a co-creator of tradition. Eliot’s poem, “Gerontion,” is a good place to look to see how “the historical sense” can be used to push poetry forward while remaining fully engaged in tradition.
Eliot firmly entrenches his poem within tradition through the use of disjointed fragments of Christian imagery. The second stanza of Gerontion ends in a reference to Christ: “In the juvescence of the year/Came Christ the tiger” (19-20). The line, “We would see a sign!” (17) is very likely a reference to Matthew 12:38 where the Pharisees ask Christ for a sign of his divinity. However, the order of biblical history has been reversed in this stanza. In Gerontion, the Pharisees ask for a sign (17) before the coming of Christ (19-20). In this stanza, Christ is seen as impotent describing him as a helpless infant. The poem says, “The word within a word, unable to speak a word,/Swaddled in darkness” (18-19). Showing Christ as unable to speak and swaddled—as if he were an infant—reimagines the figure of Christ as incapable of proving his divinity to the Pharisees rather showing them as unwilling to accept the signs they have been given. The idea that Christ is “swaddled in darkness” shows him as somehow sinister.
This image of a sinister Christ, then, characterizes the Christian legends of the dogwood and flowering judas trees by the parallels of their stories. The cross that Christ was crucified from is fabled to be from the dogwood tree (Highlights 1995), and the judas tree was is fabled to be the tree in which Judas hung himself in shame after the death of Christ (Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia 2018). According to legend, both trees were once tall and straight and after the death of Christ they became short and twisted due to their shame in the roles that they played in conjunction with Christ’s death. However, Eliot’s poem lists these trees in the line directly after the mention of Eliot’s sinister Christ. The juxtaposition of these trees so close to the reimagined Christ shows them not as having been humbled through shame at their connection to the death of God, but as withered by sinister influence.
“The historical sense” allows Eliot to engage tradition and change it as he sees fit in order to create the particular mood required for the poem. Therefore, Eliot is able to show a world in the aftermath of the First World War, a war that killed 40 million people and left the survivors with a new and sinister understanding of the same tradition they always had.
Eliot, T. S. “Gerontion.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.
—–. “Tradition and the Individual Talent.” Poetry Foundation, Poetry Foundation.
“Judas Tree.” Funk & Wagnalls New World Encyclopedia, Jan. 2018, p. 1; EBSCOhost.
“The Legend of the Dogwood Tree.” Highlights, vol. 50, no. 4, Apr. 1995, p. 5. EBSCOhost.