- The Perfect Critic, 1919-1926: Introduction
- The Johns Hopkins University Press and Faber & Faber Ltd
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[ xiii The Perfect Critic, 1919-1926 Introduction Volume 1 of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot, Apprentice Years, spans the years 1905 to 1918, beginning with a story composed when Eliot was a teenager at the Smith Academy in St. Louis and ending with a review written when he was thirty years old and the author of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917). Volume 2, The Perfect Critic, covers the period 1919 to 1926, documenting the young poet’s emergence as an authoritative and commanding critical voice in twentieth-century letters. The first volume follows the gradual curve of Eliot’s intellectual formation: as an undergraduate at Harvard, a doctoral candidate in philosophy at Harvard and at Oxford, a reviewer of philosophical books, an Extension lecturer, and finally a provocative young literary critic. The essays and reviews in this second volume trace the swift and astonishing arc of his rise to international prominence as an avant-garde poet, an incisive critic of literature and culture, and an editor of a successful and celebrated London journal. These seven years register the seismic shift in modern poetry that comes with the publication of The Waste Land (1922), and they are witness also to the appearance of Ara Vos Prec (1920) and Eliot’s first collected volume of verse, Poems, 1909-1925 (1925). So it is remarkable to realize that these were also the years that saw the publication of many of his most influential and enduring essays, including “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” “Hamlet,” “The Metaphysical Poets,” and “Ulysses, Order, and Myth.” These few magisterial early essays furnish us with the signal concepts and phrases that have made Eliot’s criticism a permanent feature of our monographs, syllabi, and anthologies, including the “extinction of personality,” the “objective correlative,” the “dissociation of sensibility,” and the “mythical method.” Perhaps it is even more remarkable, then, that he published not less than 130 essays, reviews, and letters during this brief time; that he saw into print two important prose volumes, The Sacred Wood (1920) and Homage to John Dryden (1924); and that he was chosen to deliver, in 1926, the prestigious Clark lectures at Trinity College, Cambridge. In a two-part essay from 1920 titled “The Perfect Critic,” Eliot attempts to indicate the means by which literary criticism should discern its proper The Perfect Critic, 1919-1926 xiv ] object and distinguish its unique task from other critical activities. As the essay draws to a close, he adds: “The end of the enjoyment of poetry is a pure contemplation from which all the accidents of personal emotion are removed.”1 Had the accidents and circumstances of Eliot’s own personal life been perfect – had he enjoyed independent wealth, a fulfilling and supportive family life, and outstanding health – this period of intense creativity and prolific critical writing would still have been an extraordinary achievement.Asitwas,approachingtheidealssetoutin“ThePerfectCritic” demanded an extraordinary labor undertaken in spite of the challenges of his private and professional life. * * * * Henry Ware Eliot Sr., the poet’s father, died unexpectedly less than a week into 1919. Since Eliot’s last visit home four years earlier, he had wanted desperately to publish a book in the United States, to persuade his parents – especially his father – that he had not “made a mess of my life, as they are inclined to believe” (L1 315). Instead, the devastating news of his father’s death arrived while he was in the midst of the least productive months since his arrival in London. He had grown increasingly concerned about Vivien, whose health had taken a downward turn and who required much care and attention. Despite his own illness, Eliot had twice believed himself newly enlisted in U. S. military intelligence, only to be turned down at the last moment as a result of bureaucratic muddle and confusion. He had become apprehensive and anxious, his wife reported, “about his mind not acting as it used to do” and about his writing “falling off ” (L1 309). His doctor urged a period of complete rest, and Vivien persuaded him to sign a contract with her that prohibited all writing and reading for three months. Though he had been publishing essays and reviews with increasing frequency over the previous two years, and though he had begun to sense that he was “breaking open” the safe, in his words, of London literary culture, Eliot could still only claim authorship of two slim volumes: Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), the title poem of which he...