One of the pleasures of reading Poetry magazine are its excellent critics. This month's issue features two outstanding critical essays, one by Clive James on the relationship between poetry and craft and another, by Adam Kirsch, on the recently-issued second volume of T.S. Eliot's letters. I've read four or five reviews of the letters so far and Kirsch's, I think, is the best.
Of course, Eliot himself is the star of the review (as he should be). I love both of these excerpts--the first for the power of the imagery ("regarding the world placidly through the fumes of an apertif"), the second for its wisdom and insight into human experience. In two quotes, you see why Eliot was such a great poet (and why Kirsch is such a good critic).
"...it has often been noted how much Eliot had in common with Henry James—he noted it himself in his self-justifying letter to his mother. Prufrock, one might say, is a younger version of Lambert Strether, the protagonist of James’s novel The Ambassadors—a sexless man of letters, the editor of a mild New England literary magazine, who comes to Europe in late middle age and realizes that he has wasted his life. “Live all you can; it’s a mistake not to,” Strether famously exhorts, and it is a mistake that Prufrock fears he cannot avoid: “Should I, after tea and cakes and ices,/Have the strength to force the moment to its crisis?”
What made Eliot a great poet was the fact that in the crucial moment, he did find the strength to force a crisis. One of the most valuable and exciting achievements of theLetters is to document that moment, which came in the summer of 1915. After studying at Oxford, Eliot was expected to return to Harvard and finish his doctoral dissertation in philosophy. But as he wrote to his college friend, the poet Conrad Aiken, the prospect weighed on him like spiritual death:
I dread returning to Cambridge . . . and the people in Cambridge whom one fights against and who absorb one all the same. The great need is to know one’s own mind, and I don’t know that: whether I want to get married, and have a family, and live in America all my life, and compromise and conceal my opinions and forfeit my independence for the sake of my children’s future; or save my money and retire at fifty to a table on the boulevard, regarding the world placidly through the fumes of an aperitif at 5 PM—How thin either life seems!
He was willing to do anything, even wreck his life, in order to save it, as he hinted to Aiken in an earlier letter:
Does anything kill as petty worries do? And in America we worry all the time. That, in fact, is I think the great use of suffering, if it’s tragicsuffering—it takes you away from yourself—and petty suffering does exactly the reverse, and kills your inspiration.