The Poet's Pitch-Perfect Pastiches

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Neither of these Eliots is especially visible in the present volume, though the latter rears his head occasionally, especially in letters to Father William Force Stead, the Anglican priest who baptized him in June 1927. Instead, we see Eliot treading uncertainly toward his conversion to the Church of England and devoting himself wholeheartedly to the task of editing the Criterion, the quarterly (and sometimes monthly) journal he founded in 1922 as a vehicle for The Waste Land.

Eliot was a consummate literary professional. Nowhere in this volume, more than two-thirds of which is devoted to his Criterion correspondence, does one detect that note of sunny earnestness one might associate with editors of avant-garde literary journals. A January 1926 letter to the critic and professor James Smith shows how much the publishing world has changed.

Smith, then a Cambridge undergraduate, had submitted to Eliot some poems in imitation of Alexander Pope. Eliot declared the poems better than his own emulation of the Wicked Wasp in the Fire Sermon section of The Waste Land (cut at Ezra Pound's insistence), but urged Smith to destroy them.

Would the editor of any contemporary periodical devoted to what we are now forced to call formalist poetry (as opposed to bad prose sentences chopped into lines at random intervals) not gladly accept these apparently pitch-perfect pastiches? Probably the editor would be amazed that the young man had read Pope at all, much less mimicked him successfully.

Eliot's devotion to the Criterion does not seem to have come at the expense of his art. During the period covered by the present volume, he began composing Sweeney Agnonistes, his first foray into verse drama, a genre he never quite succeeded in reviving. In 1927, he also wrote one of his best short poems, Journey of the Magi, a Browningesque dramatic monologue in which one of the unnamed wise men mentioned in the second chapter of St. Matthew's Gospel retells the story of his visit to Bethlehem.

In Eliot's hands, the aforementioned journey becomes a clash between paganism, the old dispensation represented by the three kings for whom this Birth / Was hard and bitter agony, and Christianity. Unfortunately, the letters shed very little light on the composition of this poem. Eliot does mention in an October 1927 note to his mother that the American philosopher Horace Kallen complained about the poem's Near Eastern geography: There are no snow mountains anymore about, it appears. …