To American writers of my own age, or at any rate to those who went abroad in 1921, the author who seemed nearest to themselves was T. S. Eliot. Essentially the picture he presented was that of the local-boy-makes-good. He was born in St. Louis; he was in the class of 1910 at Harvard, where he took courses that any of us might have taken and belonged to three or four undistinguished clubs; he continued his studies at a French provincial university and got a job in London. Now, ten years after leaving Cambridge, he was winding himself in a slow cocoon of glory. But his glory, his making good, was not in the vulgar sense of making money, making a popular reputation: in 1921 the newspapers had never heard of this clerk in Barclay's Bank. His achievement was the writing of perfect poems, poems in which we could not find a line that betrayed immaturity, awkwardness, provincialism or platitude. Might a Midwestern boy become a flawless poet?-- this was a question with which we could not fail to be preoccupied.
But it was not the only question that Eliot answered, or the only door by which he entered our secret minds. His early critical writings were concerned in large part with the dispute between form and matter, and he aligned himself with what we had learned to call our side of it. He effectively defended the intellect as against the emotions, and the conscious mind as against the libido, the dark Freudian wish. His poems, from the first, were admirably constructed. He seemed to regard them, moreover, as int ellectual problems--having solved one problem, he devoted himself to another. From his early sketches in free verse, he moved on to "Portrait of a Lady" and "Prufrock"; thence he moved on to his Sweeney poems, thence to "Gerontion"; and it was certain tha t his new ambitious work soon to be published in the Dial would mark another departure. For he never repeated himself and never, in those days, persisted in any attitude or technique: once having suggested its possibilities, he moved on.
Eliot, of course, did not originate the idea of "moving on." It was part of the general literary atmosphere, part of a long tradition--for example, it closely resembled the "theory of convolutions" that developed among my high-school friends. But Eliot's influence had the effect of making the idea vastly popular among young writers. They began to picture the ideal poet as an explorer, a buffalo hunter pressing westward toward new frontiers--from the Shenandoah he marches into unknown Tennessee, thence into the Blue Grass, thence into Missouri, always leaving the land untilled behind him, but who cares?--there will be disciples to follow the plow. No other American poet had so many disciples as Eliot, in so many stages of his career. Until 1925 his influence seemed omnipresent, and it continued to be important in the years that followed. But in 1922, at the moment when he was least known to the general public and most fervently worshiped by young poets, there was a sudden crisis. More than half of his dis ciples began slowly to drop away.
When The Waste Land first appeared, we were confronted with a dilemma. Here was a poem that agreed with all our recipes and prescriptions of what a great modern poem should be. Its form was not only perfect but was far richer musically and architecturally than that of Eliot's earlier verse. Its diction was superb. It employed in a magisterial fashion the technical discoveries made by the French writers who followed Baudelaire. Strangeness, abstractness, simplification, respect for literature as an art with traditions--it had all the qualities demanded in our slogans. We were prepared fervently to defend it against the attacks of the people who didn't understand what Eliot was trying to do--but we made private reservations. The poem had forced us into a false position, had brought our consciously adopted principles into conflict with out instincts. At heart--not intellectually, but in a purely emotional fashion--we didn't like it. We didn't agree with what we regarded as the principal idea that the poem set forth.