The editors have the pleasure of announcing that for the year
1922 The Dial's award goes to Mr T. S. Eliot.
Mr Eliot has himself done so much to make clear the relation of
critic to creative artist that we hope not to be asked whether it
is his criticism or his poetry which constitutes the service to
letters which the award is intended to acknowledge. Indeed it is
our fancy that those who know one or the other will recognize the
propriety of the occasion; those who know both will recognize
further in Mr Eliot an exceedingly active influence on
Influence in itself, however, is no service, and what makes Mr
Eliot a significant artist is that his work, of whatever nature,
is an indication of how ineffective the temptation to do bad work
can, for a least once, become. Few American writers have
published so little, and fewer have published so much which was
worth publication. We do not for a moment suspect Mr Eliot of
unheard-of capacities; it is possible that he neither has been
pressed to nor can write a popular novel. But the temptation not
to arrive at excellence is very great, and he is one of the rare
artists who has resisted it. A service to letters peculiarly
acceptable now is the proof that one can arrive at eminence with
the help of nothing except genius.
Elsewhere in this issue will be found a discussion of Mr Eliot's
poetry, with special reference to his long work, The Waste Land,
which appeared in The Dial of a month ago; in reviewing The
Sacred Wood, and elsewhere, we have had much to say of his
critical work, and may have more. At this moment it pleases us to
remember how much at variance Mr Eliot is with those writers who
having themselves sacrificed all interest in letters, are calling
upon criticism to do likewise in the name of the particular
science which they fancy can redeem the world from every ill but
themselves. As a critic of letters Mr Eliot has always had
preeminently one of the qualifications which he requires of the
good critic: "a creative interest, a focus upon the immediate
future. The important critic is the person who is absorbed in the
present problems of art, and who wishes to bring the forces of
the past to bear upon the solution of these problems." This is
precisely what Mr Eliot has wished, and accomplished, in this
function as critic of criticism. It is impossible to read the
opening essays of The Sacred Wood without recognizing that it is
from these pages that the attack upon perverted criticism is
rising. The journalists who wish critics to be for ever concerned
with social laws, economic fundamentals, and the science of
psychoanalysis, and never by any chance with the erection into
laws of those personal impressions which are the great pleasure
of appreciation, would do well to destroy Mr Eliot first; for it
is from him that new critics are learning "that the 'historical'
and the 'philosophical' critics had better be called historians
and philosophers quite simply" and that criticism has other
functions, and other pleasures to give.
There is another, quite different sense, in which Mr Eliot's
work is of exceptional service to American letters. He is one of
a small number of Americans who can be judged by the standards of
the past--including therein the body of Occidental literature.
It is a superficial indication of this that Mr Eliot is almost
the only young American critic who is neither ignorant of nor
terrified by the classics, that he knows them (one includes
Massinger as well as Euripides) and understands their relation to
the work which went before and came afbefore and came after them.
There are in his poems certain characters, certain scenes, and
even certain attitudes of mind, which one recognizes as
peculiarly American; yet there is nowhere in his work that
"localism" which at once takes so much of American writing out of
the field of comparison with European letters and (it is often
beneficial to their reputations) requires for American writers a
special standard of judgement. We feel nothing aggressive and
nothing apologetic in his writing; there is the assumption in it
that the civilized American no less than the civilized German can
count Shakespeare and even Poe as part of his inheritance.
When Prufrock in paper covers first appeared, to become
immediately one of the rarest of rare books (somebody stole ours
as early as 1919) Mr Eliot was already redoubtable. Since then,
poet with true invention, whom lassitude has not led to repeat
himself, critic again with invention and with enough metaphysics
to draw the line at the metaphysical, his legend has increased.
We do not fancy that we are putting a last touch to this climax;
we express gratitude for pleasure received and assured. If
pleasure is not sufficiently high-toned a word, you may, in the
preceding paragraphs, take your pick.
Mr Eliot's command of publicity is not exceptional, and we
feel it necessary to put down, for those who care for information,
these hardily gleaned facts of his biography. In 1888 he was
born in St. Louis; in 1909 and 1910 he received, respectively,
the degrees of Bachelor and of Master of Arts at Harvard;
subsequently he studied at the Sorbonne, the Harvard Graduate
School, and Merton College, Oxford. He has been a lecturer under
both the Oxford and the London University Extension Systems,
and from 1917 to 1919 he was the assistant editor of The Egoist.
We have heard it rumoured that he is still "A Londres, un peu
banquier"; those who can persuade themselves that the facts are
facts will find much more of importance in the Mélange Adultère
de Tout, from which the quotation comes; as that poem was written
several years ago it omits the names of Mr Eliot's books:
The Sacred Wood, Poems, and The Waste Land (not to speak of the
several volumes later incorporated in Poems) and omits also the
fact that Mr Eliot is now editor of The Criterion, a quarterly
which we (as it were en passant) hereby make welcome. The most
active and, we are told, the most influential editor-critic in
London found nothing to say of one of the contributions to the
first number except that it was "an obscure, but amusing poem"
by the editor. We should hate to feel that our readers can judge
of the state of criticism in England by turning to the first page
of our November issue and reading the same poem there.
"Comment," The Dial magazine. New York. vol. 73.6.
(December 1922) pp. 685-87