Tom Eliot published his first poem in his prep school’s literary magazine in 1905. Four years later, he became a poet. Eight years after that, with the publication of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), he became T. S. Eliot. Inventions of the March Hare is a major literary event because it allows its readers to watch this development, to accompany the callow young man from St. Louis as he discovers the voice and vision that would make him the most influential poet in English of the first half of the twentieth century.
The handful of poems that Eliot published in the Smith Academy Recordand the Harvard Advocate between 1905 and 1909 are talented imitations and exercises. There is nothing particularly distinguished about them, nothing that suggests what would soon follow. Collected inPoems from Early Youth (1950), they demonstrate that, like every beginning poet, Eliot struggled to find his voice. At sixteen, he discovered the English poets of the 1890’s—especially John Davidson, Ernest Dowson, and Arthur Symons—and, struck by their attempt to use colloquial speech and by the dark urban images in poems such as Davidson’s “Thirty Bob a Week,” he began to sense other possibilities.
The decisive moment in the development of his poetic sensibility can be dated precisely. In December, 1908, during his junior year at Harvard, he discovered a copy of the newly published second edition of Arthur Symons’s critical anthology The Symbolist Movement in Poetry in the Harvard Union. He later described the anthology as more important to his development than any other book because it introduced him to the poetry of Charles Baudelaire, Paul Verlaine, Arthur Rimbaud, Tristan Corbière, and most important, Jules Laforgue. Baudelaire, he wrote, showed him the poetic possibilities of “the more sordid aspects of the modern metropolis.” From all of these poets he learned that his own experience and emotions could be the subjects of poetry.
In his copy of the anthology, Eliot marked Symons’s comment that in Laforgue “the old cadences, the old eloquence . . . are all banished.” Soon after, he ordered the three volumes of Laforgue’s Œuvres complètes from Paris. The book arrived some time in the spring of 1909, and during that summer at his family’s vacation home in Gloucester, Massachusetts, he read all of Laforgue in French. “I puzzled it out as best I could,” he wrote to a friend years later, “not finding half the words in my dictionary.”
Apparently, he understood enough for his purposes. Laforgue, he said, “was the first . . . to teach me the poetic possibilities of my own idiom of speech.” Throughout his career Eliot wrote extensively about poetic influence—about influence in general and his own influences in particular—and it is now clear that, here as elsewhere, his Olympian critical generalizations usually masked autobiographical revelations. Two of the comments he made about influence, included in an appendix to this edition, define what Laforgue’s influence meant to Eliot’s own development in the critical year of 1908- 1909.
The most important early influences, Eliot wrote in 1950, are those that “introduce one to oneself . . . due to an impression which is in one aspect, the recognition of a temperament akin to one’s own, and in another aspect the discovery of a form of expression which gives a clue to the discovery of one’s own form.” Such a “feeling of profound kinship, or rather of a peculiar personal intimacy, with another, probably dead, author,” he wrote in 1917,
is certainly a crisis; and when a young writer is seized with his first passion of this sort he may be changed, metamorphosed almost, within a few weeks even, from a bundle of second-hand sentiments into a person. The imperative intimacy arouses for the first time a real, an unshakeable confidence. . . . It is something more than encouragementto you. It is a cause of development.
Through his own first passion for Laforgue, Eliot underwent precisely this transformation in the summer and fall of 1909. From this French dandy whom he soon began to imitate in both his life and his poetry, Lyndall Gordon writes in her Eliot’s Early Years (1977) that Eliot learned “to broadcast secrets, to confess through the defeatist persona his own despair and, at the same time, to shield himself by playing voices against one another—the wry voice of the sufferer, the scathing or flippant voice of a commentator, the banal voice of a woman.” Laforgue, she says, also helped him to develop his “central persona—a performer fixed in his silly role, unable to take command of his real self which is socially unacceptable, outcast, or elusive.”
These characteristics and this persona first appear in the extraordinary series of poems Eliot wrote in November, 1909, and the spring and summer of 1910, during and just after his senior year at Harvard, most of which appear for the first time in this edition. Eliot knew that these poems were significantly different, and better, than his earlier efforts. Always self-conscious, he certainly understood that he had begun to find his own voice.
In symbolic recognition of this new beginning and as an assertion of his poetic...
(The entire section is 2165 words.)