Looking back after it folded in 1939, would Eliot have said that the whole adventure of the Criterion had been worth it? In 1926 he had written to Wyndham Lewis that the publication the previous year of Poems 1909-1925 had arisen from his wish "to collect all my stuff and get rid of it in one volume so as to get it out of my own way and make a fresh start." But the desired "fresh start" was slow in coming. The opening lines of section V of "East Coker" are apposite:
So here I am, in the middle way, having had twenty years—
Twenty years largely wasted, the years of l'entre deux guerres—
Trying to learn to use words, and every attempt
Is a wholly new start, and a different kind of failure
Over the next two years Eliot was to write little poetry, and it would be easy to deplore the clerical burdens imposed on him by the editorship of the Criterion as constituting the obstacle to composition.
Easy; but, for two reasons, I think mistaken. The first is that in the course of routine correspondence connected with the Criterion Eliot was nevertheless refining his poetic sensibility. An example might be when he comments on some poems in the manner of Pope submitted to him by a Cambridge undergraduate, James Smith:
The desire to imitate or emulate Pope is itself rare and commendable. To imitate Pope is in itself highly useful for anyone who wishes to write poetry. I have done it myself, not so very long ago either, and with the exception of one or two lines I do not think that my verses were any better than yours, and perhaps not so evenly good. I destroyed mine and recommend you to do the same. Nothing in this style of verse is of any value except as an exercise: and this for the reason that it has already been done literally to perfection. You cannot improve on Pope, nor can you get anywhere by burlesquing him or ragging him because there is just sufficient element of burlesque in Pope himself to render him immune.
Recalling his own imitation of Pope in a rejected section of "The Fire Sermon", Eliot passes beyond the commonplace observation that Pope perfected the heroic couplet to the brilliant insight that Pope's most effective defence against later would-be imitators lies, not so much in his perfection, as in his anticipatory seasoning of his poetry with elements of burlesque. These letters contain a number of other instances when clerical routine unexpectedly leads to literary and poetic refreshment.
The second is that Eliot's editorial correspondence encouraged him towards a gymnastics of style. We all write in different ways to different people, but in Eliot the need to prepare a repertoire of stylistic faces to meet the faces he would meet was particularly marked — compare his letters to Pound with those to, say, Geoffrey Faber. Once again, in retrospect routine seems to prepare the way for later, greater achievements. In his correspondence for 1926 and 1927 Eliot often writes like a trapped man. Today's reader, however, can glimpse in these letters the beginnings of the paths that would eventually lead Eliot into brighter and more open mental landscapes.