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T.S. Eliot: Early Poetry

Upon leaving Oxford after one year, Eliot took a teaching job at Highgate School, and the following year became a foreign accounts manager at Lloyds Bank in London. Though history remembers him as a poet, Eliot always held a full-time job, saying that he did not think writing poetry was a way to earn a living. Eliot's co-workers were regular people: men whose dreams had managed to slip past their fingers, people who saw their best years behind them. It was perhaps because of his immersion in the world of real people and their regrets that Eliot was able to write his first great poem, "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock."

"Prufrock" was first published in 1915 in the journal Poetry and was then included in Eliot's first poetry collection in 1917, Prufrock and Other Observations. The poem was the lament of an anonymous everyman who found himself paralyzed by indecision, insecurity, and inertia as the years slipped away, his life "measured out […] with coffee spoons." "Do I dare/ Disturb the universe?" wondered the poem's narrator. "Shall I part my hair behind?/ Do I dare to eat a peach?"6

The narrator's despair over his wasted life echoed the fears of an entire generation. All around Eliot were members of the so-called "Lost Generation," the young people that came of age just as World War I destroyed any sense of hope or optimism they might have had. The mainstream literary establishment dismissed "Prufrock"—it was too weird and offensive, they said—but a new breed of young poets like Ezra Pound saw Eliot as a genius.

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