In ‘Tradition and the Individual Talent’ (1919), an essay Eliot produced soon after the Prufrock collection, the author outlines his artistic approach to poetry. He defends the concept of ‘tradition’ in art, believing the greatest works are infused with an appreciation of the past. Eliot defines this appreciation with what he calls ‘historical sense’, regarding tradition in literature as not merely being a repetition of past works, but as a knowledge and incorporation of them within the present.
Eliot’s ‘historical sense’ is amply demonstrated by the endless allusions interspersed throughout the Prufrock poems, evident in ‘The Boston Evening Transcript’ with the evocation of the figure of La Rochefoucauld.
Francois La Rochefoucauld was a seventeenth-century French author, best remembered for his ‘Reflections or Aphorisms and Moral Maxims’ (1665). The reference is deliberate, intended to delineate the type of individual who reads the Boston Evening Transcript as self-satisfied and distinctly lifeless. While these qualities are also conveyed in the lines: ‘When evening quickens faintly in the street / Wakening the appetites of life in some / And to others bringing the Boston Evening Transcript‘, where the word ‘life’ is attributed to ‘some’, but not to the ‘others’ who read the Boston Evening Transcript, it is the allusion to La Rochefoucauld which consolidates the readers of this provincial organ as lifeless.
The art of presenting La Rochefoucauld’s maxims is more important than the ethical convictions behind them, and in their presentation moral attitudes are struck, often with the intention of undermining hypocrisy rather than demonstrating a reasoned moral standpoint. The poet persona’s weary farewell to La Rochefoucauld: ‘If the street were time and he at the end of the street’, subtly represents an undercutting of a self-conscious attitude by its own self-consciousness. It also displays an awareness of the pleasing balance between expression and conviction – something that is beyond the comprehension of the ‘Cousin Harriet’ of the poem and her fellow Boston Evening Transcript readers.
The subject matter of ‘The Boston Evening Transcript’ and referencing of La Rochefoucauld is also indicative of Eliot’s fascination with European literary history and disdain for the culture of the New World. It was written around the time Eliot had successfully made his transition from America to Europe and is permeated with opinions in regard to his homeland.
The concision of the poem’s opening line, where Boston Evening Transcript readers are shown to ‘Sway in the wind like a field of ripe corn’, as if they were soon to be reaped, also suggests that Eliot had adopted some of the artistic methods instituted by the so-called Imagists. Eliot’s associate Ezra Pound was a major proponent of Imagism, and had already defined some of the attributes a poem had to include in order for it to be considered Imagist. Pound defined an ‘Image’ as something whose intellectual and emotional complexity could be ascertained within an instant of time.
The poet and fellow Imagist F.S. Flint identified an ‘Image’ as a direct treatment of a subject; the poet was to use no word that did not contribute to the presentation, and in terms of rhythm: to compose in sequence of the musical phrase, not in sequence of a metronome. The conspicuous lack of a rhyming scheme in ‘The Boston Evening Transcript’ and its arrestingly succinct first line, situated somewhat apart from the rest of the stanza, appear to reflect Flint’s analogy to music, if the metronome was viewed as being analogous to poetic metre or rhyming scheme.