'"Prufrock and other Observations": A Criticism' by May Sinclair, from the Little Review


This is a review of T S Eliot’s collection Prufrock and Other Observations (1917), published in the Little Review in December 1917.

Who wrote it?

May Sinclair (1863–1946) was an English novelist and philosopher. In 1916 she was elected a fellow of the Royal Society of Literature, and hailed as ‘the foremost living writer among English-speaking women’ by William Lyon Phelps.

What does the piece argue?

On the whole, the piece is a ‘criticism’ in the sense of literary-critical appraisal rather than an attack. Sinclair begins with a review of other criticism published on the subject. She says that she has read a dismissive, anonymous ‘Shorter Notice’ in the New Statesman, and a positive review by Ezra Pound in the Egoist, which itself quotes from a negative review by Arthur Waugh in the Quarterly. Waugh’s review was in fact written in 1916, and refers to Eliot’s poetry before it was collected in Prufrock.

May expresses her surprise at the New Statesman’s approach, but does some dismissing of her own by declaring herself unsurprised that Waugh is continuing the ‘good old manly traditions of the Quarterly’ by not appreciating the modernity and realism of Eliot’s work. One of the reasons she perceives for approaches like Waugh’s is that ‘the comfortable and respectable mind loves conventional beauty, and some of the realities that Mr. Eliot sees are not beautiful’. Even Alfred Lord Tennyson (1809–1892), who became a Poet Laureate read by Queen Victoria, had been considered obscure at points in his career.

Sinclair admits that this poetry ‘is elusive; it is difficult; it demands a distinct effort of attention.’ But she believes that it should be praised for showing us ugly, unpleasant reality through sights, smells and sounds:

Mr. Eliot is careful to present his street and his drawing-room as they are, and Prufrock's thoughts as they are: live thoughts, kicking, running about and jumping, nervily, in a live brain.

Quoting from various sections of the collection, she argues that Eliot cannot properly be called obscure; his thoughts move ‘not by logical stages and majestic roundings of the full literary curve, but as live thoughts move.’ In a 1918 essay on Dorothy Richardson's Pilgrimage, Sinclair would be the first to take the term ‘stream of consciousness’ from the work of the philosopher and psychologist William James and apply it to literature.

Full title:
'"Prufrock and other Observations": A Criticism'
December 1917, Chicago
The Little Review, May Sinclair
Usage terms

Reproduced with permission of Curtis Brown Group Ltd, London
on behalf of The Beneficiaries of the Estate of May Sinclair
Copyright © May Sinclair 1917.
Except as otherwise permitted by your national copyright laws this material may not be copied or distributed further.

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British Library

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