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T S Eliot and the sexual wasteland

The poet had a tangled relationship with the erotic, once remarking that however intimate a love poem may be, it is meant to be overheard.

For most of his lifetime T S Eliot appeared an austere and reticent figure. During the long breakdown of his first marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, he took a vow of celibacy in 1928, controlled his relations with other women, and in 1953 planned to retire to an abbey. So some may be surprised by the sexual content of two sets of poems published in full for the first time in a complete edition of his Poems.

The editors politely call the earlier set “Improper Rhymes”; in truth, it’s a smutty romp. The later set contains poems of marital love, written for his second wife, Valerie Fletcher. Neither set remotely approaches the greatness of the 1963 Collected Poems, Eliot’s last volume before he died in 1965, and we may wonder how to place erotic exploits in our sense of his life and character.

As a student at Harvard, he began circulating his Columbo and Bolo jingles between about 1908 and 1914. For men only, and degrading women, Jews and blacks, they offer
the spectacle of a penis so mighty it can rip a “whore” “from cunt to navel”. This revel in violence is varied by the antics of the sex-mad King Bolo and his Big Black Kween, whose bum is as big as a soup tureen.

After Eliot settled in London in 1915 he was prepared to publish the verses, but Wyndham Lewis, to whom they were offered for his avant-garde magazine Blast, declined to print words “ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger”.

At first, when I came upon the Bolovian Court and Columbo and his crew, I assumed that they were a juvenile aberration. The third volume of Letters (covering the period of Eliot’s conversion to the Anglican faith in June 1927) presents a challenge to this. For the obscene verse that Eliot continued to write and disseminate as late as the age of 44 is not, in his own post-conversion view, an aberration. In an exchange with his fellow publisher Geoffrey Faber in August 1927 he commends obscenity, in the manner of Swift, as an eye for evil.

Here is an elevated justification, and I have tried to accept it. All the same, hesitation has lingered. For one thing, an eye for evil is dangerously godlike, a danger acknowledged by Eliot’s Puritan forebear Andrew Eliott, who condemned innocents to death at the Salem witch trials. In 1692 Eliott confessed that he and his co-jurors had been unable to withstand the delusions of the powers of darkness. Can Tom Eliot be something of a throwback to the punitive temper of those old New England Puritans, and foreign, after all, to the mild-mannered Anglicans whose faith he adopted? Conceivably he was testing and judging the morality of the recipients of his smut, among them his Harvard buddy Conrad Aiken, Ezra Pound and a Criterion board member called Bonamy Dobrée.

Hesitation lingers also because the pervasive history of violence against women makes it impossible to be amused by the incitement to sexual violence that accompanies Eliot’s obscenity. This is not imaginative. It’s as banal as Eliot’s stabs at anti-Semitism – as banal as evil.

Eliot concealed his extremes with a normative mask: the City uniform of his bowler hat, rolled umbrella and what his first editor, Virginia Woolf, called his “four-piece suit”. Eliot himself caricatures propriety in the figure of J Alfred Prufrock at a Boston tea party, too prudish, too buttoned-up for love, recoiling from a woman whose arm, moving to wrap a shawl, is “downed with light brown hair”.

This shudder precedes Eliot’s doomed first marriage and intensifies over the years as a counter to what he termed “the wind beyond the world” – an evanescent vision that came but rarely. There is disgust with the flesh in “Sweeney Erect”, where sex is associated with the jolts of an epileptic attack. In the drafts of The Waste Land, the clerk and the typist couple “like crawling bugs”.

Three of the marital poems belong neither with the degraded flesh nor with the poet’s purified feeling for a “Lady of silences”, a Beatrice figure whom Eliot’s imagination wrought out of his long tie to a Bostonian speech teacher, Emily Hale. The marital poems are of a piece with the final poem in the 1963 Collected Poems, a dedication to Eliot’s second wife which speaks of sleeping lovers whose bodies smell of each other. In the same way, “Sleeping Together”, “How the Tall Girl and I Play Together” and “How the Tall Girl’s Breasts Are” affirm physical love based on trust and commitment. Fair copies survive in “Valerie’s Own Book”.

When Eliot married Valerie Fletcher he was nearly 70 and she aged 30, his trusted secretary at Faber. We are invited to witness how they “play together” when they have nothing on. Because she’s so tall, her nipples touch his and their tongues meet head-on.

The stimulus is as much in the looking as in touch: we are invited to see the tall girl’s breasts from below, from above and from the side where the cleavage invites the lover’s hand. Eliot’s poems have an awakened freshness, as though for the first time he observes a woman’s body as a thing of beauty. But as poetry this can’t compare with the eloquence of Donne’s lover whose roving hands, licensed to “go/Before, behind, between, above, below”, are likened to voyages of discovery: “O my America! my new-found-land”.

Eliot’s simplicity is charming when he repeats, “I love a tall girl”; also the tenderness when he strokes her back and long white legs as she “sits astraddle” on his lap. Explicitness, though, is less erotic than suggestion. It is no match for the overwhelming theatricality of Yeats’s lover, with his “mask of burning gold/With emerald eyes”.

Eliot’s words of love were designed to please his wife and to sustain her through her life without him, but for readers they are meant, I think, as a sign of sorts.

Crossing “a whole Thibet of broken stones/That lie, fang up, a lifetime’s march”, Eliot had looked to paradise as too unlikely: too undeserved. He could give credence to the perfect life, “burning in every moment”, but had remained imperfect himself, unfit for divine love – and out of this disjunction had come the great poems we know. But then, in 1956, when he conceived his last play, The Elder Statesman, he began to imagine the possibility of forgiveness. It comes to a hollow-hearted old man through the love of his daughter.

At that turning point in 1956, when Eliot’s health was failing and he asked himself how to prepare for death, he found “a peach of a girl” ready in the wings, awaiting his cue. As always, there were moral issues: the shift to human love led him to cast off two others, Emily Hale and Mary Trevelyan, who had devoted themselves to him in different ways over decades. Fury with Emily in 1956 may, in fact, have prompted his embrace of Valerie, because in that year Emily gave Princeton the thousand letters that he had written to her from the time of his break-up with Vivienne. For once, Eliot had lost control of what he would leave to posterity. My guess is that this burst of fury and need for a long-term guardian with Valerie’s absolute loyalty played some part in Eliot turning to her.

His love poems tell us nothing about Valerie as a person, except that she adores him and delights in seeing him aroused by her beauty as she stands naked in high heels. It’s easy to take in the enormity, from her point of view, of being chosen by an immortal and feeling it in her power to stir him. Even after her death in 2012, the scenes remain to tell us something, and there is a confirmatory clue in an obscure publication, the last work Eliot wrote.

The love poems are a sign of the grace that came to Eliot unexpectedly through human love in the final eight years of his life. He lays out the pattern for this finale in a British Council pamphlet on George Herbert (1962). It is a spiritual biography in which Eliot seems to speak in unison with the 17th-century poet, moody, snobbish, meticulous of dress, who turned aside from the world. Like Eliot, after suffering divine absence, Herbert had a happy marriage in his last years. Eliot closes by quoting in full the poem beginning “Love bade me welcome: yet my soul drew back,/Guiltie of dust and sinne.” Every part suggests a parallel with Eliot’s life, especially the grace of the last two lines: “You must sit down, sayes Love, and taste my meat:/So I did sit and eat.”

Eliot once remarked that however intimate a love poem may be, it is meant to be overheard. He compares this with what is said to the beloved in private, which must be “in prose”. It is said that Eliot wrote to his wife even when they were together. If so, we might look forward to further biographical revelations in the final volume of Eliot’s Letters.

Lyndall Gordon’s biography of Eliot is published in its most up-to-date edition, “The Imperfect Life of T S Eliot”, by Virago

This article first appeared in the 19 November 2015 issue of the New Statesman, The age of terror

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Celluloid Dreams: are film scores the next area of serious musical scholarship?

John Wilson has little time for people who don't see the genius at work in so-called "light music".

When John Wilson walks out on to the stage at the Royal Albert Hall in London, there is a roar from the audience that would be more fitting in a football stadium. Before he even steps on to the conductor’s podium, people whistle and cheer, thumping and clapping. The members of his orchestra grin as he turns to acknowledge the applause. Many soloists reaching the end of a triumphant concerto performance receive less ecstatic praise. Even if you had never heard of Wilson before, the rock-star reception would tip you off that you were about to hear something special.

There is a moment of silence as Wilson holds the whole hall, audience and orchestra alike, in stasis, his baton raised expectantly. Then it slices down and the orchestra bursts into a tightly controlled mass of sound, complete with swirling strings and blowsy brass. You are instantly transported: this is the music to which Fred Astaire and Ginger Rogers danced, the music of George Gershwin, Cole Porter, Irving Berlin, which reverberated around the cauldron of creativity that was Hollywood of the early 20th century, when composers were as sought after as film directors.

Wilson’s shows are tremendously popular. Since he presented the MGM musicals programme at the Proms in 2009, which was watched by 3.5 million people on TV and is still selling on DVD, his concerts have been among the first to sell out in every Proms season. There are international tours and popular CDs, too. But a great deal of behind-the-scenes work goes into bringing this music – much of which had been lost to history – back to life. There are familiar tunes among the complex arrangements that he and his orchestra play, to be sure, but the music sounds fresher and sharper than it ever does on old records or in movies. Whether you’re a film fan or not, you will find something about the irrepressible energy of these tunes that lifts the spirits.

Sitting in an armchair in the conductor’s room beneath the Henry Wood Hall in south London, Wilson looks anything but energetic. “Excuse my yawning, but I’ve been up since three o’clock this morning,” he says. This is a short break in a hectic rehearsal schedule, as he puts his orchestra through its paces in the lead-up to its appearance at the 2016 Proms. Watching him at work before we sat down to talk, I saw a conductor who was far from sluggish. Bobbing on the balls of his feet, he pushed his players to consider every detail of their sound, often stopping the musicians to adjust the tone of a single note or phrase. At times, his whole body was tense with the effort of communicating the tone he required.

The programme that Wilson and his orchestra are obsessing over at the moment is a celebration of George and Ira Gershwin, the American songwriting partnership that produced such immortal songs as “I Got Rhythm”, “’S Wonderful” and “Funny Face”, as well as the 1934 opera Porgy and Bess. Though it might all sound effortless when everyone finally appears in white tie, huge amounts of preparation go into a John Wilson concert and they start long before the orchestra begins to rehearse.

“Coming up with the idea is the first step,” he says. “Then you put a programme together, which takes a great deal of time and thought and revision. You can go through 40 drafts until you get it right. I was still fiddling with the running order two weeks ago. It’s like a three-dimensional game of chess – one thing changes and the whole lot comes down.”

Wilson, 44, who also conducts the more conventional classical repertoire, says that his interest in so-called light music came early on. “When you’re a kid, you don’t know that you shouldn’t like the Beatles, or you shouldn’t like Fred Astaire, or whatever,” he says. “You just like anything that’s good. So I grew up loving Beethoven and Brahms and Ravel and Frank Sinatra and the Beatles.” At home in Gateshead – he still has the Geordie accent – the only music in the house was “what was on the radio and telly”, and the young boy acquired his taste from what he encountered playing with local brass bands and amateur orchestras.

He had the opposite of the hothoused, pressured childhood that we often associate with professional musicians. “Mine were just nice, lovely, normal parents! As long as I wore clean underwear and finished my tea, then they were happy,” he recalls. “I was never forced into doing music. My parents used to have to sometimes say, ‘Look, you’ve played the piano enough today; go out and get some fresh air’ – things like that.” Indeed, he received barely any formal musical education until he went to the Royal College of Music at the age of 18, after doing his A-levels at Newcastle College.

The title of the concert he conducted at this year’s Proms was “George and Ira Gershwin Rediscovered”, which hints at the full scale of Wilson’s work. Not only does he select his music from the surviving repertoire of 20th-century Hollywood: in many cases, he unearths scores that weren’t considered worth keeping at the time and resurrects the music into a playable state. At times, there is no written trace at all and he must reconstruct a score by ear from a ­recording or the soundtrack of a film.

For most other musicians, even experts, it would be an impossible task. Wilson smiles ruefully when I ask how he goes about it. “There are 18 pieces in this concert. Only six of them exist in full scores. So you track down whatever materials survive, whether they be piano or conductors’ scores or recordings, and then my colleagues and I – there are four of us – sit down with the scores.” There is no hard and fast rule for how to do this kind of reconstruction, he says, as it depends entirely on what there is left to work with. “It’s like putting together a jigsaw, or a kind of archaeology. You find whatever bits you can get your hands on. But the recording is always the final word: that’s the ur-text. That is what you aim to replicate, because that represents the composer’s and lyricist’s final thoughts.” There is a purpose to all this effort that goes beyond putting on a great show, though that is a big part of why Wilson does it. “I just want everyone to leave with the thrill of having experienced the sound of a live orchestra,” he says earnestly. “I tell the orchestra, ‘Never lose sight of the fact that people have bought tickets, left the house, got on the bus/Tube, come to the concert. Give them their money’s worth. Play every last quaver with your lifeblood.’”

Besides holding to a commitment to entertain, Wilson believes there is an academic justification for the music. “These composers were working with expert ­arrangers, players and singers . . . It’s a wonderful period of music. I think it’s the next major area of serious musical scholarship.”

These compositions sit in a strange, in-between place. Classical purists deride them as “light” and thus not worthy of attention, while jazz diehards find the catchy syncopations tame and conventional. But he has little time for anyone who doesn’t recognise the genius at work here. “They’re art songs, is what they are. The songs of Gershwin and Porter and [Jerome] Kern are as important to their period as the songs of Schubert . . . People who are sniffy about this material don’t really know it, as far as I’m concerned, because I’ve never met a musician of any worth who’s sniffy about this.

Selecting the right performers is another way in which Wilson ensures that his rediscovered scores will get the best possible presentation. He formed the John Wilson Orchestra in 1994, while he was still studying at the Royal College of Music, with the intention of imitating the old Hollywood studio orchestras that originally performed this repertoire. Many of the players he works with are stars of other European orchestras – in a sense, it is a supergroup. The ensemble looks a bit like a symphony orchestra with a big band nestled in the middle – saxophones next to French horns and a drum kit in the centre. The right string sound, in particular, is essential.

At the rehearsal for the Gershwin programme, I heard Wilson describing to the first violins exactly what he wanted: “Give me the hottest sound you’ve made since your first concerto at college.” Rather than the blended tone that much of the classical repertoire calls for, this music demands throbbing, emotive, swooping strings. Or, as Wilson put it: “Use so much vibrato that people’s family photos will shuffle across the top of their TVs and fall off.”

His conducting work spans much more than his Hollywood musical reconstruction projects. Wilson is a principal conductor with the Royal Northern Sinfonia and has performed or recorded with most of the major ensembles in Britain. And his great passion is for English music: the romanticism of Elgar, Vaughan Williams and Delius needs advocates, too, he says. He insists that these two strands of his career are of equivalent importance. “I make no separation between my activities conducting classical music and [film scores]. They’re just all different rooms in the same house.” 

The John Wilson Orchestra’s “Gershwin in Hollywood” (Warner Classics) is out now

Caroline Crampton is assistant editor of the New Statesman.

This article first appeared in the 25 August 2016 issue of the New Statesman, Cameron: the legacy of a loser