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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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With the BBC Food’s collection under threat, here's how to make the most of online recipes

Do a bit of digging, trust your instincts – and always read the comments.

I don’t think John Humphrys is much of a chef. Recently, as his Today co-presenter Mishal Husain was discussing the implications of the BBC’s decision to axe its Food website (since commuted to transportation to the Good Food platform, run by its commercial arm), sharp-eared listeners heard the Humph claim that fewer recipes on the web could only be a good thing. “It would make it easier!” he bellowed in the background. “We wouldn’t have to choose between so many!”

Husain also seemed puzzled as to why anyone would need more than one recipe for spaghetti bolognese – but, as any keen cook knows, you can never have too many different takes on a dish. Just as you wouldn’t want to get all your news from a single source, it would be a sad thing to eat the same bolognese for the rest of your life. Sometimes only a molto autentico version, as laid down by a fierce Italian donna, rich with tradition and chopped liver, will do – and sometimes, though you would never admit it in a national magazine, you crave the comfort of your mum’s spag bol with grated cheddar.

The world wouldn’t starve without BBC Food’s collection but, given that an online search for “spaghetti bolognese recipe” turns up about a million results, it would have been sad to have lost one of the internet’s more trustworthy sources of information. As someone who spends a large part of each week researching and testing recipes, I can assure you that genuinely reliable ones are rarer than decent chips after closing time. But although it is certainly the only place you’ll find the Most Haunted host Yvette Fielding’s kedgeree alongside Heston Blumenthal’s snail porridge, the BBC website is not the only one that is worth your time.

The good thing about newspaper, magazine and other commercial platforms is that most still have just enough budget to ensure that their recipes will have been made at least twice – once by the writer and once for the accompanying photographs – though sadly the days when everyone employed an independent recipe tester are long gone. Such sites also often have sufficient traffic to generate a useful volume of comments. I never make a recipe without scrolling down to see what other people have said about it. Get past the “Can’t wait to make this!” brigade; ignore the annoying people who swap baked beans for lentils and then complain, “This is nothing like dhal”; and there’s usually some sensible advice in there, too.

But what about when you leave the safety of the big boys and venture into the no man’s land of the personal blog? How do you separate the wheat from the chaff and find a recipe that actually works? You can often tell how much work a writer has put in by the level of detail they go into: if they have indicated how many people it serves, or where to find unusual ingredients, suggested possible tweaks and credited their original sources, they have probably made the dish more than once. The photography is another handy clue. You don’t have to be Annie Leibovitz to provide a good idea of what the finished dish ought to look like.

Do a bit of digging as part of your prep. If you like the look of the rest of the site, the author’s tastes will probably chime with your own. And always, always, wherever the recipe is from, read it all the way through, even before you order the shopping. There is nothing more annoying than getting halfway through and then realising that you need a hand blender to finish the dish, just as the first guest arrives.

Above all, trust your instincts. If the cooking time seems far too short, or the salt content ridiculously high, it probably is, so keep an eye on that oven, check that casserole, keep tasting that sauce. As someone who once published a magic mince pie recipe without any sugar, I’m living proof that, occasionally, even the very best of us make mistakes. 

Felicity Cloake is the New Statesman’s food columnist. Her latest book is The A-Z of Eating: a Flavour Map for Adventurous Cooks.

This article first appeared in the 26 May 2016 issue of the New Statesman, The Brexit odd squad