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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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Would the BBC's Nazi drama SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago?

This alternate history is freighted with meaning now we're facing the wurst-case scenario. 

Would SS-GB have felt half so resonant a year ago? Though the clever-after-the-fact Nostradamus types out there might disagree, I can’t believe that it would. When it comes to the Second World War, after all, the present has helpfully stepped in where memory is just beginning to leave off. The EU, in the process of fragmenting, is now more than ever powerless to act in the matter of rogue states, even among its own membership. In case you hadn’t noticed, Hungary, for instance, is already operating as a kind of proto-fascist state, led by Viktor Orbán, a man whom Jean-Claude Juncker, the president of the European Commission, jokingly likes to call “the dictator” – and where it goes, doubtless others will soon follow.

The series (Sundays, 9pm), adapted from Len Deighton’s novel, is set in 1941 in a Britain under Nazi occupation; Winston Churchill has been executed and the resistance is struggling to hold on to its last strongholds in the countryside. Sam Riley plays Douglas Archer, a detective at Scotland Yard, now under the control of the SS, and a character who appears in almost every scene. Riley has, for an actor, a somewhat unexpressive face, beautiful but unreadable. Here, however, his downturned mouth and impassive cheekbones are perfect: Archer, after all, operates (by which I mean, barely operates) in a world in which no one wants to give their true feelings away, whether to their landlady, their lover, or their boss, newly arrived from Himmler’s office and as Protestant as all hell (he hasn’t used the word “degenerate” yet, but he will, he will).

Archer is, of course, an ambiguous figure, neither (at present) a member of the resistance nor (we gather) a fully committed collaborator. He is – or so he tells himself – merely doing his job, biding his time until those braver or more foolhardy do something to restore the old order. Widowed, he has a small boy to bring up. Yet how long he can inhabit this dubious middle ground remains to be seen. Oskar Huth (Lars Eidinger), the new boss, is keen to finish off the resistance; the resistance, in turn, is determined to persuade Archer to join its cause.

It’s hard to find fault with the series; for the next month, I am going to look forward to Sunday nights mightily. I would, I suppose, have hoped for a slightly more charismatic actress than Kate Bosworth to play Barbara Barga, the American journalist who may or may not be involved with the British resistance. But everything else seems pretty perfect to me. London looks suitably dirty and its inhabitants’ meals suitably exiguous. Happiness is an extra egg for tea, smoking is practically a profession, and
the likes of Archer wear thick, white vests.

Swastikas adorn everything from the Palace of Westminster to Trafalgar Square, Buckingham Palace is half ruined, a memorial to what the Germans regard as Churchill’s folly, and the CGI is good enough for the sight of all these things to induce your heart to ache briefly. Nazi brutality is depicted here as almost quotidian – and doubtless it once was to some. Huth’s determination to have four new telephone lines installed in his office within the hour is at one end of this horrible ordinariness. At the other is the box in which Archer’s mutinous secretary Sylvia (Maeve Dermody) furiously stubs out her fag, full to the brim with yellow stars.

When I first heard about The Kettering Incident (Tuesdays, 12.20am; repeated Wednesdays, 10pm) I thought someone must have found out about that thing that happened one time I was driving north on the M1 with a more-than-usually terrible hangover. Turns out it’s a new Australian drama, which comes to us on Sky Atlantic. Anna (Elizabeth Debicki), a doctor working in London, pitches up back in Tasmania many years after her teenage friend Gillian disappeared into its Kettering forest, having seen a load of mysterious bright lights. Was Gillian abducted by aliens or was she, as some local people believe, murdered by Anna? To be honest, she could be working as a roadie for Kylie, for all I care. This ponderous, derivative show is what happens when a writer sacrifices character on the altar of plot. The more the plot thickens, the more jaw-achingly tedious it becomes.

Rachel Cooke trained as a reporter on The Sunday Times. She is now a writer at The Observer. In the 2006 British Press Awards, she was named Interviewer of the Year.

This article first appeared in the 24 February 2017 issue of the New Statesman, The world after Brexit