Hyacinth Boy

Mark Ford

  • T.S. Eliot: The Making of an American Poet by James E. Miller
    Pennsylvania State, 468 pp, £29.95, August 2005, ISBN 0 271 02681 2
  • The Annotated ‘Waste Land’ with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose by T.S. Eliot, edited by Lawrence Rainey
    Yale, 270 pp, $35.00, April 2005, ISBN 0 300 09743 3
  • Revisiting ‘The Waste Land’ by Lawrence Rainey
    Yale, 203 pp, £22.50, May 2005, ISBN 0 300 10707 2

Hart Crane, for one, was in no doubt about it. ‘He’s the prime ram of our flock,’ he insisted to Allen Tate in the summer of 1922. Tate was initially puzzled by the phrase, as well as by various other ‘signals’ his friend was making, but eventually came to understand Crane’s drift: ‘In those days,’ he later commented, ‘a lot of people like Hart had the delusion that Eliot was homosexual.’

Thirty years later, when Eliot’s prestige and influence were at their zenith, John Peter, a Canadian academic, published an article in Essays in Criticism called ‘A New Interpretation of The Waste Land’. Peter argued that the poem was at heart an elegy that might be compared to Tennyson’s In Memoriam: ‘At some previous time the speaker has fallen completely – perhaps the right word is “irretrievably” – in love. The object of his love was a young man who soon afterwards met his death, it would seem by drowning.’ When Eliot learned of this ‘new interpretation’ of his most famous poem, he at once instructed his solicitors to threaten its author, and the editor of Essays in Criticism, F.W. Bateson, with a libel suit: the article, his lawyers declared, was ‘absurd’ and ‘completely erroneous’ and must be instantly withdrawn. Peter was mortified to find he had so grievously offended the Great Cham of modern letters, and he and Bateson submitted to Eliot’s demands. Most of the issue’s print run was destroyed, and libraries that had already received copies were instructed to excise the article at once.

Four years after Eliot’s death in 1965, however, Essays in Criticism reprinted the essay with a postscript by Peter in which he brooded ruefully on his tactless breach of etiquette – and identified the original of Phlebas the Phoenician as Jean Verdenal, Eliot’s fellow lodger and close friend during his stay in Paris in 1910-11. Both Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) and the Poems 1909-1925 were dedicated to the memory of Verdenal, who died in May 1915 in the assault on Gallipoli. ‘For Jean Verdenal,’ Eliot’s inscription runs, ‘mort aux Dardanelles,’ followed by an epigraph from Dante’s Purgatorio: ‘Or puoi la quantitate/comprender dell’amor ch’a te mi scalda,/quando dismento nostra vanitate,/trattando l’ombre come cosa salda’ (‘Now can you understand the quantity of love that warms me towards you, so that I forget our vanity, and treat the shadows like the solid thing’).

The notion that The Waste Land, or at least a strand of it, could be read as an elegy for a young man who died by drowning gained some plausibility with the publication in 1971 of the drafts of the poem. Scrupulous readers of Eliot’s notes had long been baffled by one that invites us to compare a passage from ‘A Game of Chess’ –

‘Do
‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do
you remember
‘Nothing?’
I remember Those are pearls that were his eyes.

– to line 37 of ‘The Burial of the Dead’: ‘Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden’. What connection could there be between the hyacinth girl and the drowned Phoenician sailor evoked by Eliot’s quotation from The Tempest? The drafts explained all:

‘Do you know nothing? Do you see nothing?
Do you remember
‘Nothing?’
I remember The hyacinth garden. Those are pearls that
were his eyes, yes!

In other words, as G. Wilson Knight first pointed out in 1972, the ‘hyacinth girl’ was initially conceived as male and, like Phlebas, appears to have drowned, or so the section’s concluding quotation from Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde suggests: ‘Öd’ und leer das Meer’ (‘Desolate and empty the sea’).

James Miller was the first critic inspired by Peter’s speculations and the appearance of the drafts to attempt a thorough outing of Eliot. His T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land (1977) offered ‘new interpretations’ of much of Eliot’s early work, and found everywhere Crane-like signals of homoeroticism. If the ‘you’ of the opening line of ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ (‘Let us go then, you and I’) is male, as Eliot once conceded in a letter to a Norwegian academic, then surely so is the ‘you’ with whom Prufrock shares a languorous afternoon. And those lines from Dante with which Eliot paid tribute to Verdenal: don’t they suggest more than just ardent friendship? And then, in a passage from an editorial in the Criterion in 1934, Miller detected a connection between memories of Verdenal and the broken-hearted narrator of the opening lines of The Waste Land, wracked by recalling April’s ‘breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land’. Eliot is commenting on a book by Henri Massis about Paris in the era preceding the First World War, and is suddenly prompted to a personal reminiscence: ‘I am willing to admit that my own retrospect is touched by a sentimental sunset, the memory of a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac, a friend who was later (so far as I could find out) to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli.’ Miller initially intended to entitle his new (and one hopes final) book on Eliot’s sexuality ‘T.S. Eliot’s Uranian Muse’. The term occurs in a poem Pound sent Eliot, as part of a letter, shortly after he had finished editing the manuscripts of The Waste Land. ‘Sage Homme’ (a play on ‘Sage Femme’, the French term for a midwife) opens:

These are the poems of Eliot
By the Uranian Muse begot;
A Man their Mother was,
A Muse their Sire.

How did the printed Infancies result
From Nuptials thus doubly difficult?

If you must needs enquire
Know diligent Reader
That on each Occasion
Ezra performed the Caesarean Operation.

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[*] 1216 pp., £19.99, March 2005, 0 631 20449 0.