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with a libel suit: the article, his lawyers declared, was ‘absurd’ and ‘completely erroneous’ and must be instantly withdrawn.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’ –
‘You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do
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
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.
‘Uranian’ was a slang term for homosexual, and at the centre of The Waste Land – literally, at line 217 of its 433 lines, in the middle of the third of its five parts – we meet the wholly passive, sexually ambivalent prophet Tiresias, ‘Old man with wrinkled female breasts’, born male, as Ovid tells it, but transformed into a woman after striking two copulating snakes with his staff, and then, after striking the same snakes again seven years later, back into a man. ‘The two sexes,’ Eliot’s note informs us, ‘meet in Tiresias.’ It is one of Modernism’s more peculiar ironies that the poem which most conclusively, in Joyce’s words, ‘ended the idea of poetry for ladies’ features as its ‘most important personage’ a helpless androgyne who has much more in common with the poem’s cast of female seers and violated visionaries – Madame Sosostris, Ophelia, Philomela, the typist, the Rhine maidens – than with the heroic quester after the Holy Grail to whom Eliot draws our attention in his opening note on Jessie Weston’s account of grail legends, From Ritual to Romance.
Pound’s jokey vision of the poem as the result of male-male coupling ignores, of course, the third participant in the poem’s genesis, Vivien, whose enthusiastic comments (‘Yes & Wonderful Wonderful … Splendid last lines’) contrast sharply with Pound’s authoritative cuts and curt dismissals. The facsimile of the drafts has generated much speculation by queer theorists over the last few decades. Those not up to speed with all branches of recent Eliot criticism may be surprised to learn that the misogynist patriarch of Modernism, rank with prejudice, denounced by so many feminist and politically corrective readings in the 1970s and 1980s, has recently metamorphosed, Tiresias-like, into a figure deserving a not insignificant niche in the pantheon of queer studies (though it’s hard not to imagine him muttering there: ‘That is not what I meant at all’). In Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration (1989), Wayne Koestenbaum, for instance, argued that one of Eliot’s primary motivations in writing a poem so ‘maimed’, so chaotic and sprawling and in need of editorial intervention, was as a kind of seduction technique, a way of appealing to Pound for his ‘powerful services’. His interpretation makes il miglior fabbro far more than the poem’s midwife, or even sage homme: ‘The male Modernist anus, a barren, intrinsically unprocreative zone, achieves a weird flowering – lilacs out of the dead land – when men collaborate: Pound penetrates Eliot’s waste land, and fills the hollow man with child.’
In Deviant Modernism (1998), Colleen Lamos pursued sexual and textual errancy in Eliot, Joyce and Proust, and focused on Eliot’s unsettling 1918 ‘Ode’, published in Ara Vos Prec in 1920 but never collected in later volumes. Though maddeningly opaque, the poem seems to end with a Phlebas-style death by water (‘Now lies he there/Tip to tip washed beneath Charles’ Wagon’), a fate presented as somewhat preferable to that of the ‘tortured’, just-married protagonist: ‘When the bridegroom smoothed his hair/There was blood upon the bed.’ The line is often taken to refer to the Eliots’ disastrous honeymoon in Eastbourne – and Vivien’s over-frequent menstrual cycle, which led her to wash the sheets herself when she stayed in hotels – but can’t also help putting one in mind of Sweeney’s insistence in Sweeney Agonistes that ‘Any man has to, needs to, wants to/Once in a lifetime, do a girl in.’ In ‘Ode’, though, it looks like she’s doing him in: ‘Succuba eviscerate’, runs the final line of its middle section, the most compressed of Eliot’s many Gothic vignettes of voracious women. It’s easy to understand why Eliot didn’t want his mother to see this poem, and even considered eviscerating the volume itself, by razoring out the leaf on which ‘Ode’ was printed and ‘sending the book as if there had been an error and an extra page put in’, as he put it in a letter to his brother Henry. Lamos elaborates on the idea that ‘homoeroticism in Eliot’s poetry invariably takes the form of necrophilia,’ and reads the repeated scenes of drowning as Eliot’s way of separating ‘sanctioned homoeroticism from degraded homosexuality’. Tiresias, she argues, is merely the most explicit of The Waste Land’s many gender-reversals – a ‘trope for the drag-like metamorphoses of masculine women and effeminate men’. It is the masculine women who must get the action going: ‘For a man to be feminised in The Waste Land simply means that he is figuratively sodomised by a powerful woman, like the bridegroom victimised by the succuba in “Ode”.’ We are a long way from the dogged hunt for allusions to grail myths and fertility rituals of earlier generations of Eliot scholars.
Miller attempts no such theoretical arabesques. He is more like a McCarthy-inspired gumshoe than a queer theory exegete. He just wants to persuade his readers that Eliot was gay; but then, at the last minute, or so one must assume, loses his nerve, retitling his book The Making of an American Poet, and allowing the blurb to suggest it is mainly about Eliot’s ‘American roots’, which it isn’t. Though never subtle, his argument, or idée fixe, is developed mainly by inference. For example, the first poem the adolescent Eliot fell in love with was Edward Fitzgerald’s The Rubáiyát of Omar Khayyám. Fitzgerald was exclusively attracted to men – though like Eliot embarked on an unhappy marriage – and the Rubáiyát itself was addressed in Persian to a young boy, which Eliot, with his interest in Eastern languages, may have found out. While at Harvard, Eliot recommended the work of Havelock Ellis to a friend, so would probably have known that Fitzgerald was cited in Sexual Inversion (1897) as an example of the homosexual artist. ‘One might think,’ Miller comments,
that Eliot, on reading Ellis’s volume and finding there Edward Fitzgerald a leading ‘character’, would have stopped pointing out his passion for him until near the end of his life. But in fact, in one poem, ‘Gerontion’, written in 1919 and published in Ara Vos Prec in 1920, Eliot used many lines found in Fitzgerald’s letters and often quoted in A.C. Benson’s biography, Edward Fitzgerald, of the English Men of Letters Series (1905). The use of these descriptive lines in ‘Gerontion’, in many ways an Eliot self-portrait, suggests that indeed Eliot identified with Fitzgerald in spite of his appearance in the Ellis book.
But surely only a homophobic bigot would have refrained from ‘pointing out his passion’ for a poet he admired on account of his appearance in Sexual Inversion; and Eliot, as Miller himself insists time and again, spent much time, both in Boston and London, in circles where straight, gay and bi mingled freely. And it’s a bizarre sort of literary criticism that makes the act of alluding to the work of another writer mean you share their sexual preferences, particularly when the poem in question is a dramatic monologue. While Miller tirelessly insinuates that overwhelming guilt at his unmentionable homosexuality is the key to the mystery of Eliot’s life and poetry, he never once considers the possibility that Eliot might have known what he was about when he included in his early poems incidents such as Mr Eugenides’s invitation to the male narrator of ‘The Fire Sermon’: ‘To luncheon at the Cannon Street Hotel/Followed by a weekend at the Metropole.’
Pound famously said that unlike most of the writers he took under his wing and attempted to induct into modernity, Eliot had somehow managed to ‘modernise’ himself all on his own. This ‘modernising’ involved demonstrating his familiarity with the codes of sophisticated metropolitan life, and abandoning the prejudices of his provincial Unitarian upbringing in St Louis. In a 1972 essay, William Empson rather ingeniously suggested that Eliot’s anti-semitism was in fact a transfer onto Jews of his dislike of his family religion, but that he just couldn’t bring himself to write: ‘And the Unitarian squats on the window-sill.’ Certainly, as Miller illustrates with copious reference to the historian Douglas Shand-Tucci’s studies of homosexual Boston at the turn of the century, Eliot’s Harvard provided ample opportunities for him to cast off his Midwestern earnestness and metamorphose into ‘a very gay companion’, ‘an aesthete’ and ‘a dandy’, to borrow terms applied to him by his contemporaries, and which seem to Miller to carry more than a whiff of the Uranian. Eliot lived his first year on Mount Auburn Street, part of an area known as the ‘Gold Coast’ that was popular with aesthetic types; he took to frequenting Mrs Jack’s, the salon of the fabulously wealthy Isabella Stewart Gardner. Having raised three gay nephews, Mrs Jack was particularly tolerant of homosexuals, and was an influential patroness of the arts. Eliot’s correspondence with her suggests they had a number of friends in common.
His ‘closest friend’, however, was the athletic Harold Peters. Peters, a Harvard classmate recalls, ‘chided Eliot about his frail physique’ and persuaded him to work out at the gym; soon the young poet ‘developed into quite a muscular specimen’. Eliot and Peters went sailing together off the Massachusetts coast, and once almost came to grief in thick fog. Hopping from clue to clue, Miller ends up reading ‘Marina’ of 1930 as an attempt to ‘transfigure, spiritually’ the young Eliot’s love for Peters, the ‘scent of pine and the woodthrush singing through the fog’ prompted by a recollection of the romantic cruises they shared some twenty years earlier. What’s more, Peters never married! But when he turned up in London in 1919 and 1920, Eliot greeted him with anything but enthusiasm, reporting to Ottoline Morrell that he had to take his old friend to the theatre, which he detested, and to show him the city, which left him ‘completely exhausted and especially depressed’. Here, as throughout the book, Miller is stymied by the lack of evidence of a sexual relationship between Eliot and his putative male lovers, but that doesn’t hinder him from weaving his sinuous webs of innuendo. The poetry, meanwhile, is discussed solely in terms of what it reveals of Eliot’s stifled sexuality: his attraction to Laforgue’s use of poetic masks, for instance, is juxtaposed with Xavier Mayne’s account in The Intersexes: A History of Similisexualism (1908) of the efforts the Uranian must make to hide his guilt: ‘Ever the Mask, the shuddering concealment, the anguish of hidden passion that burns the life away!’
All such ‘tendencies’ in the young Eliot must, of course, culminate in the figure of Jean Verdenal. Oh for proof, hard proof, that they came home late from a hyacinth garden together! It is known that they visited St Cloud in April 1911, which would surely have necessitated an evening return to Paris. To set the scene for this climactic day out, Miller quotes from the 1911 Encyclopaedia Britannica’s entries on the palace and gardens they visited, noting that – alas – the writer fails to mention the ‘multitude of flower gardens, which could have conceivably contained the lilac and the hyacinth’. ‘Did Verdenal pick the hyacinths at St Cloud to give to Eliot?’ he ponders. In this section on Eliot’s year in Paris, Miller’s rarely elegant prose often turns quite breathless. A passage in one of Verdenal’s letters to Eliot about Wagner is converted by Miller into a proto-sexual experience. Verdenal writes:
Tristan and Isolde is terribly moving at the first hearing, and leaves you prostrate with ecstasy and thirsting to get back to it again … I am not making much sense, it is all so confused and difficult, and impossible to put into words … However, I should be happy to know that you too are able to hear some Wagner in America.
That the opera left Verdenal ‘prostrate with ecstasy’ suggests an orgasmic effect that was overpowering, and that left him ‘thirsting’ for more. Verdenal’s lapse into inarticulateness (‘I am not making much sense’) suggests that he has revealed himself too fully, but the whole passage addressed to his absent friend points obliquely to his longing to share with his friend, in each other’s presence, the overpowering effect of Wagner’s music.
And when Verdenal mentions in a letter of April 1912, a year on from their hypothetical hyacinth-garden experience, that again ‘radiant blooms are germinating’ – well, surely the phrase has a ‘special meaning’ for the poet and his ‘meilleur ami’.
Whatever the nature of Eliot’s sexual impulses, it is painful to see them reduced like this: to read The Waste Land as a cleverly disguised elegy for Jean Verdenal is to make it a much less interesting poem than it is. It’s worth also pointing out that Eliot married not once but twice, and that despite all the research of such as Miller and Carole Seymour-Jones (whose biography of Vivien Eliot, Painted Shadow, figured Eliot as indubitably and actively gay), no smoking gun has been found. In his 1984 biography, Peter Ackroyd concluded that ‘all the available evidence suggests that when he allowed his sexuality free access, when he was not struggling with his own demons, it was of a heterosexual kind.’ Of course much evidence is not yet available: there is no authorised biography; his correspondence with Emily Hale, which consists of more than a thousand letters, is under embargo until 2020; and the second volume of his Selected Letters, though promised for 1989, has yet to appear. Nothing in the first volume contradicted Ackroyd’s assessment, though a number of letters increased our sense of the ‘demons’ haunting Eliot’s imagination and bedevilling his sexuality: shortly after moving to London from Oxford in December 1914 he wrote to Conrad Aiken:
How much more self-conscious one is in a big city! … Just at present this is an inconvenience, for I have been going through one of those nervous sexual attacks which I suffer from when alone in a city … One walks about the street with one’s desires, and one’s refinement rises up like a wall whenever opportunity approaches. I should be better off, I sometimes think, if I had disposed of my virginity and shyness several years ago: and indeed I still think sometimes that it would be well to do so before marriage.
He later attributed his impulsive proposal to Vivien six months later to exactly this lack of experience; what he had wanted from her was ‘a flirtation or a mild affair’, but found himself ‘too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody’. Instead, under pressure from Pound – who was desperate to keep his protégé in London – they decided to marry: ‘To her,’ Eliot commented in a private paper written towards the end of his life, ‘the marriage brought no happiness … to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land.’
In 1991 Lawrence Rainey published an excellent account of the complex negotiations that took place between Pound and Eliot and the first American publishers of the poem that Pound proudly described as ‘the justification of “the movement”, of our modern experiment’. So effective was his championing of Eliot that the editors of the magazine the Dial, Scofield Thayer and James Sibley Watson Jr, agreed not only to publish The Waste Land and to pay Eliot a fee of $150 for it, but also to offer him their annual Dial Award of $2000 (a sum that nearly equalled his annual salary at Lloyds Bank), all without so much as a glimpse of the poem in question. This essay was reprinted in Rainey’s Institutions of Modernism (1998), which explored in rich and compelling detail the kinds of patronage that made possible the careers of Eliot, Pound and Joyce; and it now turns up as Chapter 2 of Revisiting ‘The Waste Land’, a companion volume to the horribly titled The Annotated ‘Waste Land’ with Eliot’s Contemporary Prose.
Faber and Faber hold rights to all Eliot’s work in Britain, but in America The Waste Land is now out of copyright, and this is the third ‘unofficial’ edition of the poem since Harcourt Brace lost control of it. Eliot was much concerned when first dispatching the poem to the printers back in the summer of 1922 that they not be ‘allowed to bitch the punctuation and the spacing, as that is very important for the sense’. Almost as much as, say, Mallarmé’s Un Coup de dés, The Waste Land seems to live in the imagination spatially and visually as well as verbally. I am always disconcerted by how flat and denatured it appears when reprinted in anthologies, its five sections jammed together, while beneath it cluster double columns of editorial glosses in minute type – including notes on Eliot’s own notes. Poets often think long and hard about the shape their poems will assume typographically, and as his own editor at Faber Eliot was in the enviable position of being able to make sure his work came out looking the way he wanted it to look. In later life he came to regret adding the notes that made the poem long enough to be published as a book, but conceded it was never going to be possible to issue The Waste Land without them.
In Rainey’s Yale edition the poem’s 433 lines come prefaced by 54 pages of introductory matter, and are followed by 14 pages of photographs, 51 pages of editorial notes, a six-page collation of editions, 66 pages of essays published by Eliot in 1921, and 47 pages of notes to these essays. It comes, as car salesmen put it, ‘with all the bells and whistles’. I suppose it is aimed at students, though all this paraphernalia should be enough to put many off the poem for life, however much ‘figurative sodomising’ one promised them it contained. The text itself, however, looks squashed and unappealing: there is no title page; the sections all run on, leaving Phlebas half on one page and half on another; and a number of indents – i.e. the spacing Eliot was afraid the printers would ‘bitch’ – have vanished.
Rainey may not have been responsible for the layout of the text, but he is for the words printed. In a tigerish piece published in Essays in Criticism earlier this year, Jim McCue noted a number of errors in the text of the poem itself, and furnished a seemingly endless list of the misquotations and typos that afflict every other part of the book. So exercised does McCue get that he calls for this edition to be withdrawn. Rainey could probably defend some of his ‘readings’, but would have to admit that in missing out the word ‘flat’ in the line ‘Ringed by the flat horizon only’, or in making the hermit-thrush’s song begin ‘Drop drop’ rather than ‘Drip drop’, or in replacing ‘one’ with ‘we’ in the line ‘Amongst the rock one cannot stop or think,’ he has simply not got the text right. It is unfortunate that these errors are all reproduced in the version of the poem printed in the Blackwell anthology Modernism, also edited by Rainey.
I found myself somewhat more impressed than McCue by Rainey’s efforts – through a comparison of the watermarks and chainlines of virtually every extant piece of paper written or typed on by Eliot between 1898 and 1922 – to establish an exact compositional history of the drafts of the poem. Full data on each sheet are set out in a mind-boggling series of tables at the end of Revisiting ‘The Waste Land’. His conjectures seem on the whole plausible, so long as one accepts the premise that Eliot used up one stash of paper before buying another. Here, once again, the poem has been converted into a set of clues for the detective, and one comes almost to expect Rainey to produce the name of the stationer in Margate who sold Eliot the Hieratica Bond on which he wrote 53 lines of ‘The Fire Sermon’, as if that might solve all.
The Waste Land has proved remarkably adept at evading all attempts to solve it; the most exhaustively interpreted poem of the 20th century, it still manages to make all readings of it seem partial. Rainey is keen to point out how radical it was for Eliot to include the figure of a typist in a serious poem, and he sees her ‘automatic hand’ as emblematic of the horror of modernity. He is good generally on hands – the exploring hands that encounter no defence, the last fingers of leaf that clutch and sink – but no more than Tiresias or Phlebas or the Fisher King or the hyacinth girl (or boy, for that matter) can she be made to organise the rest of the poem into manageable perspective. Like Hamlet in Eliot’s famous reading of it, The Waste Land remains elusive and ‘intractable’; perhaps that is why its corpse keeps sprouting, why it still justifies and excites ‘our modern experiment’.