T. S. Eliot's Love Song?
Brian Hall on T. S. Eliot's poetry and love life
T. S. ELIOT:
The Making of an American Poet, 1888–1922.
By James E. Miller Jr.
Pennsylvania State Univ. Press. 468 pp. $39.95
In 1952, a Canadian professor named John Peter published an article in Essays in Criticism arguing that the narrator of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land had at some time fallen in love with a young man whose death by drowning he now mourned. Eliot reacted furiously, proclaiming his “amazement and disgust” and threatening legal action if Peter disseminated the article further. In 1969, after Eliot’s death, Peter republished his essay, along with a postscript that tentatively identified the narrator’s lost love as Jean Verdenal, a French medical student whom Eliot had known in Paris in 1911. Verdenal was killed in World War I, and Eliot dedicated Prufrock and Other Observations to him in 1917.
Another scholar, James E. Miller Jr., of the University of Chicago, supported and extended Peter’s interpretation in T. S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons (1977). Since then, more biographical material has become available, including seven s narrator to Eliot’s own early years. In Miller’s view, Eliot’s obvious distaste for sexual intimacy was due not to extreme fastidiousness and reserve per se, but to a lack of desire for women. The poet had been in love with Verdenal, and his anguish over his beloved’s death can be traced through a number of knotty passages in his poems.
This is a subject well worth exploring—Eliot’s poetic images of sexuality are alarming enough to invite a host of theories—but doing so is doubly difficult: Eliot thwarted biographers by locking up many of his and arguments for repressed homosexuality in figures from the past naturally have to be built upon ambiguity and indirection. Miller devotes a great deal of energy to his argument, but, in the end, the evidence falls short.
To begin with, Verdenal’s t often write back. It also deflates a couple of Miller’s 1977 conjectures: that Eliot and Verdenal traveled together in Europe, and that Eliot knew of Verdenal’s death when he married Vivien Haigh-Wood—on the rebound, as it were. Moreover, Eliot’s t indicate much distress over Verdenal’s death. He seems not to have heard about it until several months after the fact, and in a 1916 after where he’s teaching, what he’s working on, how bad his finances are, and how his wife is feeling—and he goes on to say, “I am having a wonderful life
In dozens of places, citing evidence from the poems as well as the s Purgatorio, Canto XXVI. Miller notes that one draft of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (which, he argues reasonably enough, is in part a self-portrait) includes as epigraph two lines from the Arnaut passage. Miller declares this “perhaps the most important revelation of the manuscript of the ‘Love Song,’ linking Prufrock to the band of those brought together in Purgatory for the sin of same-sex lust.” But this is simply wrong: Arnaut’s group is atoning for excesses of heterosexual passion.
In the best parts of this book, Miller stops trying to shore up the ruins of his Verdenal theory and instead takes a lengthy, digressive look at the philosophical and literary influences on the early Eliot. He allows himself more than twice as many pages for this period as the previous best biography, by Lyndall Gordon, and thus can quote much more extensively from a kind of do-it-yourself portrait kit.