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Although Eliot liked to be thought of as the most impersonal of poets, looking at the world with a detached and objective eye, many personal elements in the poems deserve to be read with the poet's life in mind. Indeed, there may have been personal reasons for his "impersonality." Certainly, one of its effects was to give the impression that he had something to hide. A number of younger writers, including Hart Crane and Harold Norse, assumed he was homosexual.

At the emotional core of Eliot's poetry is his friendship with Jean Verdenal (1889-1915), a young Frenchman. All we know for certain is that the relationship took place in Paris in 1910 and 1911 while Eliot was studying at the Sorbonne and that Verdenal died in the Great War in 1915 at the age of 26.

A month later, Eliot hurriedly married his first wife, Vivien. In 1917, he dedicated Prufrock and Other Observations to Verdenal's memory, over an epigraph from Dante's Purgatorio that expresses "the measure of the love which warms me towards you."

This quotation comes from one of Eliot's two favorite segments of the Divine Comedy, both of which he kept returning to throughout his career: In Inferno XV, Dante meets Brunetto Latini among the sodomites (the "violent against nature"); and in Purgatorio XXVI, he meets Arnaut Daniel among more sodomites and "hermaphrodites."

Eliot's love for Verdenal is one of the central facts of The Waste Land. In particular, it is possible to identify the so-called Hyacinth girl of the poem's opening section with the poet's sentimental memory of "a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac."

This figure is then subsumed into the theme of death by water, which is in turn mixed with references to the trenches of the Great War. The poem's despair is expressed as both personal and philosophical loss in the crucial line, "He who was living is now dead."

The Waste Land is, in short, a funeral elegy. When John Peter wrote an essay to this effect in 1952, Eliot instructed his solicitors to intervene, and all traceable copies of the relevant issue of Essays in Criticism (II, 242-266) were destroyed. Peter reissued the essay, with additions, after Eliot's death.

One of Ezra Pound's self-appointed tasks as editor of the manuscript of The Waste Land was to tone down the poem's homoeroticism. For instance, he recommended the cutting of the poem "Saint Narcissus," that peculiar fusion of pagan and Christian imagery that now appears at the end of the Complete Poems.

A number of familiar lines in the final draft of The Waste Land are toned-down versions of what appeared in the manuscript: "My friend, blood shaking my heart" was originally "My friend, my friend, beating in my heart"; "I have heard the key" was "friend, my friend I have heard the key"; and "your heart would have responded" was the more revealing "your heart responded."

For a brilliant account of the Eliot-Pound collaboration's homoerotic and homophobic tendencies, see Koestenbaum's Double Talk.

Citation Information
Author: Woods, Gregory
Entry Title: Eliot, T[homas] S[tearns]
General Editor: Claude J. Summers
Publication Name: glbtq: An Encyclopedia of Gay, Lesbian, Bisexual, Transgender, and Queer Culture
Publication Date: 2002
Date Last Updated February 21, 2005
Web Address www.glbtq.com/literature/eliot_ts.html
Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL 60607
Today's Date January 4, 2013
Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.
Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates

Further Readings:

Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot by Cassandra Laity & Nancy K. Gish
Hardcover: 280 pages
Publisher: Cambridge University Press; 1ST edition (November 29, 2004)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0521806887
ISBN-13: 978-0521806886
Amazon: Gender, Desire, and Sexuality in T. S. Eliot

Bringing together scholars from a wide range of critical approaches, this collection studies T.S. Eliot's engagement with desire, homoeroticism and feminism in his poetry, prose and drama. In particular, it illuminates the influence of Eliot's poet mother; the dynamic of homosexuality in his work; his poetic identification with passive desire; and his reception by female academics from the early twentieth century to the present. The book will be essential reading for students of Eliot and Modernism, as well as of queer theory and gender studies.

T. S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons by James E. Miller Jr.
Paperback: 192 pages
Publisher: Pennsylvania State University Press (January 1, 1977)
Language: English
ISBN-10: 0271027371
ISBN-13: 978-0271027371
Amazon: T. S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons

A major reinterpretation, T.S. Eliot's Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons takes Eliot at his word in his reiterated statements that The Waste Land was not a "criticism of the contemporary world" but a personal "grouse against life." It is the first critical work to investigate in depth the sources of the poem in Eliot's life, with particular attention to Eliot's "Calamus"-like attachment to a French youth during Eliot's graduate year in Paris, his subsequent precipitate (and disastrous) marriage following the death of his young French friend in World War I, and his 1921 nervous breakdown (suffering from what he called "an aboulie and emotional derangement which has been a lifelong affliction") that led to the writing of The Waste Land. Yet the main thrust of this work is not on Eliot's life, but on his poetry, exploring ways in which the fragmentary details of his life shape and illuminate the poems.While some consideration is given to the early, confession-like "Ode" (later suppressed), and to the famous "familiar compound ghost" of the later Four Quartets, primary attention is focused on the original drafts of The Waste Land. The poem emerges from a meticulous and detailed reading of the manuscripts as indeed a kind of elegy for a dead friend, with links to Tennyson's In Memoriam and Whitman's "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd," and thus not a piece of "social criticism" but an expression of anguish and pain and despair working toward resignation, resolution, and reconciliation. It becomes clear that this interpretation is not dependent on biographical conjecture and reconstruction, but flows inevitably from simple close scrutiny of the intricate evolution of The Waste Land; therefore the firm establishment of the full facts of Eliot's early life is unnecessary to this "meaning."

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