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Mr. Eliot’s Motives

In response to:

Mr. Eliot's Martyrdom from the February 9, 1978 issue

To the Editors:

I found Irvin Ehrenpreis’s essay of appreciation of T.S. Eliot (NYR, Feb. 9) interesting, and many of his views quite compatible with my own, even though they are supported by “reasoning” that could only be termed “fragile” or non-existent. I was in general agreement when he observed that in Eliot’s poetry, “the old poignancy of evasive moments and missed opportunities kept returning…in patterned lines”; that in many of his poems, it was “the squalor of the poet’s own mind and the lusts of his own eye…that he excoriates”; that “the satiric impulse died after he wrote The Waste Land“; that he “might have used a mask” in some of his poems. Imagine my surprise when I discovered appended to his essay a distorted summary of my book, T.S. Eliot’s Personal Waste Land: Exorcism of the Demons.

I made it quite clear in my book that my reading of the Waste Land manuscripts, reconstructing the psychic origins of the poem, did not hinge on establishing an overt relationship between Eliot and Jean Verdenal in the Paris Pension in 1910-1911. Why Ehrenpreis feels he must spend most of his space on my book proving that there were no “homosexual relations sixty-five years ago” between Eliot and Verdenal is beyond my comprehension. That Eliot returned to Harvard in 1911, that he “became attached” to Emily Hale between 1911-1914, that no one has yet documented another “homosexual relationship” in Eliot’s life—these “facts” bear little relevance to what Eliot might in retrospect have made imaginatively out of the relationship with Verdenal: compare, for example, Tennyson’s grief for Hallam in In Memoriam. Among the “sparse” details of the relationship relayed by his review, Ehrenpreis fails to include Eliot’s 1934 outburst in a Criterion “Commentary”:

my own retrospect [of the Paris of 1910-1911] 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.

And when Ehrenpreis refers readers who find my “path through The Waste Land enticing” to John Peter’s earlier essay, he also fails to point out Eliot’s legal move to suppress the Peter essay, especially the curious intensity of Eliot’s overreaction to a reading of his poem which (when Eliot read it in 1952) was discreetly non-biographical. Of course Peter did not have in 1952 nor on the essay’s reappearance in 1969 the Waste Land manuscripts with all their rich resources for the psycho-sexual interpretation.

Ehrenpreis passes over the bulk of the material present for my reading and focuses on Part IV of The Waste Land, “Death by Water.” He ignores entirely the highly suggestive sexual context this brief segment had in its original setting in Eliot’s poem, “Dans le Restaurant” (where it is a glowing memory), and instead quotes Grover Smith’s essay pointing out, among other things, that “Phlebas” means penis in Greek (I summarized this admirable essay in my book). Ehrenpreis assumes that Grover Smith’s 1946 essay is incompatible with identification of Phlebas the Phoenician, however subterraneously, as Jean Verdenal. I cannot see why. I summarized the Smith essay because its speculation on the sexuality implicit in “Death by Water” reenforced my own reading of the lines as rooted in the anguished memory of Verdenal. To see it thus obscurely rooted, it is certainly not necessary to read “Death by Water” as Eliot’s literal “tribute” to or “celebration” of his dead friend!

Moreover, in the latest edition of Grover Smith’s book, T.S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays (1974), he adds a footnote (p. 321) connecting Phlebas the Phoenician with Jean Verdenal. Since Ehrenpreis says that he has relied heavily on Grover Smith to formulate his own point of view on Eliot, is he willing to accept Smith’s conclusion if not mine?

James E. Miller Jr.

University of Chicago

Chicago, Illinois

Irvin Ehrenpreis replies:

By rooting Part Four of The Waste Land in an “anguished memory” of Verdenal, Miller directs us away from the tone, meaning, and value of the passage. Anguish is precisely what does not characterize Part Four, which is peculiarly calm. It represents death as a release from the strains of an existence preoccupied with material gain. In it, the merchant seaman who has drowned does not face the alternatives of salvation and damnation. Unlike Lazarus (see “Prufrock,” line 94), he suffers no resurrection. His body returns to its elements; and the “whispers” of the fish nibbling it (The Waste Land, line 316) suggest a contrast with the fate of Christ’s body alluded to in “Gerontion” (line 23). The last three lines of Part Four sound like a pagan elegy from The Greek Anthology. But this prospect of death as peaceful dissolution seems unavailable to the spiritually torn poet; he must find another Way.

To this account of “Death by Water,” I oppose what we know of Eliot’s attitude to Jean Verdenal. When Eliot explicitly commemorated his friend, he identified him as having died in a military campaign. For an epigraph, he chose to quote from a poem devoted to the fate of Christians after death. Again, in the tribute to Verdenal in The Criterion, Eliot dwelt on his friend’s part in a military campaign. How painfully the First World War disturbed Eliot, we know from letters written at the time. We know that he disrupted his life and quit his job in an effort to serve in the war, an effort which failed. His guilt over the failure, and his employment in a bank, would have complicated his devotion to a friend who perished nobly in a hideous battle. To imagine what Eliot himself made of Verdenal’s memory, I think we had better look not at “Death by Water” but at the ideal of Christian heroism which Eliot praised when he wrote about Péguy in 1916.

As for the issue of covert or overt homosexuality, the biographical implications remain the same either way. From the evidence, it looks as if Eliot chose Vivienne Haigh-Wood not over Jean Verdenal but over Emily Hale. If he later recoiled emotionally from the marriage, he presumably returned in his thoughts to the woman whose continuing importance for Eliot is amply documented. And regardless of covert or overt behavior, if the friendship with Verdenal had the qualities alleged by Miller, one would have expected the poet to stay with him longer and to return to him sooner. On Miller’s innuendoes concerning Eliot’s legal action against John Peter’s essay, I have two comments. First, it does not puzzle me that the leading layman of the Church of England should wish to protect his own moral reputation and that of a cherished friend; secondly, it seems a leap in logic to presume that if a man tries to suppress a libel, there must be some truth in it.

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