T.S Eliot was said to be one of the most dominant figures in poetry and literary criticism in the English-speaking world. He was predominantly a modernist writer; he experimented with literary form and expression, and “made it new”, as Ezra pound would have said. A major component in the modernist movement was self-reflexivity and individual freedom, and with that includes the representation of a writer’s personal context and historical context. Eliot’s poems are said to be some of the best of the 20th century, but that doesn’t mean they are easily understood. Some of the references Eliot made in his poems are indeed shocking and may indeed ‘keep you up at night’ when you understand their true meanings.
- He used his poetry as a medium to mourn his ~supposed~ boyfriend
Over many years, it has been suspected that T.S. Eliot was a closeted homosexual, which wasn’t a rare occurance for gay men in the early 20th century. His alienation from sexual desire with women was a mere catalyst for the rumors surrounding his sexuality. But apart from his no sex rule (he was celibate from 1928), it was his relationship with a certain frenchman that convinces most people of his love for men. Eliot met Jean Verdenal when studying at the Sorbonne in Paris in 1910 after he graduated from harvard. They boarded at the same pension and quickly became companions; some even say they were ‘literary soulmates’. After that year he and Verdenal met, they never saw each other again. They exchanged some letters, but then Verdenal enlisted into the Army as a medical officer. He was killed in Gallipoli in 1915.
Eliot dedicated his first book of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, to Verdenal (mort aux Dardanelles – Death in Dardanelles) when it was published in 1917. Eliot seemed to have believed Verdenal had died by drowning (he did not), which he included in The Waste Land. Part IV of The Waste Land, Death by Water, named a “Phoenician” named “phlebas” who died by drowning, and can possibly be a reference to his close ‘friend’ Jean. He compared an unknown man to Phlebas as he suggested in the poem “Consider Phlebas, who was once handsome and tall as you”; could he have been referring to his ‘male friend’ Jean Verdenal?
- His poems were jack-packed with death and destruction:)
One of Eliot’s most famous and influential poems in his repertoire is The Waste Land, and as well as following a theme of rebirth and resurrection, death is a heavily covered topic whether it be through imagery, symbolism, recurring motifs or common sense to anyone who reads it (parts I and IV of The Waste Land are literally called Burial of the Dead and Death by Water). During the period in which Eliot wrote The Waste Land, humanity had been shattered by the events of World War I; the war that was ‘supposed to be over by christmas’, that ended up being prolonged by 4 years. Both world wars and the devastation that followed were some of the pivotal points that introduced modernism in which loss was a common and repeated motif.
The epigraph of The Waste Land includes a Latin and Greek quote referring to Sybil, a woman with prophetic abilities, who looks into the future and states all she wants is to die; a great indication into what The Waste Land is going to entail. The title of the poem itself is a metaphor for the loss of life. A “Waste Land” depicts a region of land that is sterile and unable to grow vegetation. Some would describe wargrounds following a battle to be “Waste Land(s)” as the nature that was once there is lost and replaced with death by the lost soldiers. The image of dead nature is present in The Burial of the Dead and represents sterility and infertility. The description of “dull roots” and “dried tubers” just further reinforced the motif of a lack of life as they are being illustrated as already dead or dying. The fourth part of the poem titled Death by Water follows “Phlebas the Pheonician” a man who drowns, and that’s it. Nothing becomes of him, such as renewal or regeneration, only his decaying “bones”. By placing the section in the distant past, making Phlebas a Phoenician, he is further reinforcing the irrelevance that becomes of corpses after death.
- Ironically, his poems also contained a lot of sex and female representation
Famously, one of Eliot’s biggest influences and inspiration was his relationship – or lack thereof – with women. I won’t go into too much detail about Eliot’s relationship history (don’t worry, just be patient), but his first marriage was indeed an unhappy one. Him and his then-wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, seemed to be sexually estranged, but he eventually undertook to normalize the abnormality. In 1927 he was confirmed into the Church of England, making divorce almost impossible, and by 1928 he took a vow of celibacy. Whether connoting to meaningless sex or using sex as a symbol of sorrow, Eliot wasn’t afraid to allude to the birds and the bees. His representation of women was also abnormal for the time period as he rejected many societal gender norms.
In one of his earliest works, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Eliot describes the persona’s experience in “one-night cheap hotels and sawdust restaurants with oyster shells” to translate the experience of meaningless sex. “One-night cheap hotels” allude to the use of prostitutes that men would spend single nights with to receive sex they weren’t getting from their wives, which obviously as men they needed. The theme of sexual desire in the poem is further reinforced by “oyster shells”, as oysters are commonly known aphrodisiacs and provoke sex and lust. Violence and sorrow is created in the poem A Game of Chess (part II of The Waste Land) as mythology is used to allude to sexual themes. Eliot mentions “the change of Philomel” who was a figure in Greek mythology; the princess of Athens who was raped and mutilated by her sister’s husband, King Tereus (hasn’t the treatment of women in society come such a long way?). She eventually is transformed into a nightingale, a bird renowned for its song. In the poem, she is said to have an “inviolable voice” as she “cried… dirty tears”. Eliot uses sex, in this instance, to illustrate the cruel ways of the world and the longing lasting effects that sex can cause.
- As reflected in his poetry, his first marriage was a bit of a nightmare
~ HaHa, he never actually got a divorce~
T.S. Eliot was quite unlucky in love for most of his life, especially during the periods when he wrote his most notable poems. Eliot met his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, while living in London, and after only three months of knowing each other they were married (Eliot was 26-years-old and a frustrated virgin). Haigh-Wood had quite a few health problems; she was plagued with heavy and irregular periods and had severe premenstrual tension; these lead to mood swings, fainting spells, and migraines (plus the embarrassment that came with mega-periods). She was eventually prescribed potassium bromide to sedate her which probably meant she was diagnosed with “hysteria” (an old fashioned way of labelling women as being difficult). She later experienced neuralgia, panic attacks, and addiction to her medication, mainly ether. Eliot’s own medical and emotional condition wasn’t exactly the strongest, and he quickly became tired by the demands of caring for Vivienne. She was a troubled woman to say the least, some even believe she cheated on Eliot with Bertrand Russel (Pedofile?). They separated 18 years after their marriage but never divorced due to Eliot being anglican and a member of the Church of England.
His poor relationship with women as well as his first wife, fueled the construction of his most notable poems including The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, Portrait of a Lady, and parts of The Waste Land through symbolism, allusion and syntax.. In The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, his relationship with women and his portrayal of interactig with them is underdeveloped; he is in a constant state of nervousness which alludes to his own self-consciousness. In the poem “women come and go talking of Michelangelo”. “Michelangelo” symbolises the ‘renaissance man’; a person who is well versed in many different skills such as art, music, poetry etc. He believed he was not good enough and that women wouldn’t find him desirable.
His poem Portrait of a Lady reflects his troubling relationship with his first wife. The epilogue of the poem states “thou hast committed fornication: but that was in another country, and besides, the wench is dead.” Presumably, this is alluding to the extramarital affair between Haigh-Wood and Bertrand Russell, while also expressing his true feeling of his late wife.
In part II of The Waste Land, A Game of Chess, there is a conversation (?) between (assumingly) a male and a female persona in which one person (most likely the male) says “my nerves are bad tonight. Yes, bad. Stay with me. Speak to me. What are you thinking of?… I never know what you are thinking. Think.” The enjambment and parataxis used in the one sided conversation reinforces a feeling of chaoticness and frustration felt by the male, similar to what Eliot may have been feeling in his relationship with Haigh-Wood.