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Eliot, T[homas] S[tearns] (1888-1965)  

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 (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 . 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 tendencies, see Koestenbaum's Double Talk.

Gregory Woods


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T. S. Eliot in 1954.
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Koestenbaum, Wayne. Double Talk: The Erotics of Male Literary Collaboration. New York & London: Routledge, 1989.

Peter, John. "A New Interpretation of The Waste Land." Essays in Criticism 19:2 (April 1969): 140-175.


    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  
    Publisher glbtq, Inc.
1130 West Adams
Chicago, IL   60607
    Today's Date  
    Encyclopedia Copyright: © 2002-2006, glbtq, Inc.  
    Entry Copyright © 1995, 2002 New England Publishing Associates  


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