TS Eliot, 50 years on

It’s 2015, the year of the Bullshit Centenary. One hundred years ago a young immigrant poet submitted his poem “The Triumph of Bullshit” for publication in a London avant‑garde magazine. The editor’s letter explaining his rejection of the work makes clear he decided to “stick to my naif determination to have no ‘Words ending in -Uck, -Unt and –Ugger’.” Probably the word “bullshit” was imported from the poet’s native US; but so far no one has found “bullshit” in print as a single word before 1915.

The young immigrant poet thought the rejection of his poem disappointingly puritanical. He was finding it hard to get his verse into print. Four years earlier, at the age of 22, he had completed his first masterpiece. Though he had shown it to a few friends in the US and had read it aloud to fellow students in England, in January 1915 it remained unpublished. At least one editor considered it borderline insane; another was “unable to make head or tail” of it. Its title was “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”.

This year also marks the centenary of the first publication of TS Eliot’s most famous early poem. Prufrock’s “Love Song” first appeared in the US, tucked away towards the back of a small magazine, probably because the editor did not greatly care for it. Two years passed before this disconcerting poem was published in Eliot’s first book, but today most critics realise that it announces the arrival in verse of English-language literary modernism.

At Harvard, where Eliot did most of his studying, there will be an exhibition at the Houghton Library later this year to mark the centenary of Prufrock’s emergence in print. The US, long wary of Eliot as a sort of cultural traitor, is coming to terms with its greatest poet.

It remains to be seen how much attention will be paid to another, more solemn anniversary. Fifty years ago this month (after being nursed through bouts of ill health by his shrewd second wife, Valerie, who had been his secretary and who lived until 2012), TS Eliot died in London. He was by then no longer a young bullshitter but the incarnation of his art form. He was not just the most famous poet alive, but regarded (as many still regard him) as the finest poet of the 20th century. Internationally lauded, he had been awarded the Nobel prize, the Dante Gold Medal, the Goethe prize, the US Medal of Freedom and the British Order of Merit. Adults knew him as the poet not just of “Prufrock”, but also of The Waste Land and Four Quartets; theatre audiences had flocked to his plays such as Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party at the Edinburgh festival, in London and on Broadway; at home and at school, children relished “Macavity”, one of the poems from his Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, just as eagerly as later audiences have delighted in Cats, the musical based on those poems. On 4 February 1965 Eliot’s memorial service filled Westminster Abbey.

Fifty years later, “difficult” remains the word most people attach to his verse. Yet we quote him: “Not with a bang but a whimper”, the last line of Eliot’s poem “The Hollow Men” is among the best-known lines of modern poetry. “April is the cruellest month” beginsThe Waste Land with unsettling memorability; no reader forgets the strangeness of the “patient etherised upon a table” at the start of “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock”. Eliot’s mastery of the pliancy of language gives his poetry an insistency of sound and image that seems ineradicable.

Yet, in writing his biography, I’ve come to realise the difficulty in reconciling the po-faced “Pope of Russell Square” (as the older Eliot came to be nicknamed) with the young immigrant poet of “The Triumph of Bullshit”. Was it simply that Eliot ossified as he aged? To some extent, yes, respectability clamped him into place; but he understood imaginative freedom. He both recognised and skewered in Four Quartets the routines of “eminent men of letters” who became “chairmen of many committees”. As a banker, then as a publisher, he worked at jobs where committees were de rigueur and he accomplished his work with aplomb. Yet part of him always sought an escape hatch, a way to elude his official self. His nephew Graham Bruce Fletcher remembers Uncle Tom taking him as a boy to a London joke shop in the 1960s. They bought stink bombs and let them off at the entrance of the Bedford Hotel, not far from Eliot’s workplace in Bloomsbury’s Russell Square. With a fit of giggles, Eliot put on a marked turn of speed as, Macavity-like, he and his nephew sped from the scene of the crime, Eliot twirling his walking stick “in the manner of Charlie Chaplin”.

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