restricted access "A Splendid Readiness for Death": T. S. Eliot, the Homosexual Cult of St. Sebastian, and World War I
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“A Splendid Readiness for Death”:
T. S. Eliot, the Homosexual Cult of St. Sebastian, and World War I.

T. S. Eliot’s “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” long has frustrated scholarly attempts to situate it within the arc of the writer’s poetic career. Eliot had enclosed a draft of “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” with a letter from Marburg, Germany to his Harvard friend Conrad Aiken, stating that he was sending the poem as well as several others because “I am disappointed in them, and wonder whether I better knock it off for a while—you will tell me what you think.” 1 Probably composed shortly before the outbreak of World War I, Eliot’s dramatic monologue in the voice of the martyr Sebastian, who narrates a fantasy of his self-flagellation in the presence of his lover before strangling her, constitutes one of the more violent works of Eliot’s fifty-year career. Claustrophobic, morbid, and obsessive, it may well stand as the most savage depiction of disturbed eroticism to appear in a work by a major twentieth-century poet. Although its appearance in Christopher Ricks’s recent edition of Eliot’s early verse, Inventions of the March Hare, has lent renewed interest to “The Love Song of St. Sebastian,” the work continues to elude understanding since critics tend to skirt interpretation as they register their distaste for Eliot’s choice of subject matter. A review of Inventions of the March Hare quotes several lines from “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” and observes that they “suggest, if not calculated sadism, a certain tinge of the bathhouse” and speculates that perhaps “Eliot held back from publishing houses some of these verses for fear they would turn weak stomachs. . . .” 2 When the [End Page 107] poem was first published in Valerie Eliot’s 1988 edition of her husband’s early letters, the critic Alan Jenkins characterized it as a “weird sado-masochistic affair of self-flagellation and murder . . . an indiscretion if ever there was one.” 3 Whatever its meaning or relation to Eliot’s other writing, the poem is indisputably an aesthetic failure—tonally flat, uninventive in diction, lacking in the remarkable rhythmic sonority of Eliot’s more accomplished verse. No doubt because of its conspicuous limitations, critics have preferred to view “The Love Song” as either a document describing an episode in Eliot’s personal religious struggle or an exorcism of the poet’s private sexual demons.

Eliot’s biographer Lyndall Gordon, for example, considers this work and others of this period (all of which Eliot chose not to publish) as of “intense religious” import. 4 Viewing this stage in the poet’s life as one of vital significance in the young Eliot’s spiritual and creative development, Gordon considers the Sebastian poem a product of spiritual crisis that occurred while the poet vacationed in Europe in 1914. For Gordon, a turning point for the young poet “came not at the time of his baptism in 1927, but in 1914 when he was circling, in moments of agitation, on the edge of conversion.” Gordon further claims that the woman of the Sebastian poem is a stand-in for Emily Hale, whom the young Eliot briefly courted. 5 Assimilating both Jenkins’s and Gordon’s views, Eloise Knapp Hay characterizes “The Love Song of St. Sebastian” as “another case of spiritual neurosis taking the form of crazed eroticism (or vice versa).” 6 Given its sensational erotic theme, the poem has become the inevitable subject of more sophisticated psychoanalytic approaches. Employing the tools of Lacanian analysis, Andrew Ross has interpreted “The Love Song” as a characteristically Eliotian “displacement of subjectivity,” in which the poet serves as an “extraneous other who will act as the subject in the ensuing exhibitionistic scenario.” 7

Eliot’s poem receives its most historically informed reading from Harvey Gross, who offers, among the poem’s other possible sources, the 1911 performance of Gabriel D’Annunzio and Claude Debussy’s collaborative verse-drama Le Martyre de Saint Sébastien in Paris, which Eliot could have seen as a vacationing Harvard student residing in France that same year. Gross also mentions Thomas...