Journal of Modern Literature 27.1 (2003) 14-25
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T. S. Eliot's Bawdy Verse:
Lulu, Bolo and More Ties
Referring to the inclusion of Eliot's bawdy verse in the publication of Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917, editor Christopher Ricks said he feared "such scabrous exuberances may lend themselves to either the wrong kind or the wrong amount of attention."1 For the most part, his fears have not been realized. As Stephen Romer observed, "It is a relief to note they have (so far) caused more hilarity and prompted more 'curious erudition' than righteous indignation."2 The "curious erudition" amounts to the identification of previous versions of "Fragments," of which David Chinitz has studied over two hundred. In his review of Inventions, Robert B. Shaw stated that he "doubts many people would find them obscene by present-day standards."3 Indeed there has been no "righteous indignation," only laconic labeling and tepid apologetics. Although judgment of Eliot's material ultimately should be personal, there is still a need to respond publicly. What is missing in the scholarship is a coherent presentation of the poems and indications of where further inquiry into them could commence. Therefore, this essay introduces Eliot's bawdy poems to scholarly criticism; suggests additional sources for Lulu, Bolo, Columbo, and other aspects of the poetry; connects them to the ongoing scholarship on men and women in Eliot's work; and ties them to Eliot's early and abiding interest in the relationship between the spirit and the body, between thought and feeling in poetry.
A study of Eliot's bawdy poems must begin with Eliot. In his lifelong inquiry into the relationship between thought and feeling in poetry, Eliot explored everything. Early on, in the Clark Lectures (1926), Eliot explained, "The characteristic of the type of poetry I am trying to define is that it elevates sense for a moment to regions ordinarily attainable only by abstract thought, or on the other hand clothes the abstract, for a moment, with all the painful delight of flesh . . . In considering Donne, we must consider all the erotic verse of the time [italics added], and attempt to find the common [End Page 14] principle, if any."4 Erotic poetry was the other side of Donne's spiritual verse, Eliot contended, which was also the case for Eliot. In considering his role as an emerging poet of his generation, Eliot had already begun to practice before he preached. He had written the bawdy poems in his Notebook over five years before he reviewed Grierson's anthology of metaphysical poetry in 1921, in which Eliot claimed ". . . Donne looked into a good deal more than the heart. One must look into the cerebral cortex, the nervous system, and the digestive tracts."5 The common principle to be found in erotic verse, Eliot suggested, was an exhilarating merging between body and soul.
Looking into a good deal more than the heart, Eliot connects his bawdy verse to a long tradition. "Fragments," for example, derives from Sappho's erotic "Fragments." And "Ballade pour la grosse Lulu" alludes to Francois Villon's "brothel ballade," "La Ballade de la Grosse Margot." Villon's "ubi sunt" tradition and the low life subject matter are to be found in Eliot's early poetry, including "The Cooking Egg" (1919), which has an epigraph from Villon's Testament, celebrated by Pound. Eliot, who was to write in 1922, "I can connect nothing with nothing" surprised Bertrand Russell at Harvard by connecting Heraclitus with Villon.6 In those days, no source was too obscure for Eliot. Source searching in Eliot's work, however, can be a dead end, but it can also lead from "curious erudition" to discussions essential to understanding. Comparisons are made, contexts are considered, and meanings of the texts are analyzed. Eliot's wholesale purloining of lines from other works, his literary red herrings, and bogus scholarship are trademarks of his work and clues to his literary theory.
Chinitz in his short article, "T. S. Eliot...