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TSE  November 2019

TSE November 2019


Not liking Christ / Eliot's Reaction to Peter's 1952 Article on Eliot's Sexual Orientation


"Materer, Timothy J." <[log in to unmask]>


T. S. Eliot Discussion forum.


Fri, 29 Nov 2019 23:30:13 +0000





text/plain (1 lines)

> I have thought about his extreme reaction to Peters's article on him being gay himself

First, I take it that no one has responded to my question about how Eliot could agree with Aldington about not liking Jesus only about a year before Eliot was received into the C of E because the agreement is in fact inexplicable.

Secondly, before one states that Eliot’s reaction to Peter’s article was extreme, one should be sure which version of Peter’s article Ellot was reacting to.  There are two versions, one in 1952, which Eliot reacted to, and one in 1969, to which of course he could not react. Unfortunately, critics have invariably assumed that Eliot was reacting to the 1969 version, which, thanks to Geoffrey Bateson’s editorial malfeasance, was a very different and sanitized version.

I’ve addressed this matter in T. S. Eliot and his Biographical Critics,  Essays in Criticism, Volume 62, Issue 1, January 2012, 41–57. Here is an excerpt that details some of the differences between the two versions.

Bateson does not explain that the article

he reprinted in 1969 is not the original 1952 version that Eliot

saw. Peter himself may have misled his readers about the

degree of difference when, in the 1969 postscript to the

‘reprint’, he stated that it was ‘almost verbatim an essay which

was printed in Essays in Criticism’ in 1952 (p. 165). Almost is

a deceptive word, for substantial omissions and changes were

in fact introduced into the 1969 text, and later in the postscript

Peter modifies his ‘almost verbatim’ claim: ‘In reprinting the

article, however, a few phrases that might have been misinterpreted

have been modified’ (p. 166). Works such as James

E. Miller’s studyof The Waste Land and Carole Seymour-Jones’s

biography of Vivienne Eliot, which criticise Eliot’s character on

the basis of the Peter incident, do not notice the extent of the revisions,

but many passages were added or rewritten which would

have allowed the reader not to misinterpret but, rather, to interpret

correctly Eliot’s reason for disliking the original article.11

Two passages that Peter added in 1969 demonstrate particularly

how he modified the argument in the original article.

While, in the 1952 version, he writes that the poem’s persona

laments the death of a young man, in the 1969 redaction he

adds: ‘An appropriate parallel would be the situation recorded

in In Memoriam’ (p. 143). After the following statement in

1952, ‘the poem certainly reads more lucidly if we suppose

both the main characters to be male rather than epicene’

(p. 246), Peter adds in 1969 the phrase, ‘a modern Tennyson

and a modern Hallam, as it were’ (p. 144). The fact that these

phrases do not appear in the article that Eliot himself saw undercuts

Bateson’s argument that Eliot should have grasped that Peter

was treating The Waste Land as a dramatic monologue. 

But perhaps the most telling revisions concern the word ‘guilt’,

which is often either omitted or changed to ‘grief’ in the revised

article, as in the following phrases (the first page number is

from 1952, the second from 1969): ‘admitting the sense of

guilt [grief] which oppresses him’ (pp. 248/147); ‘the poet’s

intention was also to imply that all guilt [grief] is one guilt

[grief]’ (pp. 249/147); ‘a guilt [grief] that is all pervading and ineluctable’

(pp. 249/147). And the words ‘guilt’ and ‘guilty’ are

simply excised in 1969 from the following 1952 phrases: ‘the

mental process by which guilty memories are repressed’

(pp. 249/147); ‘to keep his guilty secrets secure’ (pp. 249/148);

‘guilty secrets which he is anxious to keep private’ (pp. 249/

148). Similarly, Peter drops the concluding phrase from the

original description in 1952 of ‘the speaker’s wretchedness and

the guilt which exacerbates it’ (pp. 250/148). The cumulative

effect of these changes is to obscure that in the original essay

Peter was not stressing the speaker’s elegiac ‘grief’ so much as

his confessional ‘guilt’. In addition, passages that occur in both

the 1952 and 1969 articles emphasise, without using the word,

the guilt that the speaker feels for continuing to love the young

man: for example, the speaker must seek a ‘rationalization’ to

‘justify the love that he still feels’ (1969, p. 148). The figure of

Mr Eugenides, ‘a ‘seedy pederast’, reflects how the speaker is ‘disgusted

with his own motives’ (1969, p. 154). According to Peter,

the introduction of Tiresias into the poem indicates that the

speaker is ‘helplessly suspended between the poles of male and

female’ (1969, p. 154). These passages certainly challenge

Bateson’s assertion that Peter was describing nothing more

than the Tennysonian sort of grief shown in the elegy for

Hallam: Tennyson expresses no debilitating guilt for loving his

young friend.

Three longer deleted passages show how much more emphatically

Peter had argued in 1952 that the speaker’s ‘guilty secret’

was homosexual passion, illustrating what Robert Canary has

called Peter’s ‘tendency to argue through innuendo’.12 In discussing

the nightingale’s lament in The Waste Land, Peter states in

the 1969 version: ‘There seems also to be the suggestion that

his own lament will be vulgarized and debased in the same

way by those who read it unsympathetically’ (p. 150). In the

1952 version, the following phrase appears after the word

lament: ‘which may take its origin from a type of desire less

often condoned even than that of King Tereus’ (p. 252). Peter

is obviously referring to the poem’s secret as homosexuality;

and it certainly appears to be a guilty one if, as Peter suggests,

it is less condoned than rape. The speaker is said to feel this

passion but ‘a part of his mind at least still regards it as depraved’

(1952, p. 250); in 1969 Peter drops the phrase ‘regards it as

depraved’ and replaces it with the word ‘rejects’ (p. 148).

Two more occurrences of the word ‘guilt’ are dropped from

a 1952 passage in which Peter argues that a line from Dante’s

Purgatorio, in addition to the lines from that poem spoken by

Arnaut Daniel (The Waste Land, l. 428; Purgatorio, xxvi.

148), is relevant to the theme of guilty love.13 Arnaut Daniel

speaks of plunging into Purgatory’s refining fire. Peter observes

that Daniel’s words express his guilt, which he relates to the

guilt of another figure in the Purgatorio, Guinizzelli, who confesses

that his sins were ‘ermafrodito’. (Peter compares Daniel

and Guinizzelli because the two figures appear in the same

canto.) After dropping the words ‘and guilt’ from a description

of the speaker’s ‘grief and guilt’, Peter eliminates the following

passage from the 1952 version:

guilt is again suggested by the line from the Purgatorio (here

also the provenance of the quotation seems to me to go a

long way to confirm my interpretation of the poem:

Nostro peccato fu ermafrodito), and here as in the earlier

sections of the poem the weight of the guilt is all but insupportable.

(1952, p. 265)

Although the word ‘ermafrodito’ may be translated in various

ways, he apparently interprets the ‘peccato’ or ‘sin’ as homosexual

or bisexual.14 Since Guinizzelli confesses that ‘Nostro peccato

fu ermafrodito’, Peter believes that Eliot’s fascination with this

canto confirms his preoccupation with deviant sexual passion.

Elsewhere, in a passage that appears in both versions of the

essay, Peter reveals his view of The Waste Land’s theme most

clearly in an analysis of the loveless sexuality portrayed in

‘A Game of Chess’. It is the speaker’s homosexuality that, he

argues, best explains his rejection of heterosexual love: ‘It is not

mere arbitrary custom which decrees that Woman is Man’s

natural mate and, where a man or woman has in effect to

maintain that it is, an invidious picture of the opposite sex,

such as the first scene here suggests, is often enough the result’

(pp. 250/148). Peter implies that the speaker’s recoil from the

sexual affairs in ‘A Game of Chess’ is the result not of an absence

of love but rather of his sexual orientation, one which Peter

himself evidently implies is unnatural. Altogether, Eliot’s

reaction to his speculations seems entirely understandable, for

Peter’s analysis is clearly directed at the poet’s as well as the

‘speaker’s’ obsessions. Bateson is on weak ground in his claim

that Eliot should have seen that Peter was treating the poem

merely as a dramatic monologue, with no personal implications

regarding the author – and indeed the claim is implicitly contradicted

by Bateson himself when he writes a few lines later in his

preface to the 1975 reprint of Essays in Criticism, ‘The soul in

agony in that poem, if in some sense the collective soul of

Western Europe, is surely also that of Thomas Stearns Eliot’.


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