Old Possum's treasury of smutty verse

TS Eliot's secret bawdy side is revealed in newly published poems
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The Independent Online
A new collection of previously unpublished early poems by TS Eliot - later a Nobel Prize winner - contains passages of pornographic doggerel.

Bawdy jokes about genitalia and scatological puns litter a series of limericks and fragments which the editor, Christopher Ricks, has included in an appendix, with the permission of the poet's second wife, Valerie.

In 1922, a decade after writing the crude lines, Eliot ripped them from a notebook of other work from his twenties before he sold it to his benefactor, the New York lawyer, John Quinn, for $140, making him a gift of the manuscript of The Waste Land at the same time.

He passed on the loose pages to his great friend, the poet Ezra Pound, who was an avowed admirer of his ribald verse.

In fact, Eliot seems to have regarded all the work in the notebook, even the more serious poems, as "unpublishable".

"You will find a great many sets of verse which have never been printed and which I am sure you will agree never ought to be printed, and in putting them in your hands, I beg you fervently to keep them to yourself and see they are never printed," he wrote to Quinn.

The poet's widow, together with his publishers and former employer, Faber & Faber, now take a different view, and the more temperate poems in the collection certainly support the case for publication. Several illuminate the creative processes behind his best-known work. The poetic hallmarks are all there, if in rough draft; the enigmatic questions, the shabby details of urban life, the use of overheard remarks.

In the run-up to the publication of the collection on 9 September, both the editor, Christopher Ricks, and his publishing house are armed and ready to defend the more scabrous content against critics who may have a literary or political axe to grind.

"It is a wonderful book and we have spent years putting it together," John Bodley, editorial director of Faber, said. "We are prepared to stand by its quality."

Ricks, who was asked by Valerie Eliot to edit the notebook seven years ago, said: "It will be a great pity if poetry becomes so very afraid of being criticised that it leaves out all the ugly, strong energies that are around in life."

Even those Eliot scholars who wince at the violent obscenity of some of the lines have welcomed the accessibility that the collection, called Inventions of the March Hare, will give material previously only available on request.

Lyndall Gordon, who lectured on Eliot at Oxford until 1995 and whose book Eliot's Early Years came out in 1977, believes the unpleasant features of his psyche can only be highlighted by the new book.

She maintains that the pornographic verses underline the misogyny behind much of Eliot's writing, a defect which has been left in the dark in recent years as critics have focused on the poet's alleged anti-Semitism.

"The limericks are really abhorrent and unappealing, but all great writers are flawed, with the exception perhaps of George Elliot," she said. "Still, I would say, let's look at where his greatness lies instead.

"I used to pore over the best early poems and I have been lending my transcripts to students for years.

"It is terribly valuable to see them. They show that there was no big switch in his life from atheism to the Church."

Anthony Julius, the lawyer and author of a book on anti-Semitism in Eliot's work, characterises the coarse verse as drawing on puerile, racist ideas about sexual superiority.

"It is the kind of thing that a particularly inventive schoolboy would make up to entertain his friends," he said. "It certainly doesn't make you think better of him, yet I suppose it might make it slightly more difficult for people who have the wrong, reverential attitude to Eliot."

Eliot himself once claimed the King Bolo verses were merely an attempt to make fun of the pompous tone struck by early anthropologists.

At the time, his friend the writer Wyndham Lewis was not convinced.

In a letter to Ezra Pound, Lewis wrote: "Eliot has sent me Bullshit and the Ballad for Big Louise. They are excellent bits of scholarly ribaldry. I am longing to print them in Blast; but stick to my naif determination to have no 'Words ending in -Uck, -Unt and -Ugger'."

Christopher Ricks denies any suggestion that he had to coerce Valerie Eliot into agreeing to the publication of the crude limericks. "Of course, it did need to be discussed with her," he said. "This is a delicate business. We knew there would be advantages and disadvantages.

"What I needed to do was to talk it out with her. It is not a case of my arm-wrestling her into submission. There were passages from proper poems on the other sides of the pages, and to use some of the excised verse and not others would have been censorship.

"Some of the poems in the book are extremely beautiful and it is certainly not possible to establish his misogyny from the bawdy lines, because he was equally critical of all human beings, including himself and his type of person."

In an interview in 1994, Valerie defended her husband against the accusation that he had been cruel to his first wife, Vivien. She was worried that the public would see the film Tom and Viv, based on Michael Hastings's play of the same name, and judge him harshly.

"People will only know him as author of Cats and then see the film and think, 'What a monster, a monster of depravity, like Macavity the Cat.'"

Having consented to the new collection, she will now have to face down critics who accuse him of a new, and perhaps rather sad, kind of depravity.

Scribblings of the artist as a young man

King Bolo's swarthy bodyguard

Were called the Jersey lilies

A wild and hardy set of blacks

Undaunted by syphilis.

They wore the national uniform

Of a garland of verbenas

And a pair of great big hairy balls

And a big black knotty penis.

An extract from Eliot's King Bolo verses and the cover of the new collection in which bawdy material is published