Writers wrangle over Eliot's smutty side

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The Independent Online
Signposts of genius to come or embarrassments best forgotten? That is the question about juvenilia literary Britain has been debating following the revelation that T S Eliot's early work contained passages of pornographic doggerel.

The imminent publication of a collection of early verse written by Eliot, including some sordid limericks, has brought the poet's questionable personal foibles back into debate. The Faber collection, called Inventions of The March Hare and edited by Christopher Ricks at the request of Eliot's widow, Valerie, contains a series of misogynist, racist and crude rhymes written for his friends back in 1914 by the twenty-something Eliot. They may well have jeopardised the near-liturgical status of his later spiritual poems; they have certainly divided contemporary poets and academics.

Some consider everything ever written by an acclaimed literary figure is fair game for criticism. Others think juvenilia is best left at the back of the drawer.

Jon Stallworthy, poet and Oxford professor of English, is irritated when critics fail to distinguish between private writing and work meant for publication.

"There are those who would quite happily dethrone some elevated person because they find he or she has given expression to something they find objectionable," he said.

"It is crucial the context is explained," said Stallworthy, who has edited his own collection of the early work of famous poets.

But Tom Paulin, poet and critic, favours a more rounded picture of an author. "Writing is an experience of failure, so it is all part of the whole picture. If you are interested in an author, anything they write is going to be of interest to you.

"Everyone has their own idea of an author. Reputations should have stretch and flexibility in them. They change over time."

Peter Porter, poet, journalist and reviewer, puts the onus on the writer. "If you wish the things you have written not to see the light of day, then it's up to you to suppress them. Philip Larkin could have destroyed his early work himself if he was that worried.

"The case of Eliot is rather different though, because he did give away the notebook a long time ago. While he was almost saintly at the end of his life, at the beginning he was savage.

"Like a lot of serious-minded people, he had a slightly playful, scatological element. Solemn critics don't realise the games-playing element in literature."

Porter believes there are juvenile elements in the poetry of many greats. Shelley's entire works, he argues, could be considered juvenilia. "Auden's juvenilia were interesting because they were mostly quite inept and then suddenly, in the middle of all the inept ones, there was a good one. He had matured."

Andrew Motion, poet and Larkin biographer, is struck by the contradictory voices in early Eliot. "The mature and courtly and deeply orthodox Eliot is there unquestionably intertwined with the wilder more subversive person who gets the upper hand in The Waste Land.

Stallworthy offers an explanation for our interest. "A supreme artist is rather miraculous and we are all rather curious about miracles."