"The Triumph of Bullshit"

"Bullshit: invented by T.S. Eliot in 1910?"—Mark Liberman, Language Log

This entry discusses one of the conjectures for the origin of the word "bullshit", including discussion of a characteristically phlegmatic poem by T.S. Eliot. Eliot has always been a very nasty sort, and you can perceive that from far less than a reading of "Burbank with a Baedeker: Bleistein with a Cigar" or accounts of his treatment of his first wife, Vivienne. As with most student poets, I'm in awe of his genius, and intend to learn as much from him as possible in a literary sense, but I find him in many ways a personally despicable figure. Even Ezra Pound, who paid dearly for his own egotistic sense of mores, is a far more sympathetic figure. His punishment was excessive (especially considering the general hypocrisy of his prosecution), and he did repent much of his petty bigotry late in life.

I don't remember having ever seen the Eliot poem quoted in the above article, though I've found a lot of Eliot rarities. It's likely that if I did, I shrugged it out of my memory. It uses classic Ballade structure, three stanzas and an envoi, with an unconventional rhyme scheme (for the classic overall effect, see, for example, Villon's "L'Épitaph (Ballade des pendus)". Eliot translates the passion of Ballade into plain spite.

Ladies, who find my intentions ridiculous
Awkward insipid and horribly gauche
Pompous, pretentious, ineptly meticulous
Dull as the heart of an unbaked brioche
Floundering versicles feebly versiculous
Often attenuate, frequently crass
Attempts at emotions that turn isiculous,
For Christ's sake stick it up your ass.

Eliot—second stanza of "The Triumph of Bullshit"

Horrid genius. Eliot attaches several senses to "ladies", including (and this is the sense that does find best concord with the poem), the society matrons who influenced popular, and hence critical, taste. But Eliot is also a bit of a coward here. What is it that he did finally offer the "ladies", that made his fortune?

Time for you and time for me.
And time yet for a hundred indecisions,
And for a hundred visions and revisions,
Before the taking of a toast and tea.

In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.

And indeed there will be time
To wonder, "Do I dare?" and, "Do I dare?"
Time to turn back and descend the stair,
With a bald spot in the middle of my hair—

Sure he's still lampooning the Society of Taste, but he doesn't in public dare not to put himself under the glass as well, and seeks indulgence and sympathy as an object of ridicule.

There is also his extraction of Ophelia from Vivienne (or was that Viv doing herself?) from "A Game of Chess": Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night. Spoken with a knowing wink.

No, when it's time for brave, open sally, Eliot prefers weak targets. My thanks to Mark, though, for finding a poem that is as interesting as a badge of character and illustration of craft as it is an etymological marker.

[Uche Ogbuji]

via Copia