Young T.S. Eliot Writes “The Triumph of Bullsh*t” and Gives the English Language a New Expletive (1910)


Every peri­od of lit­er­ary his­to­ry has its share of bawdy, satir­i­cal poet­ry, from Mesopotamia, to Rome, to the age of Jonathan Swift. Every peri­od, it often seems, but one: The late Vic­to­ri­an era in Eng­land and Amer­i­ca often appears to us like a dry, humor­less time for Eng­lish poet­ry. Two of the most renowned poets, Alfred Ten­nyson and Hen­ry Wadsworth Longfel­low are, fair­ly or unfair­ly, viewed as wordy, sen­ti­men­tal, and didac­tic. At the dawn of the new cen­tu­ry, tough-mind­ed mod­ernists like William Car­los Williams, Ezra Pound, and T.S. Eliot reme­died these fail­ings, the sto­ry goes. And yet, despite their sym­bol­ist influ­ences, these would-be rad­i­cals can seem them­selves pret­ty con­ser­v­a­tive, turn­ing Ten­nyson and Wadsworth’s affir­ma­tions of an ordered world into maudlin, and reac­tionary, laments over its loss.

Eliot’s work is espe­cial­ly char­ac­ter­is­tic of this high church dis­dain for social change. Eliot, writes Men­tal Floss, was “stodgy.” Adam Kirsch in Har­vard Mag­a­zine writes of Eliot’s “almost papal author­i­ty in the world of lit­er­a­ture” and his “mag­is­te­r­i­al criticism”—hardly descrip­tions of a rev­o­lu­tion­ary. “Look­ing at the severe, bespec­ta­cled face of the elder­ly poet on the cov­er of his Com­plete Poems and Plays,” writes Kirsch, “it is hard to imag­ine that he was ever young.” But young he was, and while always pedan­tic in the most fas­ci­nat­ing way, Eliot was also once a writer of very bawdy verse.

He was also, unfor­tu­nate­ly, a com­pos­er of racist verse, a fact which many read­ers of Eliot will not find over­ly sur­pris­ing. Men­tal Floss quotes from one of those ugly ear­ly works, fea­tur­ing “the racist car­i­ca­ture of a well-endowed ruler named ‘King Bolo.’” But it also quotes from an ear­ly poem said to con­tain the first use of a word that apt­ly describes the lan­guage in that first dis­taste­ful poem. Accord­ing to Lan­guage Log, a site main­tained by Uni­ver­si­ty of Penn­syl­va­nia pro­fes­sor Mark Liber­man, who source their ety­mol­o­gy from the Oxford Eng­lish Dic­tio­nary, the word “bullsh*t” orig­i­nat­ed with Eliot’s poem “The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t.”

Wyn­d­ham Lewis first men­tions the poem, which he calls a bit of “schol­ar­ly rib­aldry,” in 1915, but it was prob­a­bly writ­ten in 1910. With its first three stan­zas addressed to “Ladies,” and all four end­ing with “For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass,” the poem piles up line after rhyming line of archa­ic, Lati­nate words, under­cut­ting their obscu­ran­tism with low­brow crude­ness. The third stan­za becomes more direct, less laden with clever dic­tion, as Eliot lays out the con­flict:

Ladies who think me undu­ly vocif­er­ous
Ami­able cabotin mak­ing a noise
That peo­ple may cry out “this stuff is too stiff for us” -
Ingen­u­ous child with a box of new toys
Toy lions car­niv­o­rous, can­nons fumif­er­ous
Engines vaporous — all this will pass;
Quite inno­cent — “he only wants to make shiv­er us.”
For Christ’s sake stick it up your ass.

“The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t” func­tions as a brat­ty riposte to Eliot’s crit­ics. (It was, in fact, orig­i­nal­ly addressed to “Crit­ics,” then changed to “Ladies” in 1916.) Lan­guage Log ques­tions whether Eliot “real­ly invent­ed bullsh*t in 1910,” since he “could hard­ly have aimed to shock the ‘ladies’ by nam­ing his lit­tle poem ‘The Tri­umph of Bullsh*t’ if the term had not already been a com­mon­place vul­gar­i­ty.” Per­haps. But accord­ing to Wyn­d­ham Lewis and the OED, he was the first to use the word on record. Har­vard Mag­a­zine’s Kirsch calls these ear­ly poems (col­lect­ed here)—and oth­ers such as the pro­fane “Inven­tions of the March Hare”—the last man­i­fes­ta­tions of the “Amer­i­can Eliot” before he went off and became the “British Eliot” who would not deign to utter such vul­gar­i­ties so freely.

The word in ques­tion nev­er appears in the poem itself, only the title, and giv­en the speaker’s lit­er­ary chest-thump­ing, we might even spec­u­late that “Bullsh*t” is a prop­er name, or a per­son­i­fi­ca­tion, and his tri­umph con­sists of a glee­ful mid­dle fin­ger to Vic­to­ri­an deco­rum. It’s lan­guage only slight­ly more exag­ger­at­ed than some of Mark Twain’s or Her­man Melville’s char­ac­ter­i­za­tions, mark­ing Eliot’s kin­ship with a par­tic­u­lar­ly Amer­i­can sense of humor. The poet, writes Kirsch, lat­er “buried his Amer­i­can­ness deep enough that it takes some dig­ging to rec­og­nize it.” In these poems, we see it—juvenile insults, grotesque, sex­u­al­ized racial car­i­ca­tures, a crude defi­ance of tradition—and women’s opin­ions.… And yes, whether he invent­ed the word or just did us the hon­or of pop­u­lar­iz­ing it, a snide ele­va­tion of what he right­ly called “bullsh*t.”

via The Paris Review

Relat­ed Con­tent:

T.S. Eliot Reads His Mod­ernist Mas­ter­pieces “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”

T.S. Eliot, as Faber & Faber Edi­tor, Rejects George Orwell’s “Trot­skyite” Nov­el Ani­mal Farm (1944)

Lis­ten to T.S. Eliot Recite His Late Mas­ter­piece, the Four Quar­tets

Grou­cho Marx and T.S. Eliot Become Unex­pect­ed Pen Pals, Exchang­ing Por­traits & Com­pli­ments (1961)

Josh Jones is a writer and musi­cian based in Durham, NC. Fol­low him at @jdmagness

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Comments (8)
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  • JSintheStates says:

    In dif­fer­ence to Men­tal Floss (which I’ve recent­ly blocked because of their inept report­ing of sci­ence relat­ed top­ics), T.S. Elliot is hard­ly “stodgy” giv­en the time period—1915. Elliot remains bril­liant, pro­vid­ed one has any respect for the his­tor­i­cal con­text of his lit­er­a­ture and poet­ry.

  • anon dowson says:

    Sigh. Over and again, the first record­ed use is not the same as inven­tion.

  • Toad says:

    anon dow­son: Yes, it must be exas­per­at­ing to have to go around com­ment sec­tions repeat­ing points that were already raised and dis­cussed in the orig­i­nal post.

  • ty walden says:

    @ JSintheS­tates: “In dif­fer­ence,” is an awk­ward phrase. It does­n’t make sense. Do you mean “In dis­agree­ing with”? If you mean “in def­er­ence,” which is what I think you mean, it is the wrong usage of the word. “Def­er­ence” means “respect­ful sub­mis­sion to anoth­er,” or agree­ing with some­one.

  • Ty Walden says:

    “In dif­fer­ence,” is an awk­ward phrase. Maybe you mean “In dis­agree­ment with.” But I’m think­ing you mean “In def­er­ence to,” which is also an awk­ward use of the word which usu­al­ly means “respect­ful sub­mis­sion or yield­ing to the judg­ment, opin­ion, will, of anoth­er,” which is not what you’re doing by dis­agree­ing with them.

  • Con Chapman says:

    First use in print on record is not the same as coin­ing the term. Eliot was born and grew up in Mis­souri, where the term was (as you can imag­ine) com­mon long before the twen­ti­eth cen­tu­ry.

  • Hailey says:

    Did you even both­er to read the arti­cle? This was men­tioned.

  • Sue Boyle says:

    Could you be kind enough to give me chap­ter and verse on this won­der­ful pho­to­graph? Whole arti­cle is excel­lent, but I am odd­ly inter­est­ed in the Stafford­shire pot­tery poo­dle on the man­tel­piece.

    Many thanks


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