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.”