Jean Verdenal


Jean Jules Verdenal was born on the 11th May 1890 and died in World War One on the 2nd May 1915. He was a French medical officer who met Eliot at the Sorbonne in Paris when Eliot was studying there after transferring from Harvard.


Verdenal was killed while attempting to treat a wounded man on the battlefield at Gallipoli, one of the most wretched campaigns of World War One, where a badly planned French, British and ANZAC (Australian and New Zealand Army Corps) attempt to capture Istanbul and destroy the Ottoman Empire (now modern day Turkey) was defeated. The troops were trapped on a small peninsula of land facing stiff opposition and terrible weather where torrential rain occasionally drowned men in their trenches.


Ultimately, the Allies were forced to evacuate after 9 months of fighting and 150,000 deaths and casualties. This campaign, beginning before the ill-fated Battle of the Somme, was one of the first major engagements of World War One and it is from this point on that it started to become clear exactly how horrific the conditions of trench warfare were and how high the casualty rates of this war were likely to be. Indeed in the early months of battle sometimes there were so many casualties that it is thought that dead bodies were disposed of being thrown off of the cliffs into the sea. A fate that it is believed to have befallen Jean Verdenal.


We know that Verdenal influenced Eliot’s poetry because his first collection of poems, Prufrock and Other Observations, published in 1917, was dedicated to him. As in the Wasteland, Eliot quotes lines  from Dante which translate as ‘Now can you understand the quantity of love that warms me towards you, so that I forget our vanity, and treat the shadows like the solid thing.’


In The Waste Land echoes of Verdenal can be seen in the Hyacinth Girl from ‘Burial of the Dead’. Evidence for this can be found in an editorial that Eliot wrote in ‘The Criterion’ in 1934. Recounting a time when he was browsing through a book about Paris, Eliot suddenly breaks off in almost a reverie and says “I am willing to admit that my own retrospect is touched by a sentimental sunset, the memory of a friend coming across the Luxembourg Gardens (a park in Paris) in the late afternoon, waving a branch of lilac, a friend who was later (so far as I could find out) to be mixed with the mud of Gallipoli.” This has obvious parallels with the flowers that the Hyacinth Girl greets the persona with in the poem. A reading perhaps strengthened by the fact that the Hyacinth can be interpreted as a male or homosexual symbol: in the original Greek myth, Hyacinth was the (male) lover of the god Apollo whose blood was turned into the hyacinth flower when he was killed in an accident.


Some commentators have taken this further and read the whole poem as an elegy for the dead Verdenal. For example in 1952 the critic John Peter wrote in his "A New Interpretation of The Waste Land" that: “What the poem seems to require is some preliminary statement to explain what has gone before … At some previous time the speaker has fallen completely (perhaps the right word is 'irretrievably') in love and the object of this love was a young man who soon afterwards met his death, it would seem by drowning. Enough time has now elapsed since his death for the speaker to have realized that the focus for affection that he once provided is irreplaceable. The monologue which, in effect, the poem presents is a meditation upon this deprivation, upon the speaker's stunned and horrified reactions to it, and on the picture which, as seen through its all but insupportable bleakness, the world presents. Such an introduction is obviously inadequate and may, I fear, even seem brutally insensitive; but if we take it simply as a rather clumsy stage-direction, to be inserted at the beginning of the monologue, it may go some way to justify itself on the grounds of usefulness, if not subtlety.” Eliot reacted angrily to this interpretation of his poem and took out a court injunction to prevent the publication of this essay.


Other biographers believe that this is probably taking things too far and Eliot’s biographer, T.S. Matthews, asks: “What are we to make of these facts? Not much, beyond inferring that a friendship between young men can be warm and may stir the blood without firing it; and that there may well have been some exaggeration in Eliot's melancholy remembrance of this foreign friend.”


Ultimately it seems that there is probably some role for Verdenal when we try to come to an understanding of The Waste Land, if only in that his death may have made World War One more tragically real for Eliot and it is undoubtedly the case that the death, destruction and desolation of this war is one of the principal influences on Eliot when he was writing the poem.