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Jean Verdenal: T.S. Eliot's French Friend

Article by Claudio Perinot
Introduction and HTML presentation by Rickard A. Parker


Jean Verdenal:

T.S. Eliot's book of poetry Prufrock and Other Observations (1917) is dedicated to the memory of his friend Jean Verdenal, who died in the battle of Gallipoli in 1915. Eliot and Verdenal were both students at the Sorbonne and lived at the same pension when Eliot studied in Paris during the 1910-1911 academic year. The importance of their friendship goes beyond the poignancy of the dedication though. A case has been made that Verdenal appears, in disguise, as Phlebas the Phoenician and the hyacinth girl in Eliot's monumental poem The Waste Land.

Not much was known about Verdenal until George Watson interviewed family and friends of Verdenal and Eliot. The information he gathered was published an article entitled "Quest for a Frenchman" (see note below.) About 20 years later Claudio Perinot, still not satisfied with the amount of information available on Verdenal, interviewed Jean Verdenal's nephew, also named Jean. The family, proud of Jean, had kept his memory alive. With the new information gained, Perinot wrote an article, entitled "Jean Verdenal: T.S. Eliot's French Friend." This was published (in English) in a journal of the University of Venice (citation below.) Perinot has authorized the Exploring T.S. Eliot website to republish the original article with expanded notes.

More information about Jean Verdenal is available online.

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Original publication information:

Perinot, Claudio. Annali di Cà Foscari, XXXV, 1-2, Università di Venezia, Venice, 1996. pp. 265-275

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Claudio Perinot
Jean Verdenal: T.S. Eliot's French Friend

Pau is a picturesque city in the south of France, at the foot of the Pyrenees. It is situated at barely 50 kms from Lourdes and 80 kms from the Spanish border: the N134 cuts through the Pyrénées Atlantiques and joins Pau to Jaca in Spain from which it is roughly a two hour's drive westwards to the other major religious centre: Pamplona. It is said that along the routes that scarthe mountains one can still meet hermits living in caves and ready to profess their mystical faith to the few visitors who, armed with a substantial dose of spirit of adventure, manage to break through the awesome surroundings and convince these self-composed exiles to exchange a word or two.

The first impression upon entering the small city was one of tidiness. The small narrow plateau that stretches briefly from the Gave de Pau to the sudden escarpment that marks the southern limit of the city centre, was nearly completely covered by parks of various sizes. The city could be rightly proud of having been classified 4 Fleurs, a denomination awarded only to the most beautiful of France's garden cities. The small funiculaire in Avenue Napoléon took a few minutes to reach Boulevard des Pyrénées, where it stopped in front of the fountain dedicated to Alfred de Vigny. The famous writer met his English wife here in Pau and at the rime, in no other place in France, excepting Paris, maybe, was it easier to find British citizens. In fact, Pau has a long history of English presence, due to its beautiful climate which has always attracted visitors wishing to escape the damp weather of their homeland.

Outside the Verdenals' house, a white statue of the Virgin Mary seemed to give the street an aura of peace and tranquillity. Further down, there was Notre Dame de Pau et Accous, which had been built with the generous help of the local community, the Verdenals included, as the marble plaque on the church walls confirmed.

M. Verdenal met me on the stairs and led me up to the second floor, to the top apartment. We sat down in the large sitting room. In the centre of the room was a long table strewn with books of all kinds. Judging by the titles, most of them were of a socio-political nature and many concerned local history subjects, as befitted the home of the family of a former mayor of Pau.[1]

We started talking amiably about the reason of my trip. M. Verdenal was a tall man, of large build. His voice had an energetic tone and, as he spoke, he underlined the concepts with a series of strong movements of the hands. He was certainly proud of his family, not only of his uncle Jean who had proved to be one of T.S. Eliot's most invaluable friends, and of other ancestors, but also of his own sons, who worked for a major company in the area.

As he spoke, I was aware of a very definite atmosphere: the multitude of books on the table were not an isolated case. There were various bookshelves throughout the house, where hundreds of volumes were stacked away, and every wall had at least one or two paintings or prints. It seemed the Verdenals had a special interest in literature and the arts. In fact, M. Verdenal explained that his wife was currently writing a book that was to be published by the University of Pau, and as the conversation went on, I found out that he, too, had often dedicated time to writing, especially about the history of his family. Yet, above all, his favourite pastime was art. And, pointing to a few paintings, he set out on a brief excursus through its history.

After lunch, the interview began.

"My uncle was an athletic young man. He enjoyed sport, especially mountain sports. Every Summer, for nearly three whole months, our family would move to Les Eaux Chaudes, a resort on the mountains near Pau. My grandfather was the resort doctor."

M. Verdenal suddenly searched through a few cardboard boxes full of photos. He held up two black and white photos and showed them to me.

"Here you can see my uncle Jean with a group of friends during a walk on the mountains, and in this one he is skiing, one of his favourite pastimes."

The first photo, taken at a high altitude, near Ger, in the Pyrenees, showed a group of six or seven young men and Jean was hardly identifiable. The second photo was far better and clearer. The young man in the photo seemed perfectly at ease on the snow.

"My uncle was a man of high spirits, dynamic, and a lover of life. He had an athletic physique and could manage very well in a great deal of sports. When he was in Paris, he used to look forward to his health-restoring returns to Pau. It seems the simple, natural life at home and the possibility of practising his beloved sports had an enduring effect on him, and went a long way to help him through the frenetic life in the capital."

M. Verdenal, are there any anecdotes or memories of family life during Jean's infancy?

"Well, Jean's father, my grandfather, was a very communicative person. A great man. He was well-known for his humorous, outgoing personality. Though he didn't indulge in any particular physical activity, he was extremely strong and enjoyed boasting about his amorous capabilities: he still made love at seventy-five! He had three boys and a daughter. My grandfather had come to Pau hoping to improve his lung disease. Pau was, and still is, renowned for its wholesome air. I also remember that he had forbidden pets; there were none in the Verdenal house, as far as I know."

What did he do?

"He was a doctor and Jean was to become one, too. But, my grandfather didn't limit his knowledge to the medical field. In fact, natural history didn't attract him, either. Instead, he rather enjoyed history and law. He wasn't particularly interested in poetry, that's true, but still cultivated the mind rather than the body. He did no manual work."

What about his sons?

"Jean, as a boy, was a bit delicate, you might say. He was rather an introvert and rarely easy-going. He changed somewhat as he grew. Yet, we all remember him as being honest, serious and not malicious at heart, at all. Pierre, well Pierre was a brilliant rugby player and had even been a champion of France. He, too, would have become a sort of all-round sportsman. He was physically sound and his interests included boxing, at which he proved to be fairly successful. He used to go jogging on the mountains around Pau. At the time, Pau had roughly 30.000 inhabitants compared to today's 120.000."

You mentioned Eaux Chaudes earlier.

"Yes, Eaux Chaudes was, you might say, the summer residence of the Verdenal family. It was also a kind of reunion spot, for it was there that the family could enjoy the company of cherished friends, such as the Notalles, Pierre Notalle, and many others."

Where did Jean go to school?

"There were two established schools in Pau, at the time: a religious institute and a lay one. At the moment of deciding which school the boys were to attend, there had been quite a strong dispute in the family. In the end, the parents opted for the Lycée de Pau, the lay school. From the start, Jean was noted for his excellent results. He was always top of the class, in every subject. A remarkable student. Even in English. You must remember that Pau has always had strong ties with England. In about 1810-1820, due to Pau' s extremely favourable climate, the British started to holiday here, and they brought with them their characteristic habits and customs. They went hunting, played golf, tennis, and so on. The continent's first golf course was laid out here in Pau, and we still have three golf clubs: the Pau Golf Club, the Royal Golf Club and the Scottish Golf-course. The British also brought fox-hunting, and it caught on, strengthening Pau's unusual cosmopolitan culture. This immigration lasted almost a century and eventually, alongside the British, we find Americans, Germans, Portuguese, Spanish and Russians. Pau became an internationally acclaimed holiday resort. The Russian ambassador of the time came with his whole household far long holidays at a time. An American, I don't remember the name, brought his three hundred horses with him and spent day alter day hunting in the area. For a long period, Pau lived on the English and life was certainly "brilliant". New communities sprang up and tens of churches, of all religions, were built. This state of things continued at least until 1914. Then, for obvious reasons,[a] things changed, people left, the churches were closed or knocked down. So, as I was saying, Jean was very good at English, too. And though there were tens of English students, mother tongue I mean, one year Jean managed to beat them, too. He seemed to have a natural inclination for languages."

What was his cultural background?

"Well, Paul, my grandfather, loved the classics, like Balzac, Stendhal, Flaubert, etc. And my uncles knew them off by heart. They even knew Dante, in French, off by heart. Jean, in particular, loved poetry. He was well-known for his inspired readings. He found an enduring satisfaction in Mallarmé, among others. The other Symbolists maybe less. Philosophy also attracted him and he absolutely devoured Kant and Hegel, and other great philosophers that were studied at school. Anyway, as regards his literary knowledge, he even read Goethe and Schiller in German: quite a feat, you must admit. English literature provided him with Shelley, Tennyson and Shakespeare, of course. He considered Scott, maybe unconsciously following his father's tastes in this respect, as too low. In fact, he read little light fiction, not even French. He completely ignored Dumas, for example. He used to read a lot, and quickly, page after page, totally engrossed in the work. And the length of the book never frightened him. He even wrote notes on the Bible. If I were to compare Jean to Pierre, I'd say that, even though Jean was a sportsman, he was more a man of study at heart, while Pierre was more a man of action. Anyway, there's no doubt Jean was a brilliant student."

At that point M. Verdenal handed me one of Jean's report cards. The marks were all excellent. A bit less in mathematics, maybe, but good nevertheless. Excellent in langue vivant, too. M. Verdenal explained that langue vivant would have been English in Jean's class.

"As you can see, a remarkable report and certainly not an exception in Jean's academic career. Yet, though most of my family have always had positive marks at school, Jean was perhaps the only one with such noteworthy linguistic abilities. This reminds me of my grandmother. She spoke Béarnais which, though a dialect, was nearly a noble language. But she didn't want her children to speak it, because it would've contaminated their French."

At a certain point, Jean went to Paris, didn't he?

"Yes. Paris has always been at the centre of French life and a brilliant young man like my uncle Jean, could not but go to it. Our long-term friends, the Casaubons, owned a pension there. It was reasonably cheap, mainly for students and Jean soon felt at home. In fact, the letters he wrote home all confirm his gradual falling in love with the capital. Jean had never really travelled and he must have seen his stay in Paris as a journey overseas. He was very happy to be in Paris, as was Pierre who decided to study law. Jean was determined to become a doctor. My grandfather, Paul, had always regretted not having studied in Paris--he had studied in Nancy--and now that two of his boys were at the Sorbonne, he made no secret of his pride. Jean and Pierre had decided to continue our family's tradition of lawyers and doctors. We've always been a closely-knit family of longstanding traditions. We can trace our family line quite far back. There have been doctors, lawyers, priests in our family, but no poets or writers; though some of my ancestors did write occasional pamphlets on the family or on their voyages. For example, my grandfather wrote Souvenirs de famille and I have edited Joseph Verdenal's diary of his trip to Paris in 1826."

How did Jean become an army doctor?

"Well in France a doctor can choose to serve his country by enrolling in the army, and Jean became an auxiliary in the 18th Regiment d'infanterie. His number was H 128. Our family's attitude towards the duty owed to our country was exemplified by my grandfather's views. He told his sons to be exemplary in their duty, to obey all orders given during the war. Yet, he wasn't an excited or hot-headed patriot. He was a real patriot. He had a clear sense of patriotism, based on few but fundamental principles such as loyalty, honour, honesty, courage. I remember he had left the Lorraine area, when he had come to Pau, because of the Prussian occupation. He had opposed it to the marrow."

Do you remember if Jean had any particular political ideas?

"Someone once wrote that he had been extremely interested in Charles Maurras.[b] Yet, my uncle's sharp intelligence was always on the lookout for new ideas and developments. He tried to keep up-to-date in everything that was happening in France. As regards Maurras, he certainly didn't think of him as a model leader. I mean, he had also been interested in Roland, once, but simply because he was on a continuous search. He had his own ideas and didn't change them very easily, that's true, but he never refused an exchange of opinions. He read William James. He read Goethe's Faust. But he wasn't a romantic. He wasn't interested in Nietzsche. In a way, though, he was a kind of mystic, not the Saint Catherine type of course, but he did have a strong inner life, a personal spiritual life. He was a profound believer and rather shunned the exterior rites of religion. But going back to his military service, he proved a good soldier, with no blemish whatsoever in his personal record. It's hardly surprising that he died while helping the wounded under enemy fire. He died a heroic death. Yet, one cannotbutfeel that here was one who could've become a leader in his field. He had been a precocious and brilliant student, he had a remarkable knowledge of things cultural, he was an honest and responsible young man He certainly had a promising future. When news arrived that he had been killed in battle, a silent despair took hold of the family. The feeling was one of incredulity and profound grief. A brilliant life in the making had suddenly been shattered. The sense of loss was enormous. He was buried on the battlefield and, as if his cruel fate hadn't been brought to accomplishment yet, a week later a bomb destroyed the grave. A symbolical funeral for the family was held in Pau, soon afterwards. The memory of my uncle was further honoured by the decision of our municipality to name a room of Pau's hospital after him."

From a box, M. Verdenal extracted a photo of Jean's grave, before and after the bombing. He then showed me a book entitled Tombes Basques et Béarnais. It had photos of Jean and Pierre Verdenal, with a brief biography of each.

What about Jean's life in Paris?

"Well, he was a habitué of the theatres and concert halls. It seems he never missed an art exhibition, or play, or other cultural event. We still have various posters, notices, programmes and such concerning these happenings, which Jean used to keep. I've found quite a few of them: the range of music, art and theatre he was interested in is quite remarkable. Unfortunately, I can't tell you much more than that."

Did your uncle leave you anything belonging to, or concerning Eliot?

"Oh, no. Nothing at all, unfortunately. No letters or cards, or anything of the sort. Maybe what was in Jean's possession was left at the Casaubon's pension or otherwise was mislaid somewhere."

M. Verdenal then kindly allowed me to look through a good deal of miscellanea that had belonged to Jean. At first glance, the impression of a young man with an extremely vivid and curious mind was confirmed by the quantity of printed matter pertaining especially to the arts.

To begin with, a catalogue concerning the Henry Bernstein collection (dated 07.07.1911) and another one concerning Henri Martin. Then, a few copies of L'Oeuvre, an art journal; advertisements of Le Prince Igor on at the Theatre du Chatelet, a number of programmes regarding Siegfried, Tristan et Iseult, Lohengrin, Walkyrie, Faust by Liszt (in Pau, 20.01.1912); a number of music programmes of the Association des Concerts Lamoureux, Societè J.S. Bach and Societè Hændel (Le Messie: with various handwritten notes on Dante), programmes of the Concerts Colonne (Beethoven [Messe solenne], Schuman, Bach, Wagner); a supplement of La Tribune de St. Gervais: Les Tablettes de la Schola with notes on Les Beatitudes de Cesar Franck (the third one in particular); notes on Victor Hugo's Le Pecheur d'Artonate; a great deal of notes on studies of pathology, presumably the courses that Jean was attending in Paris; notes on existential philosophy (especially on Spinoza's De Intellectus Emendatione); notes on conversations on philosophy had with Prichard and Milhaud (two lodgers, the first of whom is often mentioned in T.S. Eliot's letters, too);[2] notes and sketches on Bergson's courses, and on William James (it seems Jean was particularly interested in psychology); a map of the Reims area near Ermenonville; copies of Excelsior and Journal des debats; a copy of the portrait of Henri Rouart by Degas; a copy of a poem translated by Paul Verdenal: Cher Heurlin (1909); various copies of documents and certificates pertaining to Jean's academic, professional and military careers.

M. Verdenal then showed me his well-stocked library in a corner of which he had put the many books once owned by his uncle, Jean. Some titles were: Poésies (Laforgue), Poésies (Mallarmé), Oeuvres (Verlaine), La mere et l'enfant (Louis Phillippe), Chansons de Bilitis (Pierre Louys), ten volumes of works by one of Jean's favourites, Anatole France, La porte étroite, Isabel (Gide), L'annonce faite a Marie (Claudel), La danse devant Arche (Henri Franck) various volumes by Baudelaire, Ernest Renan (Darmsteter), Journal Intime (Amiel), works by Mæterlinck, Vie de Jesus (Renan), works by Schiller (in German), etc.

As can be seen from this short list, Jean Verdenal's literary tastes ranged far and wide and his nephew's words on his continuous search for new developments to measure himself against, were confirmed. In fact, Jean read authors both catholic and anticatholic, both vaguely communist and bourgeois, both symbolist and classical, both spiritual and psychological, both provincial and universal, both realistic and visionary. As regards genre, there was poetry, prose, theatre, and poetry for the theatre.

The styles available in these works were also extremely representative of the great ferment that had begun in literature with the Romantics and was at its acme during Jean's student years. Most noteworthy, as far as Jean's possible influence on T.S. Eliot was concerned, particularly as regards his future interest in the theatre, and besides the usual names such as Laforgue, Baudelaire, etc., was the presence of Claudel.

The Catholic Claudel, famous for his correspondence with André Gide, and whose main themes revolve on the necessity of self-sacrifice, strove to reconcile poetry with the theatre. He had studied and implemented a new style of versification, a new meter, that recalled certain biblical rhythms, and in which the pauses were more lyrical than logical. His characters lost their identity in favour of the mask of passions and their words had an amplified symbolic resonance. Another literary work often associated to The Waste Land is Louis Phillippe's Bubu de Montparnasse, especially for its descriptions of the French demi-monde, and it seemed that Jean was interested in that author, too.

Jean's definite interest in psychology must have led him to read such authors as Mæterlinck and, above all, Amiel, whose Journal Intime describes an endless self-analysis by the author. And, lastly, Schiller must have attracted Jean for the mixture of literature and music he would have found in the German author's bibliography.

A few weeks after the interview, M. Verdenal very kindly sent me an envelope containing two unpublished photos of Jean. The first was a portrait of him taken in 1913, the year he was appointed doctor at the Hopitaux de Paris, and two years before his tragic death. The similarity with his nephew, the tall, well-built, middle-aged man I had interviewed in Pau, was striking: the high, wide forehead, the square chin and prominent cheekbones, the long nose and the well-cut lips. But what immediately defined them as relatives were the eyes: set quite far apart, surmounted by long fair eyebrows, they had a steady yet easy and open gaze, that attracted rather than repelled. The second photo was taken in the same year, at the Casaubon's pension in Paris. The photo shows a small table in a garden, presumably decked for tea, with a group of men and women behind it and facing the camera, and a young boy seated on the grass in front of them. The tallest of the company is Jean, who has the future Doctor Casaubon next to him. Jean seems to be saying something and, judging by the expressions of the other people, it seems to be of a humorous nature. His firm yet friendly countenance of the previous photo now appears with a pair of moustache and his hair is parted down the middle. It could be that among the other three men, was Prichard, the future secretary to the director of the Boston Museum of Fine Arts.[3]

M. Verdenal also sent me a copy of a letter, dated 6th April 1972, that he had received from a family friend. Unfortunately the signature is not legible. The author of the letter, a Frenchman, recollects his meeting with T.S. Eliot on a train between Assuan and Luxor, in Egypt, in 1911. Being thirsty, the author had gone to the restaurant carriage and, by mere coincidence, had sat down in front of the young American. Soon afterwards, they realized they had a friend in common and they ended up speaking with joy about Jean. The author of the letter says he hadn't seen Eliot ever again.

Once again, if one excludes the famous epigraph placed at the beginning of Prufrock and Other Observations (1917),[4] and a few letters already published by Valerie Eliot, the friendship between Eliot and Jean Verdenal had intruded into reality leaving only such very tenuous traces of its existence as to nearly make one doubt it had really existed. Perhaps there are very few other examples of such a deep relationship that has left so few and almost insignificant signs behind.[c]

Yet no one could seriously question the importance of Jean Verdenal's company to Eliot in Paris: both were young, debonair, brilliant and bestowed with an ample and rapidly growing culture. One, the young American student of literature and philosophy, a vessel ready to be repleted, eager to learn and discover new exciting sources of knowledge and inspiration, to understand the lesson of the great philosophers and artists in which Europe abounded. The other, a young doctor in the making, with a passion for literature and the arts, for philosophy and psychology, well-read and with an already considerably developed forma mentis. Both were on a personal quest. Eliot like a newly-launched ship had just set sail and Jean Verdenal, in compliance with his natural generosity and in the wake of the sympathy he felt for his American friend, had already begun to provide Eliot's compass with some of the points of reference it needed. Their promising friendship, though, was abruptly cut down before it could bloom.

As M. Verdenal says in his letter: "A l'époque c'étaient des étudiants, des promesses. L'un est mort, l'autre est devenu célèbre!"[5][d]


[1]    Monsieur Jean Verdenal is the nephew of Jean Verdenal (1890-1915), to whom T.S. Eliot dedicated Prufrock and Other Observations in 1917. I decided to interview M. Verdenal upon realizing how extremely scanty the bibliography concerning the friendship between his uncle and T.S. Eliot was. I interviewed M. Verdenal in Pau, on 26 July 1994.

[2]    Cf. The Letters of T.S. Eliot, vol. 1, edited by Valerie Eliot, Faber and Faber, London, 1988, p. 23n.

[3]    Ibidem.

[4]    For Jean Verdenal 1889-1915 mort aux Dardanelles.

[5]    Letter to the author [Claudio Perinot], dated 22 August 1994.

Supplemental Material:

The following notes were added by the webpage's author, Rickard Parker, with the permission of the article's author, Claudio Perinot.

Additional endnotes:

[a]    The start of World War I in 1914 was the event that caused people to leave Pau.

[b]    M. Verdenal is probably referring to George Watson's article "Quest for a Frenchman." Mr. Watson visited M. Verdenal's father, Pierre, in the early 1970's to find out more information about Pierre's brother Jean. Watson also visited and corresponded with a friend of Jean's, Dr. Andre Schlemmer. On page 469 of his article, Watson reports Dr. Schlemmer writing that Jean took a small [emphasis added] interest

"literary and political, in Charles Maurras and his Action Française. He may have been inclined to be monarchist theor[et]ically, but not to take part in this extremist movement."

Watson, George. "Quest for a Frenchman," The Sewanee Review, Volume LXXXIV, Number 3, Summer 1976 (July-September 1976) pp. 465-475

[c]    One example of a sign of a deep relationship, though not mentioning Jean Verdenal by name, is when Eliot, while commenting on Paris about the time he and Verdenal studied at the Sorbonne, wrote as an aside:

"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 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."

Eliot, T.S. "A Commentary." The Criterion 13 (April 1934) p. 452


"A l'époque c'étaient des étudiants, des promesses. L'un est mort, l'autre est devenu célèbre!"
["At the time they were students, promises. One died, the other became famous!"]

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"Jean Verdenal: T.S. Eliot's French Friend" © Claudio Perinot