Brow Beat

T.S. Eliot Left a Deliciously Petty Note to Future Readers of His Private Letters

Correspondence from the poet to his crush have been unsealed at Princeton University Library after more than 60 years.

A black-and-white photo of T.S. Eliot smoking a cigar.
T.S. Eliot. Photo by Lady Ottoline Morrell/National Portrait Gallery via Wikipedia

The Princeton University Library has made a collection of more than 1,000 letters written by poet T. S. Eliot to Emily Hale, a woman widely regarded as his “muse,” available to researchers for the first time. Hale’s letters to Eliot were destroyed, at Eliot’s request. But fortunately for both lovers of poetry and lovers of gossip, Hale donated Eliot’s letters as well as photographs and “ephemera” with the stipulation that they be unsealed only 50 years after the death of both parties, which happens to be Jan. 2, 2020.

Eliot was “disagreeably surprised” at Hale’s donation in 1956 and left behind a statement at Harvard University’s Houghton Library with instructions that it be made public at the same time as the letters. Eliot scholars will undoubtedly unearth a trove of juicy details in the letters themselves, but Eliot’s attempt at an authoritative annotation is also revelatory in its own way.

Eliot met Hale while he was a student at Harvard Graduate School in 1912 and fell in love with her, finally confessing his feelings in 1914. Hale did not feel the same way, apparently, and Eliot ultimately married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, his first wife, in 1915. However, the two remained very much in contact: Eliot’s side of the correspondence consists of approximately 1,131 letters and spans a period of more than 20 years, from 1930–56, according to the Princeton University Library. Eliot supposes “any written after the death of my first wife [in 1947] are so different in sentiment that she may not have included them,” but the collection does include more than 100 letters written after 1947.

By his own admission, Eliot’s object in writing this statement was to provide a rebuttal to any possible “commentary” Hale might have left on his letters. But a considerable chunk of his statement seems written to respond to his own past self rather than Hale. Eliot devotes much of his 1,278-word note (which begins, “I shall be as brief as I can”) to explaining both why, actually, his love for Emily Hale was never real, and even if it had been real, it would have been bad for him if she had loved him back:

Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. In retrospect, the nightmare agony of my seventeen years with Vivienne seems to me preferable to the dull misery of the mediocre teacher of philosophy which would have been the alternative.

Eliot ascribes his belief that he was in love with Hale to an unhappy married life and nostalgia for the past. However, when his wife died, Eliot says he realized that he was not in love with Hale after all. “Gradually I came to see that I had been in love only with a memory, with the memory of the experience of having been in love with her in my youth.” He then goes into great detail about Hale’s faults, which include not liking his poems …

I realised more and more how little Emily Hale and I had in common. I had already observed that she was not a lover of poetry, certainly that she was not much interested in my poetry. I had already been worried by what seemed to me evidence of insensitiveness and bad taste.

… not respecting him more than her uncle …

She may have loved me according to her capacity for love; yet I think that her uncle’s opinion’s (her uncle by marriage, a dear old man, but wooly-minded) meant more to her than mine.

… and not heeding his ideas about religion.

I could never make her understand that it was improper for her, a Unitarian, to communicate in an Anglican church: the fact that it shocked me that she should do so made no impression upon her. I cannot help thinking that if she had truly loved me she would have respected my feelings if not my theology. She adopted a similar attitude with regard to the Christian and Catholic view of divorce.

Eliot also wants one more thing on the record:

I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.

While the statement (which you can read in full here) is not very kind to Hale or to Eliot’s first wife, the poet does have some nice things to say about his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, who married Eliot in 1957, when she was 30 and he was 68. “At the age of 68 the world was transformed for me, and I was transformed by Valerie,” he writes. Beyond transforming Eliot and his world, Fletcher also acted as the executor of his will after his death. She was the one who granted Andrew Lloyd Webber permission to turn Eliot’s poems into the musical that became Cats, which led to Tom Hooper’s Cats movie, so we all owe her a great debt.