April will be a revealing month regarding the American-born English poet and Nobel Laureate T. S. Eliot and his relationship with his lifelong friend and muse, Emily Hale.
The occasion will be the Sunday, April 18, convening of a virtual panel of scholars and writers with expertise in both the writer of “The Waste Land,” considered one of the most important poems of the 20th century, and the college speech and drama teacher Eliot met performing an amateur play in 1913.
Despite Eliot’s declaration of love for Hale, the two parted, and he became involved with a tragic marriage.
Eventually Eliot’s passion for Hale was rekindled and found its expression in the hundreds of letters the two sent to each other between 1930, when they became reacquainted, until 1956, after Eliot remarried.
The event follows last year’s unsealing of Hale’s collection of the 1,131 letters she received from Eliot and donated to Princeton University in order to provide future scholars with insights into Eliot’s life and thoughts. Hale, who died in 1969, also made the stipulation the letters remained sealed until 50 years after her death.
The participating panelists are Frances Dickey, associate professor of English, University of Missouri, and author of “May the Record Speak: The Correspondence of T. S. Eliot”; Sara Fitzgerald, author of “The Poet’s Girl: A novel of T.S. Eliot and Emily Hale”; J. Elyse Graham, a 2007 Princeton alumna, associate professor of English, Stony Brook University, and author of Princeton Alumni Weekly article, “Letters to Emily”; and Michelle Taylor, Ph.D. Candidate in English, Harvard University, and author of The New Yorker article, “The Secret History of T. S. Eliot’s Muse.”
The moderator is Daniel Linke, university archivist and deputy head of special collections at Princeton University Library.
To provide some context for the discussion, here are excerpts from Emily Hale’s letter to Princeton University regarding her gift and a letter by Eliot to Princeton regarding her gift.
From Emily Hale:
At the urgent request of Mr. William S. Dix, currently Librarian of Princeton University Library, and my long-time friends, Professor and Mrs. Willard Thorp of Princeton (Professor Thorp is a prominent member of the English Department of the University), I am writing this brief review of my years of friendship with T. S. Eliot.
We knew each other first in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where he was working on his graduate course preparatory to completing his doctorate in philosophy. He left in 1913 for such preparation in Germany. Before leaving, to my great surprise, he told me how very much he cared for me; at the time I could return no such feeling. His subsequent life in Oxford and later citizenship in England are known by many and everyone who studies his work. At the close of the war he married an English girl whom he had met at Oxford. This marriage was a complete surprise to his family and friends and for me particularly, as he had corresponded quite regularly with me, sent flowers for special occasions, etc.; I meanwhile trying to decide whether I could learn to care for him had he returned to the “States.”
We did not meet until the summer of 1922, when I was in London with my aunt and uncle. His marriage was already known to be a very unhappy affair which was affecting both his creative work and his health. Only his closest friends at this time knew fully of the miserable relationship between his wife and him. Knowing this, I was dismayed when he confessed, after seeing me again, that his affection for me was stronger than ever, though he had assumed years of separation from his home in America and old friends would have changed his attitude toward me. From this meeting in London until the early 30’s I was the confidante by letters of all which was pent up in this gifted, emotional, groping personality.
He was finally legally separated from his mentally ill wife. That they were never divorced was due to his very strong adherence to his conversion to the Anglo-Catholic Church.
Up to 1935, between trips to America and correspondence, we saw each other and knew about each other’s life — though I had no feeling except of difficult but loyal friendship. I taught during these years at private schools or girls’ colleges; he was becoming more and more acclaimed in the world of letters, everywhere.
His wife was finally committed to an institution, leaving him emotionally freer, at least, than in many years. From 1935 – 1939, under this change in his life, he came each summer to stay in Compden, Gloucestershire, for a week or so, with my aunt and uncle who rented a charming 18th century house in the town — and to which I came for the whole summer to help my aunt in her entertaining and greatly enjoy the days in the lovely Cotswold village. On one of his visits, we walked to nearby “Burnt Norton” — the ruins of an 18th century house and garden. “Burnt Norton,” as Tom always said, was his “love poem” for me.
Vivian Eliot died in the mid 40’s, at the close of the war, but instead of the anticipated life together which could now be rightfully ours, something too personal, too obscurely emotional for me to understand, decided T.S.E. against his marrying again. This was both a shock and a sorrow, though, looking back on the story, perhaps I could not have been the companion in marriage I hoped to be, perhaps the decision saved us both from great unhappiness I cannot ever know.
We met under these new difficult circumstances on each of the visits he continued to make to this country for personal or professional reasons. The question of his changed attitude was discussed, but nothing was gained by any further conversation. However, in these years before his second marriage, he always came to see me, was gentle, and still shared with me what was happening to him, or took generous interest in speaking at the school where I then taught.
The second marriage in 1947 I believe took everyone by surprise. He wrote of it to two persons in this country, his sister Marian, and me. I replied to this letter, also writing to Valerie. I never saw T.S.E. nor ever met her after this marriage, although they came to Cambridge two or three times to be with his family and friends, as well as to deliver lectures or give readings.
I can truthfully say that I am both glad and thankful his second marriage brought him the great comfort and remarkable devotion of Valerie; everyone who knew her testified to her tireless care of him, as his health grew worse; his family were delighted with her. The memory of the years when we were most together and so happy are mine always and I am grateful that this period brought some of his best writing, and an assured charming personality which perhaps I helped to stabilize.
A strange story in many ways but found in many another life, public and less public than his. If this account will keep the prying and curiosity of future students from drawing false or sensational conclusions I am glad. After all, I accepted conditions as they were offered under the unnatural code which surrounded us, so that perhaps more sophisticated persons than I will not be surprised to learn the truth about us. At least, the biographers of the future will not see “through a glass darkly,” but like all of life, “face to face.”
From T. S. Eliot:
I wish the statement by myself to be made public as soon as the letters to Miss Hale are made public …
I fell in love with Emily Hale in 1912, when I was in the Harvard Graduate School. Before I left for Germany and England in 1914 I told her that I was in love with her. I have no reason to believe, from the way in which this declaration was received, that my feelings were returned, in any degree whatever. We exchanged a few letters, on a purely friendly basis, while I was up at Oxford during 1914-15.
To explain my sudden marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood would require a good many words, and yet the explanation would probably remain unintelligible. I was still, as I came to believe a year later, in love with Miss Hale. I cannot however make even that assertion with any confidence: it may have been merely my reaction against my misery with Vivienne and desire to revert to an earlier situation. I was very immature for my age, very timid, very inexperienced. And I had a gnawing doubt, which I could not altogether conceal from myself, about my choice of a profession – that of a university teacher of philosophy. I had had three years in the Harvard Graduate School, at my father’s expense, preparing to take my Doctorate in Philosophy: after which I should have found a post somewhere in a college or university. Yet my heart was not in this study, nor had I any confidence in my ability to distinguish myself in this profession. I must still have yearned to write poetry.
For three years I had written only one fragment, which was bad. Then in 1914 Conrad Aiken showed Prufrock to Ezra Pound. My meeting with Pound changed my life. He was enthusiastic about my poems, and gave me such praise and encouragement as I had long since ceased to hope for.
I was happier in England, even in wartime, than I had been in America: Pound urged me to stay in England and encouraged me to write verse again. I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or a mild affair: I was too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody. I believe that I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness: the last seven years of her life were spent in a mental home. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land. And it saved me from marrying Emily Hale.
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.
For years I was a divided man (just as, in a different way, I had been a divided man in the years 1911-1915). In 1932 I was appointed Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard for one year; and even Vivienne’s mother agreed that it was out of the question for Vivienne to go to America with me. I saw Emily Hale in California (where she was teaching in a girls’ college) early in 1933, and I saw her from time to time every summer.
Upon the death of Vivienne in the winter of 1947, I suddenly realized that I was not in love with Emily Hale. 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. Had I met any woman I could have fallen in love with, during the years when Vivienne and I were together, this would no doubt have become evident to me.
From 1947 on, I realized 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. It may be too harsh, to think that what she liked was my reputation rather than my work. 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.
I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.
So long as Vivienne was alive I was able to deceive myself. To face the truth fully, about my feelings towards Emily Hale, after Vivienne’s death, was a shock from which I recovered only slowly. But I came to see that my love for Emily was the love of a ghost for a ghost, and that the letters I had been writing to her were the letters of an hallucinated man, a man vainly trying to pretend to himself that he was the same man that he had been in 1914.
It is only within the last few years that I have known what it was to love a woman who truly, selflessly and whole-heartedly loves me.
May we all rest in peace.
T.S. Eliot & Emily Hale Letters: Re-examined, Sunday, April 18, 3 to 5 p.m. Sponsored by Princeton University Library and the Friends of Princeton University Library. To register, go to libcal.princeton.edu/event/7347860.