Finally, after 50 years, the time has come. On a rainy morning in early January, the two of us descend into the catacombs beneath Princeton’s Firestone Library to read the most famous sealed library archive in the world. These are the 1,131 letters that T.S. Eliot wrote to his confidant, muse, and paramour Emily Hale. She gave them to Princeton in 1956, against his wishes, with the provision they not be opened for a half-century after they both had died. Emily died in 1969, setting the stage for the drama of the past two months.
On January 2, 2020, the copper bands were snipped off and the padlocks unlocked for eager scholars to inspect the forbidden letters.
What will they discover? After all, the much-anticipated letters could just as well be a profusion of laundry lists. Eliot was nothing if not a proper and reserved gentleman, educated at Harvard and Oxford, who bought his bespoke suits from Langrock’s, the former bastion of Ivy League style on Nassau Street. A framed letter from Eliot hung on the wall of their fitting room for years.
But the course of true love is never predictable.
We are no Eliot scholars, but we are fascinated by his work and curious about his life. We have been talking about the letters for a while. When they became available, we wanted to see and read them.
We were not at all disappointed. From the very first letters, we encounter a previously unknown T.S. Eliot, a complex man who explodes with passions and contradictions. He writes Emily that he has loved her since the day they met at a friend’s house in Boston in 1912. He then was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard; she a drama and speech coach at Simmons College. He had awkwardly stepped on her toes at a relative’s house while rehearsing her production of Jane Austen’s “Emma.” They later went to an opera together, “Tristan un Isolde.”
Eliot confesses his love to her again before leaving for England to study at Oxford and before his precipitous marriage in 1915 to the flamboyant but troubled Vivienne Haight-Wood (described by some as “a girl you would not introduce to your mother”).
In 1922, the married Eliot rekindled his romance with Emily after a meeting in Eccleston Square in London. Eliot then regularly met Emily during her summer visits with her aunt and uncle in the charming hamlet of Chipping Camden in the Cotswolds.
In the manner of lovers, Eliot and Emily share their life stories — and discuss their feelings and flaws. Eliot emphatically tells her he loves her but cannot control his temper, his pride, his cravings for whiskey and tobacco, and his passionate longing for her. In the manner of the philosopher Bertrand Russell he has experimented with adultery — but concluded that “it doesn’t work.” (We don’t have Emily’s side of their correspondence, since Eliot later had her letters burned.)
He also tells her that she has been the inspiration for some of his most affecting poetry — such as the hyacinth girl lines in “The Waste Land”:
You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.
—Yet when we came back, late,
From the hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet,
I could not speak …
And the bittersweet garden scene in “Burnt Norton:”
What might have been and what has been
Point to one end, which is always present.
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take.
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
On April 1, 1932, Eliot writes Emily what sounds like an undergraduate’s ruminations about his poetry, reflecting on the cruelties of the season to his senses — the raw smells of spring and fall disturb him.
As he often does, he encloses letters sent to him from literary friends like Virginia Woolf, James Joyce — as if he expected her to be his amanuensis.
He gives her a list of his favorite paintings to see in Boston, including Vermeer’s “The Concert,” famously stolen from the Isabella Stewart Gardner Museum in 1990.
Their love was unconsumated — Emily called it “abnormal” — but the letters attest to their physical attractions — kissing and her resting her head on his shoulder. At one point Eliot counsels her not to shy from same-sex relationships. Indeed, he reports that the English writer Lytton Stratchey once kissed him unexpectedly — which caused him to laugh and never be alone in a room with Stratchey again.
When Vivienne died in 1947, Eliot was in his late fifties, and Emily assumed they could finally be together. But in 1957 Eliot chose to marry his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, who was 38 years younger – he 68, she 30. This left Hale “devastated.” She never saw Eliot again.
When Hale gave his letters to the Princeton library, Eliot was rather displeased — even though he had originally suggested they both donate their letters together. He drafted a statement that has only now been made public. He addresses why he did not marry her, saying that the analytical Hale would have killed the poet in him. At least his troubled wife left the poet alone. In retrospect, he states, the “nightmare” of his 17-year marriage seemed to be preferable to the boring misery of the mediocre drama teacher who had been the alternative had he been with her. Once Vivienne died, he said, he realized he did not love Emily. He only loved the memory of being in love with her.
That sentiment, however, was not what we found reading the letters, signed by “your loving Tom” sent to Emily from Princeton in 1948, a year after Vivienne’s death. He lived at 14 Alexander Street as a visiting member at the Institute for Advanced Study (“or whatever they call it”). Institute faculty member Freeman Dyson still remembers the Thanksgiving dinner at the director Robert Oppenheimer’s house when all the faculty was too intimidated to lure the great man from a small drawing room. It took the French mathematical physicist Cecile DeWitt-Morette to beguile him to join the full party, where he amused everyone with his sense of humor.
Eliot shares the big and small things in his life. He complains about physical discomfort and lack of money. And he repeatedly declares his love to Hale. She is the most important person in the world to him. He writes about his hope that his wife will die, and also about his guilt about this hope. But when she actually dies, he writes (we paraphrase): “I have lived on a deserted island for seventeen years. I was never a complete man. But I am my past and everything that goes with it. I look at myself, and see a stranger, and whether I want to or not, I have to live with him.” He draws a comparison with the discovery of a mummy. “For a brief moment in time, we see the person who lived 4,000 years ago. Then it crumbles.”
In 1932 Eliot called Emily on a new device called the telephone. He reports that he was speechless with excitement. But he says that it was difficult to talk to her without being able to touch her hand.
Today it’s hard to read the letters without feeling as if you are touching Emily’s hand. It is painful to see how carefully Hale handled his letters. Nowhere is a spot of spilled tea, nowhere a single sloppy fold. The thin airmail paper is as fragile as onion skin. We felt like voyeurs confronted with these highly personal, intimate confessions. They were not meant for our eyes.
Critics will say that Eliot cared only about his needs and who could satisfy them. But the poet is always there. He said it best in one particularly moving letter to Emily that is nearly as best as a man can do:
“I have been over the events of the past so many times in my mind that now I can only survive by thinking of the present and the future so far as it brings me to you.”
Summaries of the letters in the Eliot-Hale Collection are available in a running blog posted by the International T.S. Eliot Society at https://tseliotsociety.wildapricot.org/news.
Pia de Jong is the author of “Saving Charlotte: A Mother and the Power of Intuition.” Landon Y. Jones is the author of “Great Expectations: America and the Baby Boom Generation.” Both are Princeton residents.