T.S. Eliot’s Letters To Emily Hale

Over 1,000 Romantic Letters Unsealed at Princeton University After 60 Years

By Donald Gilpin

The unsealing after more than 60 years of a collection of 1,131 letters written by Nobel laureate T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale, his secret platonic love, caused “the special collections equivalent of a stampede at a rock concert” on the morning of January 2 in the basement of Princeton University’s Firestone Library, according to Daniel Linke, interim head of the Library’s special collections, as told to the Associated Press.

Emily Hale and T.S. Eliot in Dorset, Vermont, during the summer of 1946. (Photo courtesy of Princeton University Library)

Released at the same time as a 1960 “disclaimer” statement from Eliot, which had been held in Harvard University’s Houghton Library, those letters, one of the most noteworthy sealed archives in the world, will provide rich fodder for English professors and biographers for many years to come. Eliot aficionados have long debated the true nature of Eliot’s relationship with Hale and her influence on his poetry.  Psychotherapists will also be drawn to this intricately detailed, complex, unflattering depiction of a man who perhaps most closely resembles the persona of his first published poem, “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” (1915).

“Prufrock” is a very odd love song, an interior monologue full of doubt and indecision, anguish, regret, weariness, and longing, but no more odd and frustrating than Eliot’s relationship with Hale as depicted in his letters written from 1930 to 1957. If you thought his poetry was difficult to understand, the complexity and confusion of his love life as revealed in these letters and his 1960 statement disclaiming his relationship with Hale will not surprise you. 

Like his character Prufrock, the Eliot who emerges from the letters to Hale and the subsequent statement, apparently intending to set the record straight, is full of contradictions and uncertainty. He burned Hale’s numerous letters to him when he found out that she had turned over his letters to Princeton University, to remain sealed until 50 years after they were both dead. He died in 1965. She died in 1969. 

An envelope addressed to Emily Hale at 41 Brimmer Street in Boston, Massachusetts, and handwritten by T.S. Eliot. (Photo by Ashley Gamarello, courtesy of Princeton University Library)

Unwilling Autobiographer

The American-born British poet, one of the most highly acclaimed writers of the 20th century, was also one of the most private and reserved of authors. He wrote in his famous essay “The Tradition and the Individual Talent” (1919): “Poetry is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality.” Eliot may have escaped from his personality in his poetry, but his letters to Hale constitute a vivid, in-depth picture of that personality.

In his statement, written, deposited in the Eliot Collection at Harvard University in 1960, and released also on January 2 when the letters to Hale in the Princeton Library were released, Eliot rejects the idea of ever writing an autobiography. The thousands of pages of letters to Emily Hale, however, create a sort of epistolary biography that sheds significant new light on his poetry as well as his life. The destruction of Hale’s letters to Eliot creates gaps in the story, but Hale’s voice is far from silent.

Through Eliot’s constant direct references to her previous letters and actions, the reader of those letters easily infers Hale’s dominant influence, and her voice resonates powerfully through Eliot’s prose. She must have realized when she delivered those letters to Princeton in 1957 that she was ensuring her own immortality as well as Eliot’s. 

Eliot writes, somewhat cryptically, in his 1960 statement, “It seemed to me that her disposing of the letters in that way at that time threw some light upon the kind of interest which she took, or had come to take, in these letters.”  Possibly he thinks she was is looking to embarrass him, seeking revenge for not marrying her. Perhaps he is worried that Valerie Fletcher, the woman he married three years before, would somehow learn about those letters. He notes in his statement about Hale that he was “disagreeably surprised when she informed me that she was handing the letters over to Princeton University during our lifetime.”

Eliot’s statement of about 2,000 words contributes significantly to this “autobiography” of the letters at the same time that it presents a counter-narrative that seems to contradict the love story told by the letters. Is this Eliot trying to suppress the intensely romantic content of the letters that he wished he had not written? Or is Eliot not wanting to appear vulnerable or guilty, embarrassed by his words and actions, trying to take control of the relationship with Emily Hale and depict it as he wished it had been? Is he trying to protect the feelings of his new wife?  Is this a mid-20th century version of “mansplaining”?

“It is painful for me to have to write the following lines,” Eliot says as he begins his statement. “I cannot conceive of writing my autobiography.” Echoing Prufrock’s “It is impossible to say just what I mean! But as if a magic lantern threw the words in patterns on a screen,” Eliot continues, “In my experience, there is much for which one cannot find words even in the confessional.” 

The collection of T.S. Eliot letters to Emily Hale made up 14 boxes of material. (Photo by Shelley Szwast, courtesy of Princeton University Library)

Love Story

The story of Eliot and Hale began in 1912. He was a 24-year-old graduate student in philosophy at Harvard. She was a 21-year-old speech and drama teacher at Simmons College. They met at a social gathering in Cambridge, Massachusetts, where they performed in a dramatization of Jane Austen’s Emma. Soon afterwards, he confessed his love to her, according to University of Missouri English Professor Frances Dickey, who was in the line of readers at the Princeton University Library Special Collections on January 2 before the doors opened at 9 a.m.   

Reporting in a blog for the T.S. Eliot Society, as she read through the first of the 14 boxes, Dickey began with Emily Hale’s narratives of her relationship with Eliot that accompanied the 1,131 letters. In response to Eliot’s declaration of love, Hale “found herself surprised by his confession and did not feel the same about him,” Dickey reported.

Eliot moved to England, where he stayed during World War I. In 1915, he met and three months later married Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Their marriage rapidly soured, but Eliot did not see Hale again for 15 years. Haigh-Wood and Eliot eventually separated, and she died in 1947 after spending the last seven years of her life in a mental institution.

In his 1960 statement, Eliot finds himself unable to explain why he so suddenly married Haigh-Wood, but claims, most pointedly, that “it saved me from marrying Emily Hale” (also that it brought him to the state of mind out of which he wrote “The Waste Land” (1922), perhaps his most famous poem).  “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive,” he writes. “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.”

The crate pictured housed the collection for over 60 years and held a Post-it note that read, “Eliot/Hale, sealed until 2020.” (Photo by Shelley Szwast, Princeton University Library)

On Hale’s visit to her aunt and uncle in England in 1922, she and Eliot renewed their acquaintance. Eliot’s love for her remained unabated, and their correspondence began in earnest in 1930, with the first letter in the collection dated October 3, 1930.  She became his confidante and his muse.  When Eliot came to the United States to teach at Harvard for a year in 1932-33, Haigh-Wood did not accompany him. He visited Hale at Scripps College in California, where she was teaching.

The letter writing continued, at least weekly. Eliot’s letters that I saw from 1931, in box 2 of the 14 boxes, almost all between one and two typed pages, single-spaced, surely reveal a man deeply in love with a woman who is unattainable. In a letter dated August 14, 1931, he refers to “one more stage in mutual understanding, and that is the most exciting adventure of my life: to explore and to get to know you as I never have and never shall know anyone else.”

And on August 18 he writes, “And there are times when I desire you so much that neither religion, nor work, nor distraction, and certainly not dissipation, could relieve it. It is like a pain that no sedative will deaden, or an operation without an aesthetic — nothing to do but sit still and wait. At other times I feel glorified and transfigured through you.”

Eliot and Hale saw each other each summer from 1934 on, during Hale’s visits to England, usually meeting at the house of Hale’s relatives in Chipping Camden, Hale writes.  On one occasion, they walked to the abandoned estate Burnt Norton, a visit that inspired Eliot’s famous poem, which Hale says he told her was his love poem to her.  “Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take/Towards the door we never opened/Into the rose garden,” Eliot wrote in “Burnt Norton” (1935).

Hale was certainly also the inspiration earlier for Eliot’s much discussed “hyacinth girl,” who appears in “The Wasteland” (1922). He wrote in the first section of the long poem: “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 my eyes failed, I was neither/Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,/Looking into the heart of light, the silence.

Hale wrote that she had developed feelings for him by the 1930s, Dickey notes, but “they kept their relationship on as ‘honorable’ a basis ‘as we could.’”  Eliot, in his 1960 statement, confirms, “I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.” In 1927 Eliot became an English citizen and joined the Anglican Church. Despite their separation, he would not divorce Haigh-Wood.

T. S. Eliot in 1923, by Lady Ottoline Morrell.

Eliot’s “Mansplaining”

Hale’s narrative goes on to describe two shocks to their relationship. When Haigh-Wood died in 1947, Eliot decided not to marry Hale, “a decision she accepted but could not understand and found very painful,” Dickey writes.  Hale reportedly suffered a nervous breakdown, and spent time recuperating in Massachusetts General Hospital. They did continue to keep in touch, and he saw her when he came to the United States, but in 1957 Hale delivered the letters to Princeton University, probably aware of Eliot’s relationship with Valerie Fletcher but unaware that Fletcher would become his second wife later that year. Hale never saw him again after that marriage.

Eliot’s 1960 statement goes further in its attempts to explain — or re-explain — or rationalize what happened. The explanation is a fascinating picture of a man in mental anguish as he struggles to justify the most important decisions of his life. In reading his statement without the context of the “autobiography” of letters written over a 25-year period, it is possible to sympathize with the “divided,” tormented Eliot — up to a point. That point comes where his prose becomes angry, controlling, and egotistical.

“Upon the death of Vivienne in the winter of 1947, I suddenly realized that I was not in love with Emily Hale,” he writes. “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. 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.” He goes on to note how their religious views also differed.

He continues, claiming to have deceived himself in regard to Hale as long as his first wife was alive, “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 a hallucinated man, a man vainly trying to pretend to himself that he was the same man that he had been in 1914.”  He concludes with the comment that marrying Emily Hale would have been an even greater mistake than it was to marry Vivienne Haigh-Wood.

At the end of her first day of reading through the first of the 14 boxes of letters, Dickey titles her January 2 late evening blog entry “Box 1: A Confession of Love.” Urging readers to see for themselves, she writes, “There may be many further revelations in the letters to come, but it is hard to imagine any clearer acknowledgement of Hale’s importance to him as a man and a poet. These letters tell a very different story from the belittling counter-narrative Eliot wrote in 1960, and in my view, a better one. You might have to see it to believe it.”

The T.S. Eliot letters to Emily Hale, unboxed. (Photo by Shelley Szwast, courtesy of Princeton University Library)