“I have seen my moment of greatness flicker,
And I have seen the eternal Footman hold my coat, and snicker,
And in short, I was afraid.”
-T.S. Eliot, The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock
In 1956, Emily Hale, a drama teacher in Boston, told T.S. Eliot that she intended to give the letters he had written her to Princeton University. 1,131 letters across the span of sixteen years. Her instructions to the library were to keep them sealed until 50 years after both of their deaths. Eliot wasn’t pleased.
In fact, he was so moved by outrage, he wrote a response letter in 1960 to be published on the same day Hale’s collection was to be released. Sixty years later on January 2, 2020, many read Eliot’s response before ever having the chance to read Hale’s. Despite being intended to clear his name, the response instead came off as spiteful and cruel. It did little to save his reputation, especially since his letters tell another story.
The man obsessed with legacy in 1960 comes at odds with the poet in love who wrote to Hale. Eliot’s response aligns closely with the character personas developed through his famous works The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock and The Waste Land. It is no surprise that the man who wrote, “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me,” also created the pitiful Prufrock trapped in his own lack of ambition.
Eliot’s response worked to erase Hale from the narrative of his life and negate any emotion in the letters. When the correspondence began, he was married miserably to his first wife Vivienne Haighwood. In both his letters and response, Eliot admits that his marriage to Haighwood was a tragic affair. In the response, he notes that his letters took a turn after Haighwood died and was convinced Hale would not include anything after 1947. That much is true. The last letter is dated December 22, 1946.
Where Eliot comes at odds with himself is in the vulnerability, devotion, and deification of Hale that he exposes through his letters. The letters themselves have a poetic quality that point to a whole new side of him. The first letters are written in frantic desperation to have some sort of contact with Hale. The first three months of the correspondence display the most dramatic declarations of his infatuation.
At first glance, the salutations alone record the progression of the relationship. Eliot’s own letters testify against him in simply two to three words, displaying an affection his 1960 response chooses to ignore. The first five letters start with a traditional and polite, “Dear Emily.” Then, they progress to “My Emily,” “My Saint,” “My Dearest Lady,” and, what becomes his favorite, “My Dove.” Without even the contents of the letters it’s clear that, through them, intimacy was exchanged across the Atlantic.
The salutation, however, is only an introduction. The first few letters are nervous. They are endearing and make it clear he lives for the arrival of her letters.
“I have been a state of torment for a full month. I went over and over in my mind every possible reply to my letter that I could think of; and I believe that I was reconciled to anything my Lady might say; the only possibility I could not bear to contemplate was that she might not write at all […] Forgive me for writing like this just once” (November 3, 1930).
“And towards the end of the month I begin now to feel rather famished for a letter from you, and you have given the wanted sustenance” (December 24, 1930).
As the lines appear in the first few letters, they are poetic and romantic. As with any relationship, they test the boundaries and are terrified to cross a line, most perfectly represented by his apology at the end of the November 3 excerpt.
But it doesn’t take long for the letters to take an unnerving turn. Hidden between lines of romantic confessions and mundane descriptions of his day, Eliot begins to form an obsession. First, he requests a photograph of Hale.
“First of all I do please want the photograph you tell of, and please I must have it. And I should like, I mean can you give me anything more recent, even a snapshot would do” (January 9, 1931).
Eliot refuses to let Hale forget he awaits the photograph. Not a month later he writes, “WHERE is my photograph?” (January 20, 1931). The reminders are insistent and continue even after he receives one.
“And so my only disappointment was that I have not yet got my photograph that is promised me (I wonder will there be a doll in it named Belinda – see what odds and ends I happen to know!)” (January 27, 1931).
“Anyway, I must say at once how entranced I am with your little photograph. You were a beautiful child, but I naturally expected that! I do treasure it; it is to be kissed and put to bed in the box, and looked at as often as possible […] I am happy to think that I may have a recent (how recent?) picture too” (February 3, 1931).
The photograph is not the only thing Eliot demands. He then asks about her date of birth – which also spans across several letters before she decides to send it – then about her outfits. In a single letter, he numbers out the requests after having them unanswered.
- “When shall I receive the other photograph? I am devoted to the one I have, but want more.
- When is your birthday?
- Are you well?
- What are you wearing? Do you wear those little woolen skating cap hats that women here have this season?” (February 13, 1931).
His entitlement ignores any discomfort that may have come from Hale’s end. Her hesitation to provide the information is constantly pushed and questioned. Within a month’s time span, it seems he wears her out to provide it.
However, the peak of his obsession came on a scrap sheet of paper on February 10, 1931, days before his itemized list of requests. Where most of the previous letters were typed on Faber and Faber parchment, this letter is scrawled in handwriting that crams into every corner of the page. The paper is folded oddly, as if he only expected it to be a brief letter before the words spilled onto it. It reads:
“I am too worried to write at length. Of course today is Tuesday, and nothing from you: always [illegible script] by Monday. I cannot remember which letter of mine you should have had nothing to send by now. And I cannot believe there was anything there to offend you” (February 10, 1931).
Her letter is a day late, and he is sent out of his mind. He thinks the worst has happened and insists that she not miss another deadline, as if her letters are part of some contract instead of just a correspondence.
Eliot also reveals in his writing that he expected this relationship to be a long-term affair, one that he wanted to be memorialized after death. In the first few months of the correspondence, Eliot explained his intentions with Hale’s letters. As with many of his other correspondences, he hoped to have these published at the Bodleian Library in Oxford. He asked for her permission to do what Hale ultimately did nearly 30 years later.
“I do not worry much about posthumous reputation; but whatever I have left by that time I want to share with you. Please, I am dearly attached to this notion; but I want your permission” (December 8, 1930).
When her response was less than favorable, his own letter expressed the same nature of his statement in 1960. Despite claiming to want her permission, he presents two unforgivable reasons for why she would ever decline him.
“I think my lady is either Very Stupid, or else some kind of modesty, which is certainly one of her complete set of good qualities, interfered with the transmission” (January 12, 1931).
He leaves a blatant insult followed by a compliment that fails to amend his emphasis of “Very Stupid.” After his disappointment of not getting her approval, he makes no further mention of it in the following months. Moments like these are dispersed between the romantic and the mundane. Between praising Hale as a saving grace and inconsequential relays of who he had lunch with comes these questionable moments of outrage. It’s the same passion that drove Eliot to destroy all of Hale’s letters to him, and the same tone he took in 1960.
The matter of legacy – despite him writing that he did “not worry much about posthumous reputation” in 1930 – evidently haunted Eliot. Hale took the power of revealing their relationship from Eliot and thus took control of the narrative in what ways she could. Hale expected that after Haighwood’s death, Eliot would propose, but such a gesture never came. Instead, Eliot insisted on staying in England where he believed his work to be far more valuable. In England, he met Valerie Fletcher, who was his secretary and would later become his second wife. Eliot noted in his response that Hale didn’t know of his engagement to Fletcher when she told him about leaving the letters to Princeton.
Eliot had married Fletcher by the time he wrote his statement in 1960. Fletcher would take on most of the work in preserving Eliot’s posthumous reputation. Eliot dedicated a section of the letter to praise Fletcher and make it clear his relationship with her was a defining feature of his later life. The response seems to be written not just for sake of his pride, but also to clear his intentions with Fletcher. As he wrote in the Prufrock quote in the epigraph, Hale’s announcement struck a chord. He saw the reactions that lay ahead and attempted to de escalate them while he still could.
He writes Hale off as a foolish fling, a poor decision made by his younger self. He makes it clear he disapproved of Hale giving away the letters and says plainly he had hers destroyed, ripping away her side of the story. He even raises Haighwood to a higher standard than Hale, saying that “Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.” Any emotion he had for Hale is cast aside by his ambition and work. One of Eliot’s biggest qualms was that “she was not a lover of poetry, certainly that she was not much interested in my poetry.” His pride was wounded because, though Hale loved the man, she wasn’t a poetry fanatic. Eliot prioritizes his poetry, and essentially his written legacy, over everything else.
He also points out an issue with her faith. He hypocritically claims that if she truly loved him “she would have respected [his] feelings,” as if Eliot himself was not entitled to respecting hers. This incident occurred in the last few letters Hale gave to Princeton. When she gave an unfavorable response about religion, he responded:
“No, my dear, it is no use avoiding the fact that this refusal is going to make a serious difference to our relations. I shall no longer be able to feel the same confidence and truthfulness, the same ease, the same readiness to expand in your presence and in correspondence. Only a few weeks ago I was happier than I have ever been: the new situation seems grotesque. I am not defying you: I am simply telling you something which I cannot help” (October 16, 1946).
In the following letter, he tells her the October 16th letter is the only one he’s ever kept a copy of. In the moment, religion seemed to be a far greater issue than the few lines Eliot gives it in his response.
If his intention was to completely disown Hale and any affections, he did so effectively. However, in the process Eliot is not remembered as a romantic, but as a spiteful man looking back in regret. He writes precisely to cut ties where he can, and his animosity taints his legacy.