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Give, Sympathize, Control: T. S. Eliot and Emily Hale

On January 2, 2020, T. S. Eliot announced from the grave that he and Emily Hale never had sex and that marrying her would have killed the poet in him.[1] At the New York Times, the arts and culture piece on Eliot scheduled for January 9 was bumped up to breaking news.[2] Always the canny publicist, Eliot controlled the narrative of the day on which his 1, 131 letters to Hale were opened to view at the Princeton Library. But his posthumous blast cannot cover up the story that this archive tells of their lifelong relationship, her role as his muse, and the price she paid for the honor. Theirs is not the conventional story of a woman’s selfless domestic and sexual service to male genius; whether sanctioned by wedlock or not, such an arrangement would have at least offered Hale some of the emotional, social, and financial support she lacked in her life as a single woman and itinerant adjunct speech professor. As Eliot revealed with partial truthfulness in his 2020 public statement, he withheld all this, keeping their relationship secret and maintaining his vow of celibacy despite his own repeated professions of love and intent to marry. What he sought from her was the creative impetus of deferred desire, and we can judge the success of this strategy from the poetry he wrote. Yet his decision to burn Hale’s letters and consign her to the role of “Lady of silences” in “Ash-Wednesday” for all time may prove a miscalculation, for it leads the reader to imagine her side of the story (as Nancy Gish observes in her contribution to the original #MeToo cluster, Eliot was conscious of the way powerful men silence women). Through this act and his posthumous denial of her significance, Eliot may have hoped to neutralize our sympathy for a woman whose life left little trace apart from her impact on him.[3] But the #MeToo era means, among other changes, a shift in the vector of sympathy from great men to the women, however insignificant, on whom greatness rests.

This movement has opened into a new and welcome era of social justice activism in which Eliot may well find himself cancelled. The Hale correspondence may only speed up a decline in his reputation already in process since the 1980’s. Yet his poetry suffers no decline and continues to be quoted in the press and by public figures indifferent to shifts in his cultural standing, because his words are now part of our language. And the dark side of modernity was his theme, one that we have not lost the need to talk about. For those of us who continue to teach Eliot because his poetry never fails to prompt fresh conversations and realizations, there is much in the Hale letters to share with students. With his erudition and impersonality theory, Eliot can seem remote at best. In his letters he shows a different side—needy, affectionate, and ordinary in his discovery of love. And Eliot’s letters do more than humanize him: by explicitly linking his poems to his experiences, they direct us to reinterpret much of his work. Not only is this something we must do now that we have more information, but it may actually make our teaching easier. On February 19, 1932, Eliot writes that he has often longed to tell people the truth, to explain his poetry in just a few simple words. While the explanation may not be quite as simple as that—and became increasingly complex as time passed—he is right that we will never read his poems the same way again after knowing the truth about his relationship with Hale.

From the beginning, Eliot cast Hale as the Beatrice to his Dante, imagining their relationship, and his life, on the pattern of the Vita Nuova.[4] He remembered meeting her in 1905, not long after he arrived in Boston as a shy teenager from Missouri, seven years before the social events that would bring them together as young adults.[5] Like Dante’s love for Beatrice, his feeling took root as speechless admiration from a distance, for a girl so young she was almost still a child (or so he recalls it, while her narrative states that “In 1911-12, T S Eliot was working at Harvard University towards a doctorate in Philosophy. I met him during this period, or a little earlier”).[6] At every subsequent phase, he threw up obstacles to their union, since, unlike Beatrice, the youthful Hale showed no signs of premature death. As early as “La Figlia Che Piange” (1912), Eliot imagined the scenario for abandoning his beloved and thereby gaining a gesture and a pose—the tears hers to weep, his to immortalize in verse.[7] In 1914, on the eve of his departure to Munich, Eliot gave a tea party for the express purpose of seeing Hale, but his nerve failed him in a moment memorialized in The Waste Land: “I could not/Speak, and my eyes failed.”[8] He later explained that he believed he couldn’t ask her to marry him because he lacked the finances to support her. The truth was probably more complicated, and the rest is history. A year later, Eliot married an Englishwoman to whom he was not even attracted (as he later tells Hale), let alone in love.[9] Across the decades, despite the worship expressed in his poems and the adoration professed in his letters, he maintained their transatlantic distance, and although he dangled the possibility of marriage before her as late as 1946, when Vivien died in January 1947, he (again) discovered he had nothing to say.

Whatever else his marriage with Vivien did to Eliot, it provided him with a sterling alibi for the separation from Hale that fueled his creativity. His 2020 statement contains another partial truth: yes, marrying Hale would have killed the poet in him, but not because of anything about her. The reason is because his poetry was rooted in his unsatisfied desire. The Waste Land testifies to the ruin of his life and the elevation of Hale as his tragic muse. When he began to correspond with her in 1930, he immediately pointed to the “Hyacinth girl” scene and the “Datta” passage in “What the Thunder Said” as evidence of the fineness of his love for her:

My friend, blood shaking my heart

The awful daring of a moment’s surrender

Which an age of prudence can never retract

By this, and this only, we have existed

—explaining that by “we,” of course, he means “I.”[10] He offers these passages to her as tribute, and perhaps no woman could ask for a greater gift. But the instructions that frame his memories and regrets also chillingly map out the terms of their future relationship: Give, Sympathize, Control.[11]

In the burst of passion, self-abasement, and devotion that opens his three-decade correspondence with Hale in 1930, Eliot writes that loving her has given him the best that he has had in life.[12] This claim may seem strange given their sporadic and stiffly formal contact over the last fifteen years, but in the meantime, he has written The Waste Land and “Ash-Wednesday”—both paying homage to her—and converted to the Church of England, an act for which he also credits her influence. He thinks of these accomplishments, especially the last, as her gifts to him, and tells her that his debt to her is unlimited. While she plays no active role in providing spiritual and poetic inspiration, once she begins writing to him, she gives actual sympathy and understanding, for which he repeatedly thanks her. Just as he imagines her future in “La Figlia,” his early letters establish the pattern that he will impose on their relationship. She does not comply without a struggle, for we see glimpses of her resistance: already in January 1931 she tells him that their situation is “abnormal” and regularly returns to the question of why they must live in a state of forever-deferred satisfaction.[13] This is what he asks of her: to accept his love without expecting any worldly recognition or physical union. Perhaps if she had had some other source of satisfaction in her life, his request would seem more benign, but she remains unattached and penurious throughout the years of his ever-increasing fame, while he regales her with the stories of his literary successes, social engagements, and all-expense paid trips to receive the homage of his admirers. To be sure, there is reciprocity in their relationship: the complex history of gifts exchanged between them goes beyond letters to include promises, embraces, poems, rings, tokens of affection, years waited, plans changed, and cruelties forgiven. Yet, while both receive, the balance shifts increasingly from Hale to Eliot as the beneficiary, especially after the height of their passion in fall 1935. Across the years he repeatedly expresses gratitude for emotional gifts from her that exceed what he can give in return; this is a central trope of their relationship, and the external biographical facts seem to bear out his language.

Give, sympathize . . . control. From the beginning of their correspondence, Eliot frets about his struggles to exert control over himself—his drinking, his temper, his mind, his use of time. Writing to Hale helps release him from the temptations that beset him, although he now has to resist the urge to fantasize about her. When invited to the Norton professorship at Harvard, Eliot worries that he will not be able to control himself in her presence, so if he comes to America, he wishes to see her only twice: once at the beginning, and once at the end, even if they are living in the same town.[14] Limiting their face-to-face contact channels his emotions into writing—letters primarily, but also the voluminous lectures he gives in 1932-33 and three “Landscapes,” with their themes of regret, waiting, and renunciation. His prohibition on seeing each another also prevents what she would presumably call the “normal” development of their relationship and limits her claims on him. In a dismaying pattern repeated throughout the 1930s, he allows their intimacy to build up, often around a visit, only to reimpose physical and emotional distance (because divorce is impossible or immoral, being alone together is improper, travel is too expensive, leaving the country is not allowed, and other changing rationales). Controlling himself shades imperceptibly into controlling her access to him, even as he continues to write multiple-page letters each week, year after year, and long for her less frequent replies. She objects to this arrangement, but with her compliant personality and lack of other options, always eventually accepts. “Your heart would have responded/Gaily, when invited, beating obedient/To controlling hands.”[15]

Three decades before Eliot burned her letters, he believed that they would enhance his reputation. On  January 12, 1931, he explains to Hale why he wants to preserve her letters at the Bodleian Library: 1) they shed a favorable light on his life and work, 2) they are beautiful in themselves, and 3) he wishes posterity to know the extent of his debt to her. Even without her side of the correspondence, his letters to Hale reveal the personal substratum of his poetry—the emotional support she provided, the sacrifices she made in service to his creativity, and the autobiographical “moments” that he translated into verse. Though it has always been clear that Eliot relied on others for the Caesarian labor of writing, his own extensive documentation of his dependence on Hale will change our understanding of his poems. In addition to advising Eliot about dramatic composition and inspiring him to write plays in the first place, she gave something more fundamental: herself. I refer not only to acts of physical and emotional tenderness whose importance he acknowledged privately. His poetry of renunciation (St. Thomas’s martyrdom) and regret (“Footfalls echo in the memory/Down the passage which we did not take”) also required her willingness to be renounced over and over again. We cannot provide the satisfaction she never received, but we can recognize her contribution and, more generally, acknowledge in our work the “minute and vast” network of spouses, lovers, parents, children, friends, and other ordinary people whose charity and forgiveness make possible the artworks that we value.


[1] Houghton Library released his carefully timed missive according to his instructions: “The Love of a Ghost for a Ghost: T. S. Eliot on his Letters to Emily Hale.”

[2] Maria Cramer, “The Love Letters of T. S. Eliot: New Clues into his Most Mysterious Relationship,” The New York Times January 24, 2020. In her rush to publication, the Times reporter omitted to interview anyone who had actually spent time in the reading room, where no phones are permitted. The article thus privileged his angry testament, which was available online, over the archive’s 1,131 love letters and Hale’s own narrative. When Princeton Library released her statement online several weeks later, her mild and factual account dropped into a sea of indifference (Eliot penned his statement in 1960 when he heard that she had given her own account of their relationship, though he did not know what she had written).

[3] Eliot probably had one future reader particularly in mind: Valerie, his second wife, who might have lived long enough to see the opening of the archive and read in her deceased husband’s letters the same expressions of love and desire, directed at another woman, that he had later used towards her, such as “tall girl” (see letter of January 10, 1936 and The Poems of T. S. Eliot, vol. 1, ed. Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue [London: Faber & Faber, 2015], p. 318).

[4] Lyndall Gordon (T. S. Eliot: An Imperfect Life) and Ronald Schuchard (Eliot’s Dark Angel), among other insightful critics, long ago pieced together the story of how Eliot’s Dantean imagination shaped both his poetry and his personal life.

[5] Letter of August 18, 1932. Letters from T. S. Eliot to Emily Hale; Emily Hale Letters from T. S. Eliot, C0686, Manuscripts Division, Department of Special Collections, Princeton University Library. All subsequent references to Eliot’s letters to Emily Hale are to this collection, which can only be accessed by physically visiting the archive; Special Collections is indefinitely closed due to Covid-19 and quotation is by permission only. This constraint is another form of control over Hale’s side of the story.

[6] See Hale’s first, pencil draft of 1957 at the link above.

[7] In “In the Shadows: Popular Song and Eliot’s Construction of Emotion” (Modernism/modernity 11.3 [2004]: 449–67), David E. Chinitz has argued that Eliot tended to imagine the people and events in his life before he encountered them, suggesting that narratives derived from literature and popular culture shaped Eliot’s relationships. This observation correlates with what we find in the new archive.

[8] Letter of July 21, 1931 (continued on July 24); The Waste Land lines 38-39, Poems, 56.

[9] Letter of August 25, 1931.

[10] Letter of November 3, 1930; Poems, 70, lines 402-5.

[11] “Datta,” “Dyadhvam,” “Damyata,” the three Sanskrit commands that end The Waste Land.

[12] Letter of October 3, 1930. He does not specify the best of what.

[13] Letter of January 7, 1931, which he echoes March 31, 1931, August 17, 1934, September 6, 1941, and other dates; she also uses this word in her narrative of 1965: “My relatives knew the circumstances of T. S. E.’s life, and perhaps regretted that he and I became so close to each other under conditions so abnormal, for I found by now that I had in turn grown very fond of him.”

[14] Letter of November 20, 1931

[15] The Waste Land, line 421; Poems p. 71. Let me also take this opportunity to thank Lyndall Gordon, Anthony Cuda, and John Whittier-Ferguson for our conversations during breaks from the reading room, and Megan Quigley, Timothy Materer, and David Chinitz for their comments on this piece and on my Reports from the Emily Hale Archive.