T.S. Eliot was one of the most important poets of the 20th century, a giant of modern literature whose haunting verse has fascinated generations of high school students and poetry lovers across the English-speaking world. His collection of whimsical poems “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats” even inspired a certain musical.
But like anyone who has experienced a thwarted love, he was not above lashing out — even publicly.
After learning that Emily Hale, his purported muse, had given Princeton University a trove of hundreds of passionate letters he had written to her from 1930 to 1957, which the school made available to the public on Thursday, Eliot prepared a statement that boiled down to this: I never really liked her that much anyway.
“I was not in love with Emily Hale,” Eliot wrote on Nov. 25, 1960, in a statement that he instructed was to be released “as soon as” his letters to Hale were made public.
“I had already observed that she was not a lover of poetry, certainly that she was not much interested in my poetry,” he wrote. “I had already been worried by what seemed to me evidence of insensitiveness and bad taste.”
As planned, his estate released the statement on Thursday, coinciding with Princeton University Library’s announcement that more than 1,100 letters the poet had written to Hale were finally available for public viewing.
Hale gave the letters to Princeton in 1956 with the instructions that they be opened 50 years after both she and Eliot had died. (Hale died in 1969, four years after Eliot.)
The relationship between the two has long been a source of speculation among literary scholars, who have known for decades of the letters’ existence. The letters were freed in October from wooden boxes bound with copper straps and wires before a small group of Princeton professors at the university’s Firestone Library.
Many scholars expected the letters would contain only literary gossip and Eliot’s musings on writing and poetry.
Eliot had a reserved persona and did not present himself as someone who would bare his soul in love letters, according to Anthony Cuda, an English professor at the University of North Carolina Greensboro and an Eliot scholar who runs a summer school program about the poet.
The dramatic public revelations “did not disappoint,” he said.
Professor Cuda, who has yet to see the letters himself, said fellow scholars who had viewed them had described heartbreaking passages that showed a man “ardently in love.”
“You have made me perfectly happy: that is, happier than I have ever been in my life,” Eliot wrote in one of the letters, according to The Guardian. “I tried to pretend that my love for you was dead, though I could only do so by pretending myself that my heart was dead.”
The letters in the collection, which also includes photographs, ephemera and a brief narrative in which Hale described her relationship with Eliot, are available for viewing only at the Firestone Library and will not be published online until at least 2035, when they are no longer under copyright.
Scholars and Eliot devotees have been left wondering why the poet went to such great lengths to undermine the feelings he expressed in them.
Michael Wood, an emeritus professor of English at Princeton who was present when the letters were unsealed in October, said it appeared Eliot had been trying to claim the entire relationship was some sort of delusion.
“That’s the big surprise: He’s so angry,” Professor Wood said. “I don’t know what he’s trying to do. He’s trying to tell a story that he thinks would correct the story the letters would tell on their own. He seems to have rewritten the whole relationship with Emily.”
Hale, a bright, accomplished woman who taught drama and speech at various schools, including Smith College, met Eliot in 1912, when Eliot was a graduate student of philosophy at Harvard.
In his statement, Eliot said he told Hale he was in love with her in 1914, but she did not appear to reciprocate his feelings at the time.
He then moved to England, where he met and quickly married Vivienne Haigh-Wood, the English daughter of an artist. They were miserable together, Eliot said.
During their marriage, Eliot wrote some of his most celebrated poems, including “Burnt Norton,” which many scholars believe was inspired in part by Hale.
The two kept up their correspondence during Eliot’s marriage to Haigh-Wood, which ended in 1947, when she died in a mental institution.
Hale expected that once free, Eliot would finally propose.
But she wrote a friend later that year that the “mutual affection he and I have had for each other has come to a strange impasse.”
In his statement, Eliot said he realized after his wife’s death that he had only been in love with “the memory” of Hale.
Had he married Hale when he was young, he wrote, he most likely would have become a mediocre philosophy professor.
“Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me,” he wrote. “Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.”
Nonsense, according to Professor Wood.
“My theory is that he couldn’t bear the thought of being happy,” he said. “My theory is he really did love Emily, but he was too scared of developing a relationship.”
Professor Cuda speculated that Eliot might have felt overwhelming guilt about loving Hale while he was married to Haigh-Wood.
“I think that the grief of Vivienne dying and the shame of how he believed he had wronged her made it impossible for him to be intimate with someone at that time,” he said.
The statement Eliot wrote in 1960 seems to have two purposes, Professor Cuda said. Eliot appeared to want to prove he was never as vulnerable as the letters suggested, and also may have been eager to protect the feelings of his second wife, Esmé Valerie Fletcher, whom he married in 1957.
“I cannot believe that there has ever been a woman with whom I could have felt so completely at one as with Valerie,” Eliot wrote in the statement.
It’s likely Eliot feared the letters would be leaked and Fletcher might read them, Professor Cuda said.
“You can imagine his fear of Valerie’s woundedness and her doubts about him were she to discern the intensity of his love for Emily,” he said.
As for Hale, whatever feelings she conveyed to Eliot are lost to history.
In a terse postscript, Eliot wrote, “The letters to me from Emily Hale have been destroyed by a colleague at my request.”