Love songs of TS Eliot: Emily 'would have killed the poet in me'

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An extraordinary statement by the poet TS Eliot about his long-running relationship with an American woman that continued during his first marriage has been published almost 60 years after it was written. In it he says he fell love with Emily Hale in 1912, and kept in contact with her during his unhappy marriage to his first wife Vivienne, but later came to realise that Emily “would have killed the poet in me”. The statement includes these words: “I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.”

The publication of the statement and a covering letter to his executors – by the TS Eliot Foundation on Twitter - followed the release of letters written by Eliot to Hale, that were presented by Emily Hale to Princeton University in the US, and were made available to the public for the first time on Thursday. Eliot, known as a shy and reserved man, describes himself in his statement as “very immature for my age, very timid, very inexperienced”.

Thomas Stearns Eliot was born in 1888 and died in 1965. The poet, essayist, publisher, playwright, and literary and social critic was born in St Louis, Missouri, and moved to England in 1914 at the age of 25, where he worked, married and settled. He is considered one of the last century's major poets, and attracted the attention of fellow poet Ezra pound with his poem ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ (1915). It was followed by some of the best-known poems in the English language, including The Waste Land’ (1922), and Four Quartets (1943). He wrote seven plays, including Murder in the Cathedral and The Cocktail Party, and was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948 "for his outstanding, pioneer contribution to present-day poetry".

His statement released on Thursday begins: “Miss Emily Hale, of Massachusetts, has presented to the Library of Princeton University the letters which I wrote to her between 1932 and 1947 – possibly a few of them a little earlier; any written after the death of my first wife are so different in sentiment that she may not have included them. It has come to my ears that she has added, or is preparing to add, some sort of commentary of her own. It therefore seems to me necessary to place on record my own picture of the background of this correspondence, and my present attitude towards it. I wish the statement by myself to be made public as soon as the letters to Miss Hale are made public.”

Eliot goes on to say: “It is painful for me to have to write the following lines. I cannot conceive of writing my autobiography. It seems to me that those who can do so are those who have led purely public and exterior lives, or those who can successfully conceal from themselves what they prefer not to know about themselves – there may be a few persons who can write about themselves because they are truly blameless and innocent. In my experience, there is much for which one cannot find words even in the confessional; much which springs from weakness, irresolution and timidity, from petty self-centredness rather than from inclination towards evil or cruelty, from error rather than ill-nature. I shall be as brief as I can.


'I was disagreeably surprised'

“During the course of my correspondence with Emily Hale, between 1932 and 1947, I liked to think that my letters to her would be preserved and made public after we were dead – fifty years after. I was however, disagreeably surprised when she informed me that she was handing the letters over to Princeton University during our lifetime – actually in the year 1956. She took this step, it is true, before she knew that I was going to get married.”

Eliot says in his statement: “I fell in love with Emily Hale in 1912, when I was in the Harvard Graduate School. Before I left for Germany and England in 1914 I told her that I was in love with her. I have no reason to believe, from the way in which this declaration was received, that my feelings were returned, in any degree whatever. We exchanged a few letters, on a purely friendly basis, while I was up at Oxford during 1914-15.

“To explain my sudden marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood would require a good many words, and yet the explanation would probably remain unintelligible. I was still, as I came to believe a year later, in love with Miss Hale. I cannot however make even that assertion with any confidence: it may have been merely my reaction against my misery with Vivienne and desire to revert to an earlier situation. I was very immature for my age, very timid, very inexperienced.”

Eliot says in his statement that he had had a “gnawing doubt, which I could not altogether conceal from myself, about my choice of a profession – that of a university teacher of philosophy. I had had three years in the Harvard Graduate School, at my father’s expense, preparing to take my Doctorate in Philosophy: after which I should have found a post somewhere in a college or university. Yet my heart was not in this study, nor had I any confidence in my ability to distinguish myself in this profession. I must still have yearned to write poetry.

“For three years I had written only one fragment, which was bad (it is, alas, preserved at Harvard). Then in 1914 Conrad Aiken showed Prufrock [‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’] to Ezra Pound. My meeting with Pound changed my life. He was enthusiastic about my poems, and gave me such praise and encouragement as I had long since ceased to hope for. I was happier in England, even in wartime, than I had been in America: Pound urged me to stay in England and encouraged me to write verse again.”

Speaking of his unhappy marriage to Vivienne, Eliot said: “I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or a mild affair: I was too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody. I believe that I came to persuade myself that I was in love with her simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness: the last seven years of her life were spent in a mental home. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land. And it saved me from marrying Emily Hale.

“Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive. 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.

“For years I was a divided man (just as, in a different way, I had been a divided man in the years 1911-1915). In 1932 I was appointed Charles Eliot Norton Professor of Poetry at Harvard for one year; and even Vivienne’s mother agreed that it was out of the question for Vivienne to go to America with me. I saw Emily Hale in California (where she was teaching in a girls’ college) early in 1933, and I saw her from time to time every summer, I think from 1934 on, as she always joined her aunt and uncle who took a house every summer at Chipping Campden.


'I suddenly realised that I was not in love with Emily Hale'

“Upon the death of Vivienne in the winter of 1947, I suddenly realised that I was not in love with Emily Hale. 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. Had I met any woman I could have fallen in love with, during the years when Vivienne and I were together, this would no doubt have become evident to me. From 1947 on, I realised 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. It may be too harsh, to think that what she liked was my reputation rather than my work ... I could never make her understand that it was improper for her, a Unitarian, to communicate in an Anglican church: the fact that it shocked me that she should do so made no impression upon her. I cannot help thinking that if she had truly loved me she would have respected my feelings if not my theology. She adopted a similar attitude with regard to the Christian and Catholic view of divorce.

“I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.

“So long as Vivienne was alive I was able to deceive myself. To face the truth fully, about my feelings towards Emily Hale, after Vivienne’s death, was a shock from which I recovered only slowly. But 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 an hallucinated man, a man vainly trying to pretend to himself that he was the same man that he had been in 1914.

“It would have been a still greater mistake to have married Emily than it was to marry Vivienne Haigh-Wood … It is only within the last few years that I have known what it was to love a woman who truly, selflessly and whole-heartedly loves me. I find it hard to believe that the equal of Valerie ever has been or will be again; I cannot believe that there has ever been a woman with whom I could have felt so completely at one as with Valerie. The world with my beloved wife Valerie has been a good world such as I have never known before. At the age of 68 the world was transformed for me, and I was transformed by Valerie.”

His statement ends: “May we all rest in peace. TS Eliot.”

But what of the letters themselves? According to the Guardian, Hale has long been understood to be the inspiration for some of Eliot’s verse, including lines from Burnt Norton, the first poem of his Four Quartets. The Eliot scholar Tony Cuda, of the University of North Carolina, who is also the director of the TS Eliot international summer school in London, told the newspaper that the release of the letters was “the missing piece of his career and certainly the most significant revelation about a major poet of the 20th century that we’ve had”.

In one letter, written after Eliot and Hale met up at a tea party in London in late 1930, the unhappily married poet wrote: “If you knew what pages and pages of tenderness I am not writing now [underscored] I think you would trust me. I have no really intimate friends, though vast acquaintances.  For the first and last time, praying that I have given no offense. For I see nothing in this confusion to be ashamed of – my love is as pure ... as any love can be.”

He concluded: “If this is a love letter it is the last I shall ever write in my life. And I will sign it.”

Later that year Eliot wrote he had been in a “state of torment” for a month. “You have made me perfectly happy: that is, happier than I have ever been in my life; the only kind of happiness now possible for the rest of my life is now with me; and though it is the kind of happiness which is identical with my deepest loss and sorrow, it is a kind of supernatural ecstasy.”

He continued: “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; at any rate, I resigned myself to celibate old age.” Describing himself to be in a “kind of emotional fever”, by December he confessed that “the pain is more acute, but it is a pain which in the circumstances I would not be without”. The letters were made public for visitors to the Firestone library at Princeton University in New Jersey on Thursday, having been broken out of wooden crates the day before.

Towards the end of her life, in 1969, Hale offered a three-page account of the relationship to the librarian at Princeton – the “commentary” that Eliot was so concerned about that he left his own side of the story, which was also revealed on Thursday. Hale said that Eliot had told her to her “great surprise” in 1922 “how very much he cared for me; at the time I could return no such feeling”. She acknowledged she knew his marriage to be “a very unhappy affair”. But she resisted the entreaties of “this gifted, emotional, groping personality”, writing that she was “dismayed when he confessed after seeing me again that his affection for me was stronger than ever”.

The friendship continued to 1935. “We saw each other and knew about each other’s lives – though I had no feeling except of difficult and loyal friendship.” However, Eliot’s commitment to his “mentally ill wife” restricted any further development until his spouse was institutionalised.

Then, from 1935 to 1939, Elliot and Hale began spending summers together in Chipping Campden, Gloucestershire. She continued in her account: “He and I became so close to each other under conditions so abnormal, for I found by now I had in turn grown very fond of him. We were congenial in so many of our interests, our reactions, and emotional response to each others’ needs – the happiness, the quiet deep bonds between us and our lives, very rich ... And the more because we kept the relationship on an honourable, to be respected, plane.”

Hale wrote that “only a few – a very few – of his friends and family, and my circles of friends, knew of our care for each other; and marriage, if and when his wife died – couldn’t help but become a desired right of fulfillment”. But Hale wrote that instead of that “anticipated life together which could now rightfully be ours – something too personal ... emotional for me to understand decided TSE against marrying me”. This, she said, “was both a shock and a sorrow. Perhaps I could not have been the companion in marriage he hoped ... Perhaps the vision saved both of us from great unhappiness – I cannot ever know.” She concluded: “The question of his changed attitude was discussed but nothing was gained from further conversation.”

TS Eliot was a director at publishers Faber & Faber, and famously wrote to George Orwell in 1944 rejecting Animal Farm.

The TS Eliot Prize for Poetry was inaugurated in 1993 to celebrate the Poetry Book Society’s 40th birthday and honour its founding poet. To mark the 25th anniversary of the prize, the TS Eliot Estate increased the value of the prize. The winner now receives £25,000. In 2016 the prize was taken over by the TS Eliot Foundation, which now runs and supports it. The annual TS Eliot Prize readings, in which the shortlisted poets appear at the Royal Festival Hall a day before the prize is awarded, will take place this year on Sunday 12 January.

In recent years the prize readings have been compered by the irrepressible ‘Bard of Barnsley’ and presenter of Radio 3’s The Verb Ian McMillan – who may have something to say about the latest revelations concerning TS Eliot’s private life.


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Greg Freeman

Sun 5th Jan 2020 13:58

Here's the link to Eliot's rejection letter to Orwell, Dom

I take it from your observation on Ian McMillan that you got to end of this, admittedly, long read. Well done! I found it all fascinating.

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Dominic James

Sun 5th Jan 2020 10:14

No easy life for Eliot, frozen in isolation, it seems to me, too difficult for him to establish the easy, lazy contacts of human relations, but how the poetry soars.

I was touched to hear Heaney's report of Eliot's acceptance of his first work at Faber - it was like an affirmation from God, God the Father. & he rejected Animal Farm? I wonder what he wrote on the rejection slip, I get the impression he dealt gently with his poets, but Orwell was hardly that.

coincidentally dipping into Eliot's Four Quartets last night I did have to go back here and there with a - how did he do that? And the irrepressible Bard of Barnsley comperes the TS Eliot Prizes? Gee. Maybe I should give him another look.

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John Marks

Fri 3rd Jan 2020 11:48

An interesting account of the intimate and contradictory relationship between biography and poetry. Thanks for publishing on WOL.

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