TS Eliot’s intimate letters to confidante unveiled after 60 years

Collection of 1,131 letters may shed light on poet’s relationship with Emily Hale

A collection of more than 1,000 letters from the Nobel laureate TS Eliot to his confidante and muse Emily Hale is unveiled this week, after having been kept in sealed boxes at a US university library for 60 years.

The cache promises to offer an intimate insight into the poet’s life and work, and on the extent of his relationship with Hale, a source of speculation for decades.

The 1,131 letters, which date from between 1930 and 1956, were donated by Hale to Princeton University Library more than 60 years ago with her stipulation they remain sealed until 50 years after either Eliot’s death, or her own, whichever occurred last. He died in 1965, and she in 1969.

The two had met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1912, when Eliot attended Harvard. They rekindled their friendship in 1927, by which time Eliot had moved to England. He corresponded frequently with Hale, who was from Boston, and who taught drama at US universities including Scripps College in California.

Eliot ordered Hale’s letters to him to be burned, according to biographers.

Letters between TS Eliot and Emily Hale displayed in Princeton, New Jersey
Letters between TS Eliot and Emily Hale displayed in Princeton, New Jersey. Photograph: Shelley Szwast/AP

“I think it’s perhaps the literary event of the decade,” Anthony Cuda, an Eliot scholar and director of the TS Eliot International Summer School, told the Associated Press. “I don’t know of anything more awaited or significant. It’s momentous to have these letters coming out.”

Their relationship “must have been incredibly important and their correspondence must have been remarkably intimate for him to be so concerned about the publication,” he added.

Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888. His best known works include The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Four Quartets.

His letters to Hale began after the end of his first marriage to the Cambridge governess Vivienne Haigh-Wood. Scholars point to the first poem in the Quartets series, called Burnt Norton and named after a home in England Eliot visited with Hale, as significant because of lines that suggest missed opportunities and what might have been. Eliot married his second wife, Valerie Fletcher, in 1957.

The Eliot scholar Frances Dickey, one of the editors on The Complete Prose of TS Eliot, said the poet was ashamed of his first marriage. The letters could reveal how close he and Hale were, and if they ever considered marriage, she said. Whatever else Hale was, she said, she was a link to the life he had left behind in the US.

The 12 boxes, which include photographs, ephemera and clippings, were unsealed by Princeton University Library staff in October to be scanned for digital viewing at the library from 2 January.

Susan Stewart, a professor of English at Princeton, who was present at the unsealing, said two senior librarians “stood behind a table full of wooden crates wielding dual pairs of tin snips.

“They proceeded in tandem to snap the copper bands holding the crates and the wooden slats clattered to the table.”

She added that what little was known about the correspondence indicated “Eliot wrote to Hale freely about his predilections, his fellow poets, and above all, his opinions as a reader”.

Daniel Linke, the interim head of special collections at the library, said there was minimal, if any reading, during the unsealing. He expected that scholars from around the world would be travelling to Princeton in the first few days.

“It will be the special collections equivalent of a stampede at a rock concert,” he told the Associated Press.


Caroline Davies

The GuardianTramp

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