TS Eliot’s hidden love letters reveal intense, heartbreaking affair

‘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 poet wrote to Emily Hale

TS Eliot’s love letters to scholar Emily Hale, the great poet’s muse and source of “supernatural ecstasy” for more than 30 years, were released on Thursday amid fevered speculation and under tight security at an elegant library on the campus of the Ivy League’s Princeton University.

The Nobel laureate’s correspondence to Hale, whom he met when both were studying at Harvard University in 1912, has long been the fascination of Eliot scholars but remained hidden, on both the poet and Hale’s wishes, for 50 years after Hale’s death in 1969.

The letters reveal that his feelings for her were intense and later were reciprocated by the younger Hale – but despite this, their love was ultimately and heartbreakingly thwarted.

Hale has long been understood to be the inspiration for some of Eliot’s most breathtaking verse, including the first lines from Burnt Norton, the first poem of his Four Quartets.

Emily Hale and TS Eliot in 1946.
Emily Hale and TS Eliot in 1946. Photograph: AP

“What might have been is an abstraction

Remaining a perpetual possibility

Only in a world of speculation.

What might have been and what has been

Point to one end, which is always present.

Footfalls echo in the memory

Down the passage which we did not take

Towards the door we never opened

Into the rose-garden. My words echo

Thus, in your mind.”

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 Guardian the release of the letters tells the hidden love story of Eliot’s life – and of literary modernism.

“It is the missing piece of his career and certainly the most significant revelation about a major poet of the 20th century that we’ve had,” he said.

In the newly released letters, written after Eliot and Hale met up at a tea party in London in late 1930, the unhappily married poet wrote on 3 October of that year:

“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,” Eliot wrote, in his own hand, imploring Hale to accept his ardour.

“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.”

Hale, whose replies no longer exist, accepted Eliot’s entreaties. So began a passionate correspondence with his paramour, who by now was based in Boston, while he was in England.

By November of that year, Eliot – now typing – 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 spectacular Firestone library at Princeton University in New Jersey on Thursday, having been broken out of wooden crates the day before.

For Hale, their circumstances were more complex. Toward the end of her life, in 1969, she offered a three-page account of the relationship to the librarian at Princeton.

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”.

Hale 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 institutionalized.

Then, from 1935 to 1939, Elliot and Hale began spending summers together in 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”.

However, their relationship was doomed. Eliot’s first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, died in 1947, but instead of devoting himself to Hale, Eliot went on to marry someone else, his second wife, Valerie, for reasons that remain unclear despite the unveiling of the letters.

In a letter dated 1960, which Eliot wrote as a statement to Princeton in anticipation of his letters to Hale eventually being made public, he briefly explained the end of his decision not to request her hand in marriage.

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

He continued: “I wish the statement by myself to be made public as soon as the letters to Miss Hale are made public … 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.”

For herself, 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, Hale continued, “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.”

Hale concluded: “The question of his changed attitude was discussed but nothing was gained from further conversation.”

* This article was amended on 2 January 2020 to remove an inaccurate reference to Eliot’s ‘commitment to Catholicism’.


Edward Helmore in Princeton, New Jersey

The GuardianTramp

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