After more than half a century in storage, private correspondences between T.S. Eliot and his muse — often believed to be his lover — are available to the public eye.
In 1956, the Missouri-born poet’s confidante Emily Hale donated roughly 1,000 letters to Princeton University with one stipulation: They must not be opened until 50 years after whoever died second. Eliot succumbed to emphysema in 1965 at age 76, and Hale died in 1969, which makes 2019 the 50-year anniversary.
Hale’s 14 unsealed boxes of letters, photos, clippings and assorted ephemera were opened at the Princeton University Library in October, where a team cataloged and digitized them, The Associated Press reports. The collection went on view to researchers and Princeton students Thursday, with Eliot-loving scholars from around the world traveling to New Jersey to see them, since they are copyrighted and unavailable online.
“It will be the special collections equivalent of a stampede at a rock concert,” Daniel Linke, who led the digitizing, tells AP.
Scholars have long questioned just how intimate Eliot and Hale’s relationship was. The pair met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1912 and became closer in 1927 when Eliot had moved to England and Hale was teaching at American universities. The lifelong friends exchanged letters for some 25 years, beginning in 1930 after the end of Eliot’s first marriage.
In the letters, Eliot reveals intense feelings for Hale, reports the Guardian. “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,” Eliot wrote in November 1930, according to one snippet.
Hale reciprocated, but the two ultimately did not have a fairy-tale ending, but she is said to be the inspiration for some of his work. Eliot’s best-known works include “The Long Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and the 1939 book “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats,” which inspired Andrew Lloyd Webber’s musical “Cats” and the recent film adaption.
“I think it’s perhaps the literary event of the decade,” Eliot scholar Anthony Cuda tells AP. “I don’t know of anything more awaited or significant. It’s momentous to have these letters coming out.”
The collection, while exciting for fans, likely has Eliot himself turning in his grave: Biographers say he demanded that Hale burn his letters to him. He knew she had donated their correspondence, however, and wrote a statement to be made public at the same time as the letters.
“I fell in love with Emily Hale in 1912,” he wrote in the lengthy letter released Thursday by the T.S. Eliot Foundation. He goes on to explain how the love faded: “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.”
Author: Hannah Frishberg