To many who knew him, TS Eliot was seen as aloof and intellectually distant, as perhaps befits the author of the dark and disturbing epic land of waste. His contemporary, the poet Siegfried Sassoon, went so far as to qualify him as a “cold humanity”.
But unpublished letters show that the great modernist writer was actually an intensely emotional and passionate man.
The letters were addressed to Emily Hale, with whom the Nobel Prize-winning poet and playwright had been in love for decades, despite being married in Britain and living in America.
In one, he writes: “When I go to bed, I will imagine you kissing me; and when you take off your stocking, you must imagine me kissing your dear dear feet and striving to approach your beautiful holy soul.
In others, he told her that “you still have all my love and devotion,” that he longed to stroke her “radiantly handsome” forehead, and that he would be “extremely jealous” of any other man who ” cared about you as I did”. ”.
Eliot wrote more than 1,100 letters to Hale between 1930 and 1957. Many date from the years he was in an unhappy marriage to his first wife, Vivien Haigh-Wood, which he described to a friend as “a hideous joke”. .
Hale donated the correspondence to Princeton University in the 1950s with the agreement that it would remain sealed for up to 50 years after his death or that of Eliot, whoever survived the other. Eliot died in 1965 and Hale in 1969.
Upon learning of his gift in college, Eliot prepared an official denial, in a statement that was to be released as soon as the letters were made public. He wrote: “I was not in love with Emily Hale.”
Robert Crawford will feature many letters in Eliot after the vacant lotthe second volume of his biography of one of the most important poets of the 20th century, to be published this week. It reveals the public and personal experiences that inspired some of Eliot’s masterpieces, including land of waste and four quartets.
Crawford told the Observer that these letters were “locked up in Princeton until 2020, so no one could read them”, and that he is the first biographer to be given permission to reproduce passages before their scheduled publication online.
He believes that through these letters, Eliot revealed what he saw as his true self: “He sees himself as an emotional person. He is very aware that people see him as a rather cold intellectual.
“That’s how people often looked at TS Eliot – and still do. People who may not understand his poetry feel like there is a crossword aspect to it.
“But if you read it out loud, you realize there’s a huge emotional disturbance underneath a lot of Eliot’s poetry. Sometimes people wonder where it came from. I think it came from this feeling of nostalgia, linked to his feelings for Emily Hale.
Without hope of divorce, Eliot remained married because of his religious faith, but his letters reflect a physical desire. He told Hale, “I hate, and always will hate, every occupation and commitment – except writing verse – that turns me away from you; yet you are always with me when I wake up and when I go to bed, and I stretch out my arms where you should be.
Hale was a speech and drama teacher who met Eliot in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1912, when Eliot was attending Harvard University. She was a friend of her cousin’s.
Crawford said Eliot had declared his love to her in 1914 and thought she did not reciprocate. He moved to England that year, married Vivien in 1915, soon realizing his mistake.
Although he didn’t follow through on his desire for Hale, he dreamed that his relationship with her would one day be known, telling her, “There will be so many things that will exist to give a very false impression of me, and so few clues to the truth. Can I let you know how I feel, I wonder. I admit that it is selfish and perhaps selfish; but isn’t it natural, when you’ve had to live in a mask all your life, to be able to hope that one day people will be able to know the truth… I reviewed and reviewed the impression I made, and I wanted to be able to shout ‘no you’ve got it all wrong about me, it’s not like that at all’.
Crawford said: “He comes across as a much more emotional and passionate person than people give him credit for. The letters to Emily give us remarkable insight into Eliot.
Vivien suffered from mental illness and was committed to an asylum in 1938. After her death in 1947, Eliot did not pursue Hale, marrying Valerie Fletcher a decade later. In his 1960 statement, he recalled that he realized then that he had only been in love with Hale’s “memory”.