Hale died in 1969, setting the stage for the release of the letters Thursday. But just as scholars began digging into them, the famed writer of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” and “The Waste Land” had one last surprise — a letter from the grave to defend himself.
“I might mention at this point that I never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale,” Eliot said in a statement written in 1960 and released Thursday by the Houghton Library at Harvard University.
But an Eliot scholar who has spent the past two days reading the letters told The Washington Post that from what she has read so far, that claim is “complicated.”
“They probably didn’t have sex,” said Frances Dickey of the University of Missouri. “But I don’t believe that [their relationship] wasn’t sexual in nature, because he expresses great longing for her, and there’s references to kissing and to her resting her head on his shoulder.”
Eliot’s letters to Hale span from 1930 to 1956, overlapping significantly with Eliot’s first marriage, to Vivienne Haigh-Wood, which lasted from 1915 until her death in 1947. Scholars have long believed Hale to be Eliot’s “muse,” but the extent of their relationship, whether it was platonic friendship or love affair, has never been clear.
There is no doubt now, Dickey said, that these were love letters.
Eliot’s 1960 statement paints a very different picture of what the relationship actually was, Dickey said: “It is petty, and I think it’s beneath him, really. It’s disappointing that he felt at that late stage that he needed to disavow his relationship with Emily Hale.”
“It is painful for me to have to write the following lines,” Eliot begins the 1960 statement.
He explains how he fell in love with Hale in 1912, while he was a graduate student in philosophy at Harvard. Two years later, according to Eliot, he confessed that love to 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,” Eliot writes.
Eliot soon left for Europe and to study at Oxford. There he met Ezra Pound, who read his poem “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.”
“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,” he wrote.
He had been seeing Haigh-Wood at the time, and although “all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or a mild affair,” he said, they ended up married after only three months.
“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,” he writes.
Though the marriage was a “nightmare agony,” he writes, Eliot pushes back most vociferously at the notion that Hale was his muse. Had he married Hale, he would have had a boring, unfulfilling life as a philosophy professor, he claims.
“Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive,” he writes.
Dickey called that “obviously a total misrepresentation of their relationship. And in belittling her, he also undermines himself.”
Eliot began writing letters to Hale in 1930, more than 15 years after they had first met.
In the first two letters, Dickey said, “he basically confesses his love for Emily Hale and tells her that she’s the great love of his life, that he’s been writing for her all of these years, and he even names the places in his poetry where he has paid tribute to her or honored her in some way.”
For example, in his poem “The Waste Land,” he tells her to reread the “hyacinth lines,” a reference to this section of the poem:
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
“They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
Oed’ und leer das Meer.
Poetry critics have long speculated this was a reference to a romantic encounter Eliot had; Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon even wrote that it was probably Hale.
“But at the time that was just speculation, really,” Dickey said. “And she [Gordon] was sitting down the table from me yesterday when we were reading these letters, and I said: ‘Lyndall, you have to read this letter. It just confirms everything you wrote.’ ”
Eliot legally separated from Haigh-Wood in 1933, but he didn’t pursue a divorce, because the Anglican church, to which he had converted, did not condone it. In 1938, Haigh-Wood was committed to an asylum, where she spent the rest of her life.
Then, upon Haigh-Wood’s death in 1947, Eliot experienced a remarkable change of heart when it came to Hale.
“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,” he writes, adding: “So long as Vivienne was alive I was able to deceive myself. … 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.”
Then comes this harsh assessment: “It would have been a still greater mistake to have married Emily than it was to marry Vivienne Haigh-Wood.”
Hale included two statements of her own to go with the letters, which Dickey read Thursday. In them, “I thought she did a better job of seeing the relationship objectively,” Dickey said.
“She states that when Vivienne died, and she expected a proposal of marriage from him and he changed his mind, that she was devastated,” Dickey said. “But she, I think fairly, says, you know, that was his decision, and I couldn’t understand it, but I could respect it.”
According to Eliot’s 1960 statement, the tone of their letters changed after 1947, though they continued to correspond until 1956.
Eliot concludes his statement with a dedication to his new wife. In 1957, the then-68-year-old married his secretary, Valerie Fletcher, who was 30 years his junior and had loved his poetry since she was a teen.
“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,” he writes, concluding, “May we all rest in peace.”
As for Hale’s letters to Eliot, which would provide Hale’s point of view more thoroughly, Eliot writes that they were all “destroyed by a colleague at my request.”
Additionally, Haigh-Wood’s journals were acquired by Eliot’s estate and have not been made public. So her view of the love triangle is also missing; Dickey said she doesn’t know what Haigh-Wood knew of her husband’s feelings for Hale, though the two women did meet.
“I think that in time, that  response won’t matter,” Dickey said. “The letters far exceed our expectations. They’re very significant, they’re very interesting, very detailed, very long and very emotional. It’s quite a thrilling experience to read them for the first time.”