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Modern Romance

The Love Song of T.S. Eliot

For 26 years, Eliot wrote intense, passionate letters to Emily Hale. Should they change the way we read his poetry?

Illustration by Hsiao-Ron Cheng

When he was 25, T.S. Eliot fell in love with a woman named Emily Hale. The two had known each other slightly as teenagers—both came from well-to-do Boston families—but their connection was cemented in 1912, when Eliot was a graduate student at Harvard. During that year, he saw Hale—a tall, pretty actress with wavy brown hair—frequently at the homes of mutual friends. They acted opposite each other in amateur theatricals and attended a performance of Wagner’s Tristan und Isolde together at the Boston Opera House. That night at the opera, Eliot said, was when he first realized he loved her: “I was completely conscious of it, and quite shaken to pieces.”

What happened next is slightly hazy. Hale recalled: Eliot “very much embarrassed me by telling me he loved me deeply; no mention of marriage was made.” Eliot would later claim that he had tried to signal his intentions by saying, “I can’t ask anything, because I have nothing to offer”: meaning that he would like to marry her if he could, but felt unable to propose, given his current financial prospects. This confused Hale, and her lack of response seems to have hurt him. (“I have no reason to believe, from the way in which this declaration was received, that my feelings were returned, in any degree whatever,” he remembered decades later.)

Soon after his ambiguous overture to Hale, Eliot departed for Oxford on a one-year scholarship; by 1914, he would be living permanently in England. Eliot and Hale lost touch. In March 1915, Eliot met an Englishwoman named Vivienne Haigh-Wood, and in June he married her: a remarkably rapid courtship for the ordinarily indecisive Eliot. Their marriage was famously tormented, but it helped inspire some of his most significant poetry, including The Waste Land, the long poem that made his name when it was published in 1922.

The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse
by Lyndall Gordon
W.W. Norton & Company, 512 pp., $35.00

Not long after, Hale traveled to London, and she and Eliot encountered each other for the first time in nearly a decade. Hale was now teaching drama at Milwaukee-Downer College in Wisconsin, the first in a long series of contingent academic positions she would hold over her lifetime. Again Eliot told her that he loved her. Before she returned to the United States, Eliot inscribed a copy of his new collection for her with lines from Dante’s Inferno, in the original Italian, which translate to: “Let me entrust to you my Treasure wherein I still survive; I ask no more of you. Then he turned and left.” A few years after this encounter, Hale would initiate a 26-year-long exchange of emotionally and intellectually charged letters, in which Eliot would pour out his otherwise tightly suppressed emotions.

According to Lyndall Gordon’s new biography, The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliots Hidden Muse, Eliot’s reacquaintance with Hale marked a crucial shift in his poetry. The Waste Land was the product of the miserable but artistically fertile “hatred of life” he shared with Vivienne, she posits. After 1923, however, Eliot’s work becomes less pessimistic and more concerned with the possibility of transcendence and renewal, values embodied in an idealized female figure inspired by Hale. “It came to him that an alternative to marital hell could be heavenly perfection as the measure for all things,” Gordon writes, and argues that, in reaching out to Hale, Eliot was deliberately emulating Dante’s unconsummated love for Beatrice in La Vita Nuova.

This argument isn’t entirely new. Gordon first put forward the thesis that Hale was Eliot’s secret Beatrice in her biography Eliots New Life in 1988, when it was met with some skepticism. But at that time, no one had yet read the hundreds of letters that Eliot wrote to Hale over the course of their relationship. Preserved in an archive at Princeton University, the letters were kept sealed until 50 years after Hale’s death, under the terms of an agreement she and Eliot made in the 1950s. They were finally opened to scholars only in January 2020, two months before the Covid-19 pandemic shut access down again. Now at last, in the year of the centenary of the publication of The Waste Land, Gordon has produced a sequel to Eliots New Life with the benefit of full access to the Hale correspondence. She does her best to present the case that the famously private and hermetic Eliot—who once claimed that poetry “is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality,” and influenced a generation of poets and critics to abjure confession—was really a personal poet all along.

The story of Eliot’s relationship with Hale is largely one of prolonged unconsummated desire. Their reunion in the early ’20s was anguished. “I was dismayed when he confessed, after seeing me again, that his affection for me was stronger than ever,” Hale recalled—especially given the fact that the profession of love now came from a married man. Eliot was filled with regret about his marriage to Vivienne, who had encouraged his writing and helped to shape the manuscript of The Waste Land. But though Vivienne had been good for his poetry, she and Eliot were, notoriously, bad for each other. She suffered from severe mental illness made worse by a raft of questionable medications, and was prone to paranoia and panic attacks. In the early years of their marriage, she was in and out of sanatoriums and attempted suicide several times. Eliot reproached himself for his inadequacy as a husband: “I did try, again and again, to love her as I had promised; but failed utterly,” he wrote, “and no one could thrive on what I had left to give.”

Princeton University’s archive of letters from T.S. Eliot to Emily Hale opened in 2020.

Increasingly, he contrived to avoid Vivienne entirely, burying himself in his work at Faber and Faber, the publishing house where he was employed as an acquiring editor. At the same time, he wrote effusive letters to Hale, in which he explained his marriage to Vivienne as a misguided attempt to embrace the life of an artist. In 1915, marrying an Englishwoman had seemed his only chance to avoid a life of provincial mediocrity: “I did want to write poetry, and I felt obscurely that I should never write in America; and so I suppose I persuaded myself gradually that I did not love you after all.”

But although his relationship with Vivienne was effectively over by the late 1920s, Eliot would not consider divorce. In the same years that Eliot was rekindling his relationship with Hale, he was also becoming more devoutly religious. Though raised Unitarian (like Hale, whose father was in fact a Unitarian minister), he began to crave a more rigorous spiritual practice and officially converted to High Church Anglicanism in 1927. Eliot took his new faith very seriously. In response to Hale’s probing about the possibility of divorcing Vivienne, he reminded her, “I belong to a church which does not recognize divorce in any circumstances or for any reason.” Where once his economic position had prohibited marriage to Hale, now his spiritual position did. (He worried about the damage his divorcing Vivienne might do not only to his own soul but to the institution itself: “If I had a divorce it would be the greatest misfortune to the Anglican Church since Newman went over to Rome.”) As before, this convenient impediment allowed him to profess his love for Hale in the most extravagant terms without worrying about the real-world consequences this might entail. “I should like you to know, once and for all, that there is nothing in this world that I would not give up without hesitation if I had even the slightest hope that you would accept me as your husband,” he wrote to her in 1933. The emphatic “this” says it all: It’s not this world but the next one that Eliot has his eye on.

Another consequence of Eliot’s conversion was his newfound commitment to celibacy. This was both a spiritual discipline and a way of imposing further distance between himself and Vivienne: Gordon speculates that “Eliot was attempting to void the marriage as far as possible, with the backing of the church.” But it naturally bore on Eliot’s relationship with Hale as well: Though they continued to conduct a passionate love affair by letter and, intermittently, in person throughout the 1930s and ’40s, Eliot’s celibacy meant that physical relations between them would remain chaste, albeit erotically charged. When Hale visited London in 1935, she slept in Eliot’s bedroom while he slept at the Faber and Faber offices, an arrangement at once intimate and distanced. The two did not have sex, though they did sleep together: “Once, when she sat on his lap, they fell into a close-wrapped sleep in which he kept part awake to sense their union.” On another occasion, “Emily took off her stockings and he kissed her bared feet.”

Eliot’s steadfast refusal to marry Hale or to consummate their affair sexually was combined with an extreme emotional dependence on her attention. “Whenever Emily’s letters stopped flowing, Eliot became agitated,” Gordon reports. “What I most need, day by day, is the constant reassurance of your love,” he wrote her in the mid-1940s. Indeed, the epistolary nature of their relationship seems to have been of paramount importance to him: What he wanted from her above all were letters. In the winter of 1931, he was preparing to spend eight months in Cambridge, where he would be delivering a series of lectures at Harvard. Hale was living in Boston at the time, and while he warned her that he would decline to see her in person until the very end of his trip, he asked her to keep writing him every day anyway: “What I feel is, frankly, that as I can’t have what I want, which is of course to have you with me day and night always, then all that I want is to pursue and develop the mutual sympathy and understanding and companionship through letters.” (In any event, Hale accepted a job offer at Scripps College in California before Eliot arrived in Boston, voiding this rather peculiar plan.) Eliot was occasionally remorseful about the claims he made on Hale’s emotions: “I see myself as a blood-sucker,” he once wrote. But he couldn’t help it; he was addicted to her affection.

At the same time, Eliot was becoming ever more discouraging about the possibility of marriage. As long as Vivienne was alive, in his view, the situation was hopeless. “I think we should behave as if we should never be united,” he wrote to Hale in the late 1930s. He even tried to sell her on the superiority of this arrangement: “I am sure there is something most precious and invaluable about unsatisfied desires.... Unsatisfied desires can play a most important part in keeping the soul alive and urging one higher—anything is better than just deadening feeling.” Hale doesn’t seem to have been entirely convinced by this line, and kept pushing for more conventional forms of intimacy and companionship. In 1938, he bought her an elkhound named Boerre as a consolation prize.

For Gordon, Eliot’s love for Hale is the sub-rosa theme of virtually everything he wrote. Figures at least partially modeled on Hale appear early and often in Eliot’s work. “Pipit,” the innocent young lady in “A Cooking Egg,” for instance, is a version of Hale, as is the “hyacinth girl” in The Waste Land, “named for a flower a god creates to lament lost love.” The “Lady of silences” addressed in the second section of Ash Wednesday is also Hale, and many details of “Burnt Norton,” the first of the Four Quartets, were taken from visits the two of them made to the English countryside in the 1930s.

In Gordon’s view, Eliot deliberately obfuscated this theme, with the intention of revealing it after his death through the revelation of their correspondence (more on that plan later). Early in The Hyacinth Girl, she asserts that “his famous claim to ‘impersonality’ was designed to protect poetry so personal that it verged on confession,” which is perhaps overstating the case. Robert Crawford’s impressively thorough Eliot After The Waste Land,” another recent biography, also draws on the Hale letters but grants them somewhat less weight, viewing the relationship with Hale as one of many elements that found their way into Eliot’s famously dense and syncretic poems.

Nevertheless, Hale is clearly an important presence in Eliot’s work, much more than previous scholars and biographers (apart from Gordon) have suspected. Eliot frequently told Hale that she had directly inspired his art; at one point, he wrote, “I should make you know how one man’s life and work has been formed about you.” “I shall always write primarily for you,” he wrote in another letter, claiming to have realized Hale, not Vivienne, was his true muse. Elsewhere, he repudiated his marriage and reaffirmed the love he had declared back in 1912: “I am heartily sorry every day & every night of my life for my mistake & fault and for the ruin it has made: but I am not sorry for loving and adoring you, for it has given me the very best that I have had in my life.” Gordon seems to consider these remarks dispositive.

Yet, from another point of view, they can look like further manipulations. Eliot seems to have been highly conscious of how flattering it was to Hale to think that she was the sole inspiration for his poetry, especially as his fame grew. (He worried that “what she liked was my reputation rather than my work.”) He may have been playing up to this notion, as a way of keeping her emotionally invested in what was otherwise a largely frustrating relationship.

At times, Eliot even seems to have taken pleasure in building up Hale’s expectations regarding her presence in his poetry and then dashing them. While he was writing “Burnt Norton,” he showed her only the opening lines, which describes their visit to a rose garden at the titular manor house in the Cotswolds. (“Our being in the rose-garden at Burnt Norton is one of the permanent moments for me,” he wrote her in September 1935.) Eliot told Hale that “Burnt Norton” was a “new kind of love poem, and it is written for you.” But Gordon notes that he was careful to withhold from her the poem’s later, more metaphysical sections, which describe a descent “into the world of perpetual solitude” and posit that “desire” is not “in itself desirable.” Hale only saw the full poem in proof a week before its publication in Eliot’s 1936 Collected Poems.

An even crueler example is The Cocktail Party, a play written in 1948 and first produced in Scotland the following year. Eliot modeled the character of Celia Coplestone, a socialite who has an affair with the play’s unhappily married protagonist, very conspicuously on Hale. The play ends with the news of Celia being brutally killed while doing missionary work in Africa; she is crucified by the tribe she is trying to help, and her body “smear[ed] … with a juice that is attractive to the ants.” Again, as with “Burnt Norton,” Eliot held back the text from Hale until it was just about to be made public. When Eliot eventually sent her the script, Hale responded indignantly: “you never gave me a hint of the nature of the play … oh, Tom, how could you so brutally destroy Celia at the last? That description of her immolation (is that the word?) seems beyond the canon of dramatic laws of restraint.” The polite deference of the parenthetical interjection here (“is that the word?”) is a little heartbreaking. Eliot ultimately cut the line about the ants, not because of Hale’s objection but due to the appalled reaction of audiences at the Edinburgh Festival, where the play premiered.

Celia’s grisly death was not the only aspect of The Cocktail Party that could have caused suffering to Hale. Gordon’s economical summary of Eliot’s play runs as follows: “When the wife vanishes in The Cocktail Party, her husband, who has been enjoying an affair with a desirable woman … discovers that he does not want another marriage. What he wants is not to be disturbed, to go on as before. In fact, he wants his wife back.” This scenario was a none-too-subtle allegory for Eliot’s own emotional situation. Vivienne was committed to a mental institution, with Eliot’s sanction, in 1938, and died unexpectedly in 1947 at the age of 58. Thus Eliot was confronted with, in Gordon’s words, “a problem he never intended to solve: marriage to Emily Hale.” He had long used Vivienne as the insurmountable obstacle to any possibility of matrimony. Now the obstacle had been suddenly removed, and Hale could be forgiven for expecting things to change between her and Eliot as a result.

This is not what happened. Instead, Eliot pulled away from Hale. He wrote to her, “I recoiled violently from the prospect of marriage, when I came to realise it as possible.” They continued to correspond, though less frequently and amorously as the years went by. In a letter addressed to his executors in 1960, after he and Hale had decisively split, Eliot was even more cold-blooded about his change of heart:

Upon the death of Vivienne in the winter of 1947, 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.… So long as Vivienne was alive I was able to deceive myself. To face the truth fully, about my feelings towards Emily Hale, after Vivienne’s death, was a shock from which I recovered only slowly. 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.

The coup de grâce was an unexpected reversal of the many declarations he had made about her importance to his art: “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.”

A further insult came in 1957 with Eliot’s unexpected marriage to Valerie Fletcher, his 30-year-old secretary. Hale had reasonably assumed that Eliot’s recoil from the idea of marriage applied to all women, not just her, so she must have been caught off guard by this development. After Vivienne’s death, he had written that he “was wholly unfitted for married life.” Now, after decades of being strung along, she was confronted with the spectacle of Eliot enjoying what was apparently a blissfully happy marriage. He even transferred the iconography he had previously attached to Hale on to his new bride; in his late poem, “A Dedication to My Wife,” he went out of his way to mention the “roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only.”

Initially, Hale seems to have responded to Eliot’s marriage with equanimity. In a letter to a friend, she summed up the situation by saying that “a great writer has behaved like a very usual human being: in his older years found a very young and attractive woman to take care of him, putting aside all else.” But a few months later, she had a nervous breakdown. And she began to take steps to ensure that her place in Eliot’s life and work would not be forgotten.

The story of the archiving of Eliot’s letters to Hale is a saga in itself. Surprisingly, given the course of later events, it was Eliot, not Hale, who first suggested the idea of preserving their correspondence for posterity. He wrote to Hale that her letters were “‘the only documents in my possession which cast any light on my life and work.’ The future must know ‘how very great it is, will be and always was, my debt to you.’” He proposed that her letters (not his) be deposited at the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, for the benefit of future scholars. At first, Hale objected to this plan, preferring to keep their private letters private, but Eliot pressed her: “is it not natural, when one has had to live in a mask all one’s life, to be able to hope that some day people can know the truth, if they want it,” he asked.

Things got more complicated in 1942, when Hale was approached by her friends Margaret and Willard Thorp about donating Eliot’s side of the correspondence to Prince­ton, where Willard was a professor of English. “I do confess some hesitation about the Thorps,” Eliot wrote to Hale about the proposal. “I fear the ruling passion of the academic mind, especially when seated in a chair of English literature—the craving to publicise.” Nonetheless, he eventually agreed to this arrangement, with the stipulation that the letters would remain sealed until 50 years after his death. A bout of wrangling over the length of the embargo followed: The Thorps wanted it shortened to 10 years, which incensed Eliot. “I seem to have heard of dying travelers in a desert, with the vultures starting to dismember them before the end,” he wrote to Hale in 1956, shortly before he married Valerie. “I feel somewhat like that.”

Ultimately the letters were donated to Princeton and the embargo set, at Eliot’s behest, for 50 years after the death of the last surviving correspondent. Eliot appears to have destroyed Hale’s letters to him: Of the hundreds she wrote, only 25 survive. It’s difficult to understand Eliot’s actions as anything other than spiteful, given that he had explicitly wanted to preserve Hale’s letters to him, rather than his own, back in the 1930s. Gordon sees it as a belated attempt to strike Hale from the narrative of his life and install Valerie in her place: “the turn to Valerie was a turn from Emily.”

It also helped reduce her to what he called her in his vituperative 1960 account of their relationship (which Eliot’s estate publicized, according to his wishes, upon the unsealing of the Hale correspondence in 2020): a ghost. As a result of Eliot’s destruction of Hale’s letters, we have much less of a sense of her as a person than we otherwise might. Gordon and Crawford do their best to reconstruct the details of Hale’s life: her passion for the theater, her anxieties about money and frustration with her precarious employment, her flexible but still fervent Unitarian faith. Sadly, though, we come away from these books with much more of a sense of the personae that Eliot crafted for Hale than we do of Hale herself. Gordon’s comment on the letters is apt: “The effect is of a correspondent as a work of art: a Pygmalion of sorts chiselling a statue of a woman with whom he falls in love.” Eliot was smart enough to be self-aware about what he was doing, but he went on doing it anyway. His periodic promises that he loves her as a person and not a symbol—“I don’t want you to ‘stand for’ anything but yourself”—seem, in context, like protesting too much.

In one of her last letters to Eliot, in 1963, Hale wrote: “I think you will be aware that for me to consider my life as important because of its relationship to you—a noted world figure—is very difficult.” Yet he ultimately left her with no other option, save disappearing entirely. Hale had been uncomfortable with the idea of preserving her private correspondence with Eliot to begin with, but toward the end of her life she became convinced of its historical value, and even regretted that she would not be alive when the letters would “burst upon the world.” “I bequeath this collection to a public perhaps yet unborn,” she wrote in a brief statement composed in 1957 as an introduction to the Princeton archive. “May the record speak.”

The record has spoken now, but what it tells us is perhaps more equivocal than Gordon wants to admit. There’s now no question that Hale was a crucial figure in Eliot’s life, and the work that Gordon and other scholars have done to reassert her importance to literary history is invaluable. But to enshrine her as a “hidden muse” perhaps grants too much power to that ultimately regressive concept—which, after all, is part of how Eliot kept Hale on the hook for all those years. If at times Eliot felt that he needed a muse, a Beatrice to inspire him and (just as importantly) to appreciate his poetry, at other times he seems to have needed only companionship, on his own perverse terms, and he leveraged his increasing fame in order to secure it.

Though he did sometimes address Hale as if she were his muse, Eliot’s own model of poetic creation, as detailed outside of his love letters, was far less sentimental. What was distinctive about poetry, for Eliot, is precisely that it doesn’t emanate from a single source, that it can never be traced back to one origin. “When a poet’s mind is perfectly equipped for its work, it is constantly amalgamating disparate experience,” he wrote in an essay on “The Metaphysical Poets” in 1921. “The ordinary man’s experience is chaotic, irregular, fragmentary. The latter falls in love, or reads Spinoza, and these two experiences have nothing to do with each other, or with the noise of the typewriter or the smell of cooking; in the mind of the poet these experiences are always forming new wholes.” If it is important (and not simply interesting) to know that Eliot fell in love, and then out of it, with Hale, it’s not, pace Gordon, because it explains everything about his poetry, nor because he intended his impersonality to one day give way to a grand confession. It is because Eliot’s mind, equipped for its work, amalgamated this experience among many others. Being in love was grist for the mill, as were world war and Anglo-Catholicism: All were instrumental in producing the poetry Eliot was ultimately able to write.

And poetry, too, was instrumental; it helped him hold on to Hale when he needed her (and dispense with her when he didn’t). Perhaps that’s the ultimate lesson of the Eliot-Hale affair: Artists, like lovers, will use whatever they can get their hands on in order to get what they want.