T S Eliot letters to 'muse' to be unveiled after 60 years

T S Eliot letters to 'muse' to be unveiled after 60 years

After more than 60 years in storage, around 1,000 letters written by T S Eliot to confidante Emily Hale will be unveiled today (Thursday 2nd January).

Scholars said the documents will reveal the extent of a relationship that has been speculated about for decades and will offer insight into the more intimate details about Eliot’s life and work, according to Associated Press.

Lifelong friends, Hale and Eliot exchanged letters for about 25 years beginning in 1930. The two met in 1912 in Cambridge, Massachusetts, but did not rekindle their friendship until 1927. Eliot was already living in England and Hale taught drama at US universities. In 1956, Hale donated the letters under an agreement they wouldn’t be opened until 50 years after either her or Eliot’s death, whichever came second. Eliot died in 1965. Hale died four years later. Biographers say Eliot ordered Hale’s letters to him to be burned.

Students, researchers and scholars can read the letters at Princeton University Library in New Jersey from today. 

The correspondence will also form the basis of a forthcoming book Eliot Among the Women (Virago) by Eliot biographer Lyndall Gordon, due in 2022 to coincide with the centenary of The Waste Land (Faber). While the letters will form the central theme of the book, the title will also explore his relationships with other women close to him—extending also to his first wife, Vivienne Haigh Wood, companion Mary Trevelyan, and second wife Valerie Fletcher, as well as his mother, and first publisher Virginia Woolf.

"I think it’s perhaps the literary event of the decade," Eliot scholar Anthony Cuda told AP. "I don’t know of anything more awaited or significant. It’s momentous to have these letters coming out."

Their relationship "must have been incredibly important and their correspondence must have been remarkably intimate for him to be so concerned about the publication", Cuda said.

Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888. He was only 26 when ‘The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock’ became his first professionally published poem.

His 1939 book of poetry, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats (Faber), was adapted into “Cats", the award-winning musical by Andrew Lloyd Webber. The play opened in London first in 1981 and then on Broadway the next year. This month, a feature film adaptation starring a cast that includes Judi Dench and James Corden was released.

The first poem in the ‘Quartets’ series, called ‘Burnt Norton’, piques the interest of enthusiasts of the poet, according to Eliot scholar Frances Dickey, because of lines that suggest missed opportunities and what might have been with his muse. The poem is named after a home in England that Eliot visited with Hale in 1934.

Dickey said the letters could reveal details about Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism as well as if he and Hale ever considered marriage. She added: "His relationship with her seems to be deep and meaningful and it’s a door he chose not to open." 

The unsealed boxes, which also contain photographs, clippings and other ephemera, were opened at the library’s special collections area called Firestone Library in October for cataloguing and digitising. Daniel Linke, interim head of special collections at the library, was part of the team working on the boxes of letters.