The Secret History of T. S. Eliot’s Muse

From The New Yorker:

In 1949, eight years after James Joyce died, his letters began to travel the world. Thanks to microfilm technology, popularized a few years earlier, the contents of his archive at the University of Buffalo became more accessible to curious readers and meddlesome critics than ever before. T. S. Eliot encountered them thousands of miles away, at the British Museum, in London, where he came face to face with a past self: his own letters to the Irish writer, lit up on a projection screen before him. Such exposure made Eliot uneasy. Later, in a letter sent across the ocean to Emily Hale, a teacher at a boarding school in Massachusetts, Eliot recalled the anxiety he’d experienced that day in the museum: “I thought, how fortunate that I did not know Joyce intimately enough to have made personal revelations or to have expressed adverse opinions, or repeated gossip or scandal, about living people!”

Eliot’s letters to Hale, who for nearly seventeen years was his confidante, his beloved, and his muse, were another matter. They don’t just repeat “gossip and scandal,” they produce it. Scholars have known about this correspondence since Hale donated Eliot’s letters to Princeton, in 1956, but for decades, the trove of documents remained a tantalizing secret—kept sealed, at Eliot’s insistence, until fifty years after both he and Hale had died.

On January 2nd of this year, 1,131 letters from Eliot to Hale were unearthed from the basement of Princeton’s Firestone Library and made available to the public. The line to read them began forming at 8 a.m. The first surprise awaiting scholars was not a letter to Hale but, in essence, one addressed to them: a four-page statement that Eliot had written in 1960, with instructions that it be released on the same day that the Princeton letters were unveiled (or whenever, as he feared, they were leaked).

In the statement, Eliot implies that Hale saved his correspondence in order to exact revenge on him for refusing to marry her. As for his own part in the drama, Eliot suggests that he was simply deluded, “that the letters I had been writing to her were the letters of an hallucinated man.” (He also claims, with a legalistic precision worthy of Bill Clinton, that he “never at any time had any sexual relations with Emily Hale.”) Eliot’s dissociation from his earlier self—from the man who wrote to Hale passionately, almost daily, for nearly two decades—epitomizes the strange swerves between intimacy and detachment that characterize his side of their long and fraught relationship.

The real subject of Eliot’s statement isn’t love but poetry. “Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me,” he insists. By attempting to renege on the undying love he had promised Hale, Eliot also hopes to revoke a more complex vow, one that these letters keep: the promise of a poet to his muse. There is no way to say whether marrying Hale would have destroyed Eliot’s art. What reading his letters makes clear, however, is that the deferral of his desire—the ascetic refusal to make his most enduring love ever truly complete—was what sustained it.

Link to the rest at The New Yorker