TS Eliot was the greatest English poet of the 20th century. American-born in St Louis, Missouri, he died a British citizen in London at the age of 76 on January 4, 1965 – the year after the Beatles invaded America and made their first film, A Hard Day’s Night.
The contrast between the austere Eliot and the exuberant Beatles couldn’t be sharper. One represented high culture, the other pop culture.
Both reflected the spirit of the age.
While the Beatles took the world by storm in the Swinging Sixties, Eliot represented the troubled first half of the 20th century.
Eliot began making his mark as a poet during the First World War, starting with The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock in 1915 and the anthology Prufruck and Other Observations in 1917. After the war came The Waste Land in 1922 and The Hollow Men in 1925.
Subsequently, Eliot made his name as a playwright, too, with Murder in the Cathedral in 1935 and The Family Reunion in 1939.
Initially published separately, Burnt Norton, East Coker, The Dry Salvages and Little Gidding, the series of four poems in Four Quartets, his last major poetical work, were published together as a book for the first time in 1943, during the Second World War.
Three years after the end of the Second World War, Eliot was awarded the Nobel Prize in Literature in 1948.
He followed that up with more plays. The Cocktail Party, The Confidential Clerk and The Elder Statesman were first performed in 1949, 1953 and 1958 respectively.
He got married, too, for a second time.
After almost 20 years as a widower, having lost his first wife, Vivienne, in 1938, Eliot married his second wife, Esme Valerie Fletcher, at the age of 68 in January 1957.
Valerie, who was formerly Eliot’s secretary at Faber and Faber, was 38 years younger than him.
However, he was happy with her, unlike with his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, whom he married in 1915 – the year of publication of The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.
Eliot and Vivienne separated in 1933. She was committed to an asylum by her brother, Maurice, in 1938 and eventually died there in January 1947.
Not that we were much interested in Eliot’s personal life when we were young.
We were mesmerised by his poems.
It is impossible to describe how romantic and evocative The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock was:
Let us go then, you and I,
When the evening is spread out against the sky
Like a patient etherised upon a table;
Let us go, through certain half-deserted streets,
The muttering retreats
Of restless nights in one-night cheap hotels
And sawdust restaurants with oyster-shells:
Streets that follow like a tedious argument
Of insidious intent
To lead you to an overwhelming question …
Oh, do not ask, “What is it?”
Let us go and make our visit.
In the room the women come and go
Talking of Michelangelo.
Between Eliot’s unhappy first marriage and his second, however, there had been other women.
His relationship with Emily Hale became clear when his letters to her became public in 2020.
He was also close to Mary Trevelyan.
An article about Eliot and his women says:
“Where Emily Hale and Vivienne were part of Eliot’s private phantasmagoria, Mary played her part in what was essentially a public friendship. She was Eliot’s escort for nearly 20 years, until his second marriage in 1957.”
This is mentioned on the website where one can read the letters exchanged by Eliot and Emily Hale.
Hale donated the more than 1,000 letters to Princeton University Library in 1956, a year before Eliot married Valerie.
Hale stipulated the letters should remain sealed for 50 years after her or Eliot’s death, whoever lived longer.
Hale died at the age of 77 in Concord, Massachusetts, in October 1969, four years after Eliot’s death at 76 in London.
Eliot was unhappy when Emily donated the letters to Princeton, but earlier he had told her she could do what she wanted with them.
In a letter in 1932, when he was still married to Vivienne, he told Hale:
“As for my letters, they are your property, and their fate must be decided by you.”
Eliot fell in love with Emily Hale while studying philosophy at Harvard in 1912. He declared his love, but she didn’t return his feelings. He went to London and married Vivienne in 1915 — the same year that The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock was published.
Available online are letters Eliot and Hale wrote to each other over more than two decades.
The earliest available is a letter Eliot wrote from London to Hale in Boston in September 1930.
Writing on paper bearing the letterhead of Faber and Faber, the publishing firm where he was a director, he tells Hale:
“It is rather difficult to talk about the ‘poetry’ of D.H. Lawrence…”
He then mentions the poet Roy Campbell (‘’too wordy for my taste; but it is good of its kind, and has a flamboyant vigour which is uncommon) and adds:
“I am afraid that I find the Sitwells hopelessly dull, although they are very nice people.”
Eliot’s last letter to Hale available online dates back to December 1956. In it, he thanks her for the cheese she sent him for Christmas.
In between those casual letters are also moments of passion.
In a letter postmarked December 11, 1935, Eliot writes passionately about kissing Hale:
“But I have kissed your blessed foot, your beautiful foot, I have blossomed in your heart, and I am dazzled and humbled and trying to understand the thought that you love me, which is a kind of Grace, for why should you? I am afraid even by speaking that I may lose one moment that we have had, one word that you have spoken; and I am still struggling to take in properly something that seems so much too great for me. You have touched me, and I am become a new person, so completely yours, that I do not know how to behave as my new self yet, the new self that is more you than me, completely possessed by you; and I cannot arrange words to make sense.”
No wonder Hale was disappointed when Eliot married Valerie in London on January 10, 1957. In a letter to her friend Margaret Thorp from Andover, Massachusetts the very next day, she wrote on January 11, 1957:
You will be astonished to hear from me perhaps before the 13th, but a piece of news has come to me which by this time you and Willard may have read (I have not seen a N.Y. paper) or heard of second -hand, i.e. T.S.E’s marriage yesterday to his secretary of the last seven years — a Miss Fletcher some 30 years his junior; they have left for three weeks on a wedding trip to Southern France; beyond these facts and an impersonal explanation of their each finding how much the other cared for thro’ the medium of an older woman friend — his hesitation to ask a younger woman etc. etc. I know nothing, nor can I say anything, nor think it all through.”
Mary Trevelyan was upset, too, when Eliot married Valerie.
“Eliot’s marriage hurt her profoundly: his secrecy; what she came to see – surely not incorrectly – as his deception,” writes Erica Wagner in Mary and Mr Eliot: A Sort of Love Story.
Mary was hurt that Eliot wrote to her he was getting married only a day before his wedding.
Three days after his wedding, Mary wrote to him on January 13, 1957, conveying her good wishes with a mild reproach: “Perhaps you and I mean different things by friendship.”
Eliot was offended. In his reply to her four days later, on January 17, 1957, he wrote:
“In your previous note you suggested your idea of friendship and mine might differ. I think that you are right on this point, for your letter seems to me not only superfluous but a breach of good manners.”
Eliot rapped Emily Hale
Eliot also disparaged Emily Hale after she donated their letters to the Princeton University Library. She told him the letters would not be made public until 50 years after their death, but he did not take it well.
He claimed she had bad taste and stated he had fallen out of love with her a long time ago.
He wrote this in a letter which he gave to the Houghton Library at Harvard for safekeeping.
He gave instructions that his letter was to be opened when Hale’s collection of letters was made public.
He wrote this letter so people would know he was no longer in love with Emily Hale.
In the letter, he wrote:
“”During the course of my correspondence with Emily Hale, between 1932 and 1947, I liked to think that my letters to her would be preserved and made public after we were dead — fifty years after. I was, however, disagreeably surprised when she informed me that she was handing the letters over to Princeton University during our lifetime — actually in the year 1956. She took this step, it is true before she came to know that I was going to get married. Nevertheless, it seemed to me that her disposing of the letters in that way at that time thew some light upon the kind of interest which she took, or had come to take, in these letters.”
Saying he had ceased to love her a long time ago, he made it clear he thought she liked his reputation more than his poetry.
“Upon the death of Vivienne in the summer 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… From 1947 on, I realised more and more how little Emily Hale and I had in common. I had already observed that she was not a lover of poetry, certainly that she was not much interested in my poetry; I had already been worried by what seemed to me evidence of insensitiveness and bad taste. It may be too harsh to think that what she liked was my reputation rather than my work…
“I might mention at this point that I never at any time had sexual relations with Emily Hale.”
Why Eliot married Vivienne
Earlier in his letter, Eliot mentioned how he came to marry Vivienne:
“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. I think that all I wanted of Vivienne was a flirtation or a mild affair: I was too shy and unpractised to achieve either with anybody. I believe that I came to persuade myself that I was in love with er simply because I wanted to burn my boats and commit myself to staying in England. And she persuaded herself (also under the influence of Pound) that she would save the poet by keeping him in England. To her, the marriage brought no happiness; the last seven years of her life were spent in a mental home. To me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land. And it saved me from marrying Emily Hale.
“Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.”
In his letter he said he was happily married to Valerie. He wrote:
“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. I find it hard to believe that the equal of Valerie ever has been or will be again; I cannot believe that there has ever been a woman with whom I could have felt so completely at one as with Valerie. The world with my beloved wife Valerie has been a good world such as I have never known before. At the age of 68 the world was transformed for me, and I was transformed by Valerie.”
Eliot to Valerie
Eliot wrote the poem, A Dedication to My Wife, after he married Valerie in 1957. The dedication appeared in his play, The Elder Statesman.
Here’s the poem.
A Dedication to My Wife
To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quickens my senses in our waking time
And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleeping time,
the breathing in unison.
Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other
Who think the same thoughts without need of speech,
And babble the same speech without need of meaning.
No peevish winter wind shall chill
No sullen tropic sun shall wither
The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only
But this dedication is for others to read:
These are private words addressed to you in public.
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