legendary poet T.S. Eliot testily when he learned that Emily Hale, his longtime epistolary partner, rumored paramour and reputed muse was giving all the letters he had written to her to Princeton University's library in 1956 to be unsealed 50 years after they both died (Eliot in 1965, Hale in 1969).
more than 1,000 letters from Eliot to Hale last week; according to the library, Hale also left photographs, clippings, assorted ephemera and a short note about her relationship with Eliot with her donation. Their correspondence, tantalizing for many literary scholars and fans, was made available for public viewing and is, said
Eliot scholar Francis Dickey, "extremely passionate."
Transparent in its annoyance, Eliot's statement (housed at the Houghton Library at Harvard and left specifically to be made public upon the letters' release) tells the story not of a sensitive poet, the modernist genius of "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock," but of a man who cannot believe that a woman has the temerity to challenge his version of the story of his life, to present to the world material that would expose him (at best) as a spurned lover.
Eliot, who met Hale in 1912 when he was at Harvard and she was attending Smith College, is not alone. A number of significant male poets esteemed and cosseted in literary canon have long claimed a right to sole agency over how their art is perceived by society. That often goes hand in glove with the right to use and misuse the women in their lives on the holy altar of their art. This has made otherwise socially impermissible misogyny tacitly tolerable within the realm of art in general and poetry in particular.
The sins of misogynistic poets past must not be so easily forgiven. The gift of verse should not, as it has for so long, deliver undeserved immunity to the estimation of character and its shortcomings.
In the Eliot-Hale case, Eliot's statement exposes how his estimation of a woman he loved tanks precipitously when he learns she is about to release correspondence he would rather not have released. "You have made me perfectly happy: that is, happier than I have ever been in my life" writes Eliot
in one of the 1,131 letters to Hale. Petulant and sulky in his statement by contrast, he alleges instead
that "he and Emily had very little in common." Had he stayed with her, he tells us, he would have ended up not as the author of "The Waste Land" but as a "mediocre professor of philosophy."
Ironically, it is Eliot's own words that suggest a likely reason why he did not want his private passion to be laid bare to the world. In an essay on Montaigne and Shakespeare published in the Times Literary Supplement in 1925, he notes that letters reveal more than autobiography because they represent an "internal history
" that "may have much or may have little to reveal about external facts; that internal crisis over which our imagination is tempted to brood