I am beginning to realize the impossibility of what I set out to deliver; there is no such thing as the “gist” of a folder or even a specific letter, because of the complexity of Eliot’s emotions and density of his writing. Every letter is freighted with meanings, sometimes in conflict with each other, which will not surprise anyone who has tried to understand one of his poems. Please keep in mind that I’m only scratching the surface, and also, my selection is inevitably an interpretation, even if I try to keep my description objective.
In the letters of January 1931, Eliot's emotions oscillate between depression and elation. On January 7, Eliot writes of his feelings of humility towards and desire for Hale, his longing for spiritual union with her; this longing has a chastely physical side, too. In Hale’s 1965 narrative, she refers to their relationship as “abnormal,” a word that she must have used in her previous letter to Eliot, because he quotes her in response, assenting almost cheerfully to this description. But just the next day he expresses the desire for solitude, proposing a trip to the United States in the following winter to visit St. Louis and then spend several weeks by himself in New England (he says nothing about Hale joining him).
He continues in this vein on January 9; his desire is qualified by anxiety about what meeting her in person would be like for both of them. Writing letters is one thing; but how would he act if they were alone together? At any rate (he says, perhaps with a sigh of relief), he could hardly manage this even if she came to London, given the pressures on his time and the difficulty of getting away from Vivienne. His only social events are infrequent teas with Virginia Woolf and the occasional evening with Criterion contributors. He worries whether their attachment will be a burden to her. On January 12 he returns to the question of consigning her letters to the Bodleian, explaining that her letters are the only documents that illuminate his life and work; they are in themselves beautiful; and preserving them will show the magnitude of his debt to her.
On January 20, Eliot describes his emotional state with reference to a piece of playground equipment sometimes called a teeter-totter (that’s not the word he uses). However, he says, his growing connection with Hale compensates for and offsets this instability and promises a good future. In this letter he describes her appearance and dwells particularly on the way she wore her hair on one occasion (he likes it drawn back to show her neck); then he describes his own room at Faber and some people who have taken his time there recently such as Alfred A. Knopf. He sympathizes with her difficult work as a teacher and expresses concern about her finances, while making clear, regretfully, that he cannot afford to support her. He concludes with an enigmatic remark, saying (in French) that he knows more about potions than she does. He clarifies his reference to potions by reminding her that she once took him to see Tristan und Isolde—a detail that probably sheds light on his quotations from this opera in The Waste Land directly before and after the “Hyacinth garden” lines.
In the last letter of the month, January 27, Eliot seems to have returned to the high end of his emotional swing, excited to hear from Hale that she admires him. She must have written that she feels inexperienced and reserved, because he reassures her by saying that he is these things too, especially the latter. He compares himself to a mollusk. Other people wear him out, he says, but he would never want to escape her company. He responds to something she has said about her parents (Note: Hale’s father died when she was 27 and her mother was institutionalized for life following a nervous breakdown when Hale was a child.) Eliot writes that he experienced more pain from his father’s death than his mother’s, because his father’s death was unexpected and occurred before he had a chance to prove himself as a writer, whereas he gave his mother happiness by his success. He concludes by rejoicing in their mutual understanding and promising that he thinks of her always.