Unstable Emotions (January 1931)

04 Jan 2020 8:00 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

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.


  • 04 Jan 2020 9:05 PM | Matt Seybold
    I don’t envy this task, Frances, especially at the end of long days in the archive, after which one always feels drained and inadequate. Rest assured, however, that your accounts are not only informative, but lively and charming! Thanks for making this a more communal event!
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    • 04 Jan 2020 9:27 PM | John Whittier-Ferguson
      Yes, what Matt says! it's such a privilege to be able to get glimpses of this rich archive through your eyes, and it's your careful acknowledgement of the complexity of these letters, even as you're giving us extraordinary details and setting up explanatory narratives, that makes your accounts compelling, too.
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      • 05 Jan 2020 11:59 AM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
        Thank you, Matt & John. It's thrilling to write for a live audience (not something I normally do) and I just want to be accurate. It's hard to put Eliot's very eloquent and well-chosen words into different words that are, obviously, less accurate. As I said, I'm trying not to put more interpretation in here than necessary, but for example in the letters described above, it seems clear to me that Eliot's emotional ups and downs are not just the usual jitters of love. Rather, she said something in her letter about their relationship being "abnormal" that threw him into depression. He's having to come to terms with the fact that she's not Beatrice; she's not just the ideal of a woman, but rather a human being with normal desires for intimacy. He gradually talks himself up again, but I think there's an undercurrent of disappointment. In his desire to preserve her letters at the Bodleian, there might be an element of wanting to preserve his original love for her unchanged, just as it was before she became flesh and blood and started writing back to him. But that's just my "read."
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  • 05 Jan 2020 8:29 AM | CR Mittal
    Very engaging. One can only bemoan the loss of Hale’s letters.
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  • 05 Jan 2020 11:26 AM | Sara Fitzgerald
    Thanks for all the great details, Frances. I will have to delve into that folder. One correction: Hale’s father died in 1918, when she was 27. He was pastor of the Unitarian Church in Chestnut Hill. His death led her to take a job as a dorm matron at Simmons College, where she was already leading the Drama Club. Many early biographers of Eliot had portrayed Hale as an orphan, but she wasn’t. I posit that she was sent to live with relatives after her mother’s breakdown following the death of her toddler brother.
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    • 05 Jan 2020 11:38 AM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      Thanks, Sara! That's helpful. I knew as I was putting my note down that I ought to double check the facts.
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      • 05 Jan 2020 1:55 PM | Sara Fitzgerald
        It's hard, Frances, to keep track of facts and 50 years of conjecture! I also just dipped in to the Boston Globe online archive, and the Boston Opera mounted two performances of Tristan and Isolde in its 1913-14 season, the first on November 29, 1913--so that could have been the date he referenced. If Emily "took" him, it's possible that she got tickets through her uncle, who was music critic for one of the Boston papers and wrote program notes for the Boston Symphony. (I imagined a different opera date for them.)
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        • 05 Jan 2020 6:48 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
          Eliot mentions that they attended Tristan together with a group including her parents (meaning her aunt & uncle?), Margaret Farrand, and someone named Durant who married Barbara Layton. That he heard the opera with Emily explains the discrepancy between the early poem "Opera," perhaps based on a performance he saw in college or in Paris that seems to leave him cold, and the emotion-laden references to Tristan in The Waste Land.
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  • 07 Jan 2020 8:38 AM | Will Meunier
    I'm presuming he says 'seesaw' for teeter-totter? Or does he have another term? Seesaw would be the standard British English name.
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