“That is not what I meant at all”: Why Eliot wanted his letters preserved

10 Jan 2020 3:44 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Bringing my discussion of Box 1 to a close, and taking stock of an unbelievable seven days of letter-reading, I wanted to look ahead to Eliot’s statements about his intentions for his and Hale's letters. From the beginning, it seems, Eliot imagined a correspondence that would enshrine their love in a literary monument consisting of their letters together. Already in December 1930—barely two months into their correspondence—Eliot broached his plans to repose her letters with his other papers at the Bodleian Library. Skipping ahead to spring 1932, Eliot returns to this matter in several letters whose importance seems to justify violating the chronological order of my reports. 

On 19 February, he explains why he desires to preserve her letters with his other papers, to be opened sixty years following his death: without her words, the truth about him cannot be told. Concealed behind a mask, he has watched people draw the wrong conclusions about his poetry, wishing that he could set them straight. The truth is far simpler than they believed; he would like to say something along the lines of “That is not what I meant at all/That is not it, at all.” On 15 March, he asks her what reason she could have for withholding her letters from the archive he intends. What difference will propriety make a century hence when all personally concerned have passed away? His motive for wishing to preserve her letters is not the desire for fame, but for posthumous understanding. He believes that her letters will unlock the meaning of his poems for future readers. 

So far, he has not said anything about the preservation of his letters, but on 6 July, after telling her that his letters are her property to dispose of as she sees fit, he admits to hoping that she will save them. He assents to her suggestion of going through Willard Thorp, Princeton University English professor and husband of her close friend Margaret, to safekeep the letters for posterity (it seems she has suggested Thorp). On July 29 he repeats that the letters belong to her, and she may entrust them to whomever she chooses, either Thorp or to the Bodleian, only with the stipulation that they should be opened fifty or sixty years after his death.

Further boxes may reveal whether or how Eliot changed his mind, but it is remarkable that he regarded their letters as the only key to his poetry.


  • 11 Jan 2020 3:51 PM | Timothy Materer
    "with this key
    [Eliot] unlocked his heart"
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  • 13 Jan 2020 8:28 AM | Jennie Hann
    This is a great point. For more than a decade, Eliot is staunch in expressing the conviction that, whatever his own desires, the letters he writes to Hale effectively become hers upon receipt — and hence the responsibility for their fate ultimately resides with her.

    Looking ahead a little further, on 13 October 1942, Eliot returns to the subject, evidently in reply to a question from Hale, to reiterate what he had told her ten years earlier, to wit: that the letters are hers to deal with as she deems best. He adds that he intends to place the papers in his possession, presumably including her letters, at Eliot House (Harvard) and Magdalene College (Cambridge), but he does not urge Hale to do the same. Instead, he states firmly that he would not want her to feel compelled to save any items she might prefer not be part of the historical record. This is clearly a shift from 1932. The Bodleian plan has been modified as well; what has not changed, however, is Eliot’s insistence that Hale must be the one to decide what happens to the papers she's collected.

    He upholds this idea even while expressing, in a very humorous passage, mild concern that Willard Thorp, an academic, might come to feel the need to publish the letters in a form replete with scholarly annotations and commentary. Eliot implies he finds this prospect less than delightful, but he also seems resigned to the fact that it’s not up to him — except insofar as he can stipulate that his personal correspondence remain sealed until fifty years after his death. The importance of this period of embargo, which Eliot maintains is not unusual, also remains consistent throughout his discussion of the subject. He concludes by noting that such situations are inevitably fraught, giving the example of some letters from John Quincy Adams to his great-grandfather that were censored by his aunt, an instance he says he found rather extreme . . .

    All of which is to say, it will be very interesting to continue to track the vicissitudes in Eliot’s attitude toward his letters to Hale across the years of their correspondence!
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