A Deepening Bond (August 1931)

11 Jan 2020 4:19 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Moving into Box 2, I gratefully pass the baton to Princeton University's Katerina Stergiopoulou, a scholar of both modernist and classical texts, who contributes this report:

I pick up chronologically where Frances left off in her penultimate post, and with the first folder of Box 2. Eliot’s frequent letters in the month of August 1931 (indeed, he expresses the desire to write one every night, though he doesn’t) find Hale in Seattle. These letters speak to the growing intimacy between them, not only because Eliot continues to offer retrospective accounts of his life but also because Hale seems to start to do the same.

Eliot is always marking what he perceives to be new stages in their relationship, and he does so on August 13; what seems to define each stage is a greater degree (in his mind at least) of their understanding of each other. As clearly outlined in the later letters Frances referred to in her most recent post, it is this understanding, this mutual emotional and intellectual transparency that Eliot seems to most seek now in writing to Hale: to know her and be known by her as fully as possible. He suggests as much on August 18, when he refers to two roles (so to speak) that Hale has played and continues to play for him but that are now being superseded by a third: she is the object of passionate desire (that he tries but often fails to control), a medium for his transfiguration (à la Ash-Wednesday), but also now a way for him to feel satisfied and at peace, desiring neither more nor less—and that state, he adds, is where Hale herself would probably want him to be. A few weeks later, on September 4, he records his feelings of peacefulness after confession, and it would seem that these letters have a similar function for him.

One form that this epistolary rapprochement takes is Eliot’s attempt to respond to Hale’s revelations about her own life—she too seems to be going through some kind of crisis—and her own emotions by aligning their experiences, in ways small and large. He notes on August 21 the elegant correspondence of their birthdays, one day and one month (and three years) apart; on September 8, he tentatively attributes to her too the same feeling of uprootedness he feels (as compared to his English circle), constructing an elaborate arboreal metaphor; most importantly, though, he speaks at length (on August 11, 13, 18) of his own feelings of insufficiency and lack of accomplishment, as well as of his own regimen of humble self-critique, in response to similar emotions that she must have expressed. He cautions her against despair and writes of the importance, or even obligation to be hopeful. 

These attempts at rapprochement don’t seem to have always been received in the way they are apparently intended, as marks of empathy and offers of comfort; nine months later, for example, Hale seems to have referred to these continuing efforts as “sermons,” as Eliot reports with some annoyance on May 3, 1932. And misunderstandings abound – more on that later this week.

By the end of the month (in letters on August 21 and 25), just as Eliot has advised Hale to face but not be defeated by her shortcomings, he (perhaps prompted by her questions again) gives an account of the development of his relationship with Vivienne, his earlier reluctance to deal with the British divorce courts, and the current impossibility of doing so. The account here lines up somewhat with his 1960 statement: he married Vivienne just so that he would have a reason to stay in England  and write poetry, not really knowing what he was getting into, and while he is careful to note Vivienne’s good intentions in wanting to marry him (offering a paraphrase of the statement’s “she persuaded herself . . . that she would save the poet by keeping him in England,” with no reference to the mediating influence attributed there to Pound), he is also quick to suggest that Vivienne was not motivated by love any more than he was. Eliot even goes so far as to declare on August 25 that though he now cannot possibly divorce Vivienne, he himself doesn’t feel like he was ever married.


  • 12 Jan 2020 8:23 AM | Sara Fitzgerald
    How wonderful to have your insights, as part of the mix, Katerina. I think you'll agree that the 1931 letters are challenging to work through--at least they are for me!--because of their length, their intensity, the way in which Eliot's mind flits between passion and sharing the minutiae of his life, and the typewriter ribbon that gets lighter and lighter, making the letters more work to read. I was curious when I rose on a "break day" this morning, how many words I had transcribed from the letters, knowing that I focused on the things that were most pertinent to my own academic interests and did not capture them in their totality. (The actual letters would be longer.) From October 1930, when the correspondence began to August 1931, I transcribed close to 30,000 words from the letters, which may help others better understand our experience. And then, of course, copying something is one thing, going back, rereading and processing what is being said, is still quite another. So thanks for making the time to do it!
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  • 12 Jan 2020 12:27 PM | CR Mittal
    //a medium for his transfiguration (à la Ash-Wednesday), but also now a way for him to feel satisfied and at peace, desiring neither more nor less—and that state, he adds, is where Hale herself would probably want him to be.//

    Looks like the Beatrice-image endured to the end.
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  • 12 Jan 2020 12:33 PM | CR Mittal
    “The inner freedom from the practical desire,
    The release from action and suffering, release from the inner
    And the outer compulsion, yet surrounded
    By a grace of sense, a white light still and moving”
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