Conflicted feelings

31 Jan 2020 4:30 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Eliot visits Hale at New Year’s, and his first letter of 1933 is dated 13 January.  Writing by hand from the train during a stop in Albuquerque, he strikes several conflicting notes that recur in his correspondence for the following two months: during their ten-day visit, he came as close to happiness as ever in his life; he fell into a depression after leaving her; he was horrified by California and the conditions of her life; and, in asking her what scent she prefers, he hints at a corporeal aspect to their relationship. After returning to Cambridge at the end of the month, he elaborates on these reactions, referring to the time they spent together as a moment suspended between heaven and earth, and to her as his fixed point; he says that he has experienced companionship for the first time. He mentions sharing a kiss with her, but also learning that she does not feel about him quite as he feels about her. He wonders whether she has derived any benefit from his visit. He thinks that if she comes to England next summer with the Perkins, they should not see each other; he will be in retreat from society.

This last remark refers obliquely to a major turning point in Eliot's life: his decision to take concrete steps to separate from Vivien. His first reference to  separating from his wife appears in his published letters on 26 February (6.552), and perhaps his visit with Hale helped to precipitate this long-contemplated act. In an emotional and even dejected letter of 27 February he suggests that perhaps he should never have disrupted her life, and that the next ten years will be the hardest for them. He summarizes his life in three words that then appear in his March 3 Norton lecture on Matthew Arnold: "the Boredom, the Horror, and the Glory" (Prose 4.656). In a passage of disturbed self-analysis, he writes about the place of conflict in his feelings towards her: he desires to dominate her, as well as to be dominated; to be worshipped and to worship. The more he loves her, the more conflict with her he wants. They have religious differences, and Emily is not a devoted churchgoer. For himself, religious devotions are necessary and allow him sometimes to glimpse another plane of reality. He again mentions withdrawing from social activities when he returns to England, a future that does not seem to involve Vivien.  

To compound his emotional state, Eliot has also just been to St. Louis for the first time since the death of his parents and visited their graves. He associates the city especially with his father, whose last image will always haunt him. He appreciates being introduced at Washington University as the grandson of Chancellor Eliot, but he has no happy memories of the Unitarian Church and is glad to leave St. Louis (compare to a published letter: “[I] am sorry to leave my Native City” [6.538]). He reflects several times that his parents, while good people, did not experience much of life; Unitarianism was enough for them, but an inadequate guide for him as soon as he left the family bubble. His lecture tour also takes him to Baltimore, where his niece Dodo (Theodora Eliot Smith) works at a girls’ school. Although good and affectionate, she is alone, he frets, perhaps due to her habit of making critical remarks about people. Having spent much time in England, she no doubt feels superior to Americans. Eliot seems not to notice the family resemblance here.

Looking ahead: as his lecture tour winds up and he has more time for rest and solitude, Eliot's letters turn more to the preparation of his Norton lectures and classes at Harvard, his social and cultural activities (including concerts), negotiations with Hale over their differences, and preparation for the change in his life when he returns to England. 


  • 31 Jan 2020 5:05 PM | CR Mittal
    Difficult terrain. Divergences are showing up.
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  • 01 Feb 2020 1:37 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
    I revised this post to add Eliot's comment about "the Boredom, the Horror, and the Glory" when I realized that this appeared in "The Use of Poetry and the Use Criticism," his Norton lectures.
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    • 02 Feb 2020 3:58 PM | CR Mittal
      In personal terms, the life with Vivien would seem to reflect the Boredom and the Horror, and that with Hale the Glory of life.
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