Teach us to care and not to care

03 Mar 2020 8:16 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Eliot’s August 1934 letters to Hale form one side of a continuous conversation leading up to his visit to Chipping Campden on the last day of the month. On 10 August he writes that he has fallen into a depression, following the excitement of seeing her, and wonders if she still wants him to visit. On 17 August, he writes that while at first he believed that she was in love with him, by the time he went to America in 1932 she had corrected that impression. He is sorry that she has been troubled by this imbalance in their feelings for each other, which he has accepted without unhappiness; indeed, he does not want her to love him. He finds it strange to learn from her that she has never received the attention of a man in love, as he would have expected the opposite. Nobody has ever been in love with him, and he has only experienced abnormal women, from whom he has taken two lessons: 1) exposing yourself to someone will only result in injury, and 2) people don’t love you, but an idea that you stand for. He does not want to be loved for anything he represents, nor does he love her as a symbol. He wants to continue to worship her for herself. He writes that if he is ever free to ask her to marry him, he will do so. He would want to know, if she accepted him, that she did so for herself, and not out of pity for him. At one time, he concludes, he thought that his devotion was a valuable gift that would flatter her; now he realizes it is worth nothing. 

Hale must have responded quickly to counteract that view, for on 20 August, Eliot protests that he did not intend his last remark to be bitter or complaining; he only meant that his love truly was worthless. Not only did she misunderstand him, but he has misunderstood her: now he sees that she does not harbor feelings of pity for him. In the end, both of them worry about the same thing: receiving more than they give. She should never feel guilty for her feelings or lack thereof. He himself has experienced much guilt, especially over marrying Vivien without loving her. His feelings of guilt caused him to tolerate terrible things that he has never told anybody (is this a reference to Vivien’s infidelity, which he does not mention anywhere in his correspondence with Hale?). Instead of remaining with a woman he detested, he ought to have separated right away. Feelings cannot be sins: one confesses thoughts, words, and deeds. Confessing a feeling would be to apologize for being yourself. He shifts gears to talk about Hale’s frustration with her lack of proper filial piety towards her aunt and uncle, reassuring her that they could not possibly blame her for her feelings or lack thereof. 

It seems that they have advanced towards better understanding of each other, Eliot writes on 29 August, though he continues to fear misunderstanding. Two days later, he arrives for a weekend visit at Chipping Campden. On 4 September, he writes a follow-up letter to affirm a deepening of their relationship, which he compares to the growth of a root system. He can look back on the feelings he had towards her four years ago and measure the distance he has come, and he also looks forward to the future increase and growth of his feelings with joy and fear. Whereas at first he relied on his own feelings, though, now he depends on his understanding of what she is. He thanks her for her thoughtfulness at Campden. He hopes that he visited in a less selfish spirit than in California. He can envision a state of perfect contemplation of her where he is no longer concerned with his own feelings. He hopes that someday, she may receive as much from someone as he and other people now receive from her. He repeats a comment by her friend Jean McPherrin, who spoke of Hale's "shriners." Eliot realizes that he may just be one more of these, and he observes that standing in a shrine can be lonely.


  • 04 Mar 2020 1:14 PM | CR Mittal
    //standing in a shrine can be lonely//

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  • 04 Mar 2020 1:16 PM | CR Mittal
    Must compliment you, Frances, for a very telling subject line:

    “Teach us to care and not to care”

    Bless you for every post.
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    • 04 Mar 2020 1:53 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      Thanks! Almost everything Eliot wrote can be re-read in light of these letters, usually meaning something quite different from what we thought it did.
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      • 04 Mar 2020 2:10 PM | CR Mittal
        Indeed. Thank you so much.
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      • 04 Mar 2020 8:27 PM | Jonathan Morse
        Oh yes.

        Before I retired, I sometimes used to predict to my students that their generation might come to regard Eliot the way my generation regarded Samuel Johnson: as a great critic who also happened to be a very good poet. But I never dreamed that Eliot could be so much like Johnson in the way that Johnson understood himself in his farewell letter to Mrs. Thrale: as a man with "a life radically wretched."

        One difference between the men, though, was that Johnson never reduced anyone else to wretchedness.
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