The trilling wire in the blood

03 Aug 2020 4:09 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Eliot writes at high intensity throughout January 1936, floating on his newfound feelings of union with Hale. His output for the month includes thirteen letters to her—sometimes two on the same day—as well as nearly forty to other correspondents, along with “The Naming of Cats. These were merely background for the labor of “Burnt Norton”: far from working on it throughout 1935, as was previously thought, Eliot composed all but the first fourteen and the last few lines of his new poem in late December and January. His letters resonate with its language, such as on 6 January, Epiphany, when he wonders at the increase in meaning of the moments they have shared together: the meaning is greater now, on reflection, than it was at the time of the experience (“only in time can the moment in the rose-garden…be remembered”). He describes his desire to re-experience multiple forms of intimacy at once, such as being both close enough to feel her breath and far enough away to see all of her. He wants her to be childish with him, for he has a childish side that he can only show to her (“the leaves were full of children,/ Hidden excitedly, containing laughter”). He writes in the present tense of having her with him and resenting any interruption that takes his mind off thoughts of her—except for writing verse. He does not know if his poem is any good or if he will finish it in time for the publication of his new volume. 

Eliot’s letter of 13 January reveals a significant intertext of “Burnt Norton”:  Shelley’s “Epipsychidion” (I have written about this connection in a short piece for the next T. S. Eliot Studies Annual and a longer article for the December issue of Twentieth-Century Literature). He tells Hale that his poem is a new kind of love poem, and very obscure, so that when it is published, she will fairly be able to say that she does not understand it or that she does, according to her convenience. He quotes the epigraph of Shelley’s “Epipsychidion,” written for a woman named Emilia: “My song, I fear that thou wilt find but few/ Who fitly shall conceive thy reasoning, / Of such hard matter dost thou entertain” (as it turns out, Shelley’s epigraph is—surprise!—from Dante). Eliot suggests that he has made his poem difficult on purpose to conceal its real subject matter, and he tells her that he has chosen two quotations from Heraclitus as his own epigraph, to make the poem even more obscure. This important letter was accidentally omitted from the digital scans at Special Collections, and I only found it by chance on a day when I was using the originals. 

On 16 January 1936, Eliot continues his remarkable reflections on their poem (using the first person plural possessive adjective). It rounds off his Collected Poems and signals a fresh start, along with Murder in the Cathedral. He thinks of it as a quartet for strings, rather than a symphony, and he seeks the same effects as Beethoven achieved in his late quartets. It is similar to The Waste Land in having five parts, though in other ways is different and deeper. The poem includes passages from Heraclitus, St. John of the Cross, Flaubert’s Tentation de S. Antoine (this will be one for the scholars to investigate), and personal memories from the underground station at Gloucester Road and other incidents that only she will recognize. He also tells her that he is going to separate her love letters—written since 18 November—from those she sent before. He wishes to kiss the sole of her foot and run his fingers through her hair. He needs her to tell him what to do and what not to do (echoing Ash-Wednesday’s “Teach us to care and not to care”?). 

NB: I have deleted reference to the photographs that I mentioned in an earlier version of this post. Katerina Stergiopolou tells me that these photographs were enclosed in Eliot's June 18, 1936 letter, but must have been misplaced into the digital scan for January. Thanks for the correction!


  • 04 Aug 2020 10:28 AM | Paul Keers, TS Eliot Society (UK)
    Are the "snapshots" enclosed in the letter definitely from his camera? It has always been understood that Eliot visited the church at Little Gidding only once, on 25 May 1936; enclosing his own photos in a letter of January 1936 would mean that he had visited the church himself prior to that occasion.
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    • 04 Aug 2020 3:33 PM | Jonathan Morse
      Commercial photographs were available at the time -- for instance, this postcard postmarked in 1906.
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    • 04 Aug 2020 7:45 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      After he purchased a camera on his visit to Hale at Scripps in January 1933, he would enclose photographs in his letters to her, sometimes commenting on them but not always. I assumed that these were his, but they might not have been, and I can't refer to the whole text of the letter now--just my notes, unfortunately. They weren't postcards, though.
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      • 05 Aug 2020 12:22 AM | Jonathan Morse
        From the backgrounds, could you tell anything about the season when the pictures were taken -- for instance, whether they might date from a month such as January, and whether they all might have been taken at about the same time? If they could have been, that might argue for Eliot's having been the photographer on an undocumented earlier visit to Little Gidding.
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    • 05 Aug 2020 3:34 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      Mystery solved: the photographs were enclosed in Eliot's June 18, 1936 letter, which mentions the visit to Little Gidding and George Herbert's church. But in the digital scans, these photos seem to have been placed with his letters of early January. Thanks for pointing out this inconsistency!
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  • 05 Aug 2020 2:33 AM | Paul Keers, TS Eliot Society (UK)
    In early 1936, Eliot was also exchanging letters with his friend George Every, who sent him the draft of a verse play about King Charles's last visit to Little Gidding. Every has even been said to have "introduced" Eliot to Little Gidding. Might George Every have sent him photographs along with the draft?
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