The Tolling Bell

02 Dec 2020 1:30 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

After his arrival in the United States at the end of August, Eliot’s first order of business is to visit his sister Ada Sheffield at 20 Madison Street in Cambridge. In planning his trip, he imagined that he would step around to see Hale, staying nearby with her aunt and uncle at 5 Clement Circle—a six-minute walk. The second week of September, however, finds Eliot and Hale at opposite ends of New Hampshire: he gathers with his siblings in Randolph, on the northern slopes of the White Mountains, while Hale retreats to Fitzwilliam, near her friend Mary Ware’s estate in Rindge. They face the logistical difficulty of how to see each other in private when both are staying with other people, for Hale does not have her own home. They debate whether to meet in Fitzwilliam or Woods Hole, at the home of her friend Dorothy Elsmith; Hale decides for the latter, and on 15 September they reunite in Boston and travel down to Cape Cod by train for a week on the beach together. Later, writing from England on 17 October, Eliot reminisces about their time at Woods Hole, particularly recalling the sound of the bell-buoy tolling, the long beaches, sea-gulls, a pine grove, and a room where they sat. The clang of the bell-buoy may be heard in “The Dry Salvages”: “And under the oppression of the silent fog/ The tolling bell/ Measures time not our time…” (Poems 194).

Following this visit, Hale writes that the ground does not feel solid under her feet, and Eliot reassures her that he is, as always, happy in her. She has returned to New Hampshire, and he is back in Cambridge, but they make plans to meet again in Northampton, where she is moving to take up a position teaching speech at Smith College. Eliot comes to see her on the weekend of September 26-27, writing on the 30th that he enjoyed a perfect birthday in her company. He has never felt so close to her as on those days, with a deeper sense of spiritual intimacy than he believed was possible. He feels that they have embarked on a new stage of development, and thanks her for all she has given him, saying that he seems to be more deeply and strongly in love with her than ever before. (Eliot's words may be carefully chosen to preserve her feelings; he later tells her friend Jean McPherrin that on first seeing Hale, he found her lacking “any animation, in a kind of numbness to the external world, a narrowing of her field of awareness, and a tendency…to think about her own shortcomings all the time” although she “picked up quite a bit” at Woods Hole, and “when I went down to Northampton to see her I thought she was a good deal better” [Letters 8.360]).  From the Cunard liner taking him back to England, Eliot writes to Hale on 2 October about the great happiness she gave him at his birthday and the pain they both felt at parting—he recalls her sad face outside the train window. He keeps her sweetheart rose in his pocket.

A week after landing in Plymouth, Eliot tells Hale how strange he felt coming back to his room in London, which gave rise to a curious and painful recollection of the past: when, as a child, he returned to his home in St. Louis after the summer at Eastern Point. He tells her that he could almost smell the grapes that were always on the table to welcome his family. This revived memory will open “The Dry Salvages”: “…in the nursery bedroom,/In the rank ailanthus of the April dooryard, /In the smell of grapes on the autumn table” (Poems 193). Given how Eliot’s poem of St. Louis and New England echoes his letters to Hale following his visit, we may wish to add another passage to the list of her appearances. Concerned about her new job and wondering what, if anything, will become of her relationship with Eliot, Hale may be the inspiration for “anxious worried women/Lying awake, calculating the future,/ Trying to unweave, unwind, unravel/ And piece together the past and the future,/Between midnight and dawn, when the past is all deception,/The future futureless…” (Poems 194).

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