In addition to mentioning the bell-buoy at Woods Hole, Eliot’s follow-up letters to Hale after their visit in September 1936 contain other seeds of The Dry Salvages. Eliot twice refers to seeing Hale’s “sad face” from inside the train window on his departure from Northampton (Oct. 2 and 26), his last view of her for many months to come. After the intensity of their days together, he tells her, he has felt sleepy and “anaesthetic,” especially aboard the Cunard ocean liner that carries him back to England. These elements make their way into part III of The Dry Salvages: “When the train starts, and the passengers are settled… (And those who saw them off have left the platform)/ Their faces relax from grief into relief,/ To the sleepy rhythm of a hundred hours.” Writing to her “on the deck of the drumming ocean liner,” he may also have wondered whether “‘the past is finished’/ Or ‘the future is before us’”—perhaps she posed these questions herself. As for the “withered flowers” that appear twice in his poem, Eliot tells Hale that the sweetheart rose she gave him is in his pocket, and the other flowers are carefully preserved elsewhere. The multiple points of contact between his letters to Hale in October 1936 and The Dry Salvages open the rest of the poem to reconsideration in light of their time together, spent in the shadow of Hale's recent or ongoing depression. Asking "Where is there an end of it," Eliot answers himself, "There is no end of it, the voiceless wailing,/No end to the withering of withered flowers." Not only flowers, but the agony of separation were themes of his letters to Hale during the height of their passion in 1935 (e.g. Dec. 12). Writing The Dry Salvages in 1940, Eliot identifies the "ragged rock" that gives the poem its title with "moments of agony," especially “the agony of others, nearly experienced,/ Involving ourselves.”
For a more in-depth consideration of how Eliot’s art followed his life—and his life followed art—see my article in the December issue of Twentieth-Century Literature.
Thanks for reading my posts during this unimaginable year. Best wishes for 2021, and here’s hoping that, in due time, “All manner of thing shall be well.”