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TS Eliot’s letters to ‘muse’ to be unveiled after 60 years

Letters that poet TS Eliot wrote to his muse and confidante Emily Hale are to be unveiled after more than 60 years in storage (Shelley Szwast/Princeton University Library/AP)
Letters that poet TS Eliot wrote to his muse and confidante Emily Hale are to be unveiled after more than 60 years in storage (Shelley Szwast/Princeton University Library/AP)

After more than 60 years spent sealed up in a library storage facility, about 1,000 letters written by poet TS Eliot to confidante Emily Hale will be unveiled this week, and scholars hope they will reveal the extent of a relationship that has been speculated about for decades.

Many consider Hale to not only have been his close friend, but also his muse, and they hope their correspondence will offer insight into the more intimate details about Eliot’s life and work.

Students, researchers and scholars will be able to read the letters at Princeton University Library from Thursday.

“I think it’s perhaps the literary event of the decade,” said Anthony Cuda, an Eliot scholar and director of the TS Eliot International Summer School.

“I don’t know of anything more awaited or significant. It’s momentous to have these letters coming out.”

Hale and Eliot were lifelong friends who exchanged letters for about 25 years, beginning in 1930.

The pair met in Cambridge, Massachusetts, in 1912 but did not rekindle their friendship until 1927.

Eliot was already living in England and Hale taught drama at US universities, including Scripps College in California.

In 1956, Hale donated the letters under an agreement that they would not be opened until 50 years after either her or Eliot’s death, whichever came second. Eliot died in 1965, Hale four years later.

Biographers say Eliot ordered Hale’s letters to him to be burned.

Emily Hale and TS Eliot pose in a 1946 family photo in Dorset, Vermont (Princeton University Library/AP)

Their relationship “must have been incredibly important and their correspondence must have been remarkably intimate for him to be so concerned about the publication”, said Mr Cuda.

TS Eliot was born in St Louis, Missouri, in 1888 and gained notoriety as a poet early in life. He was only 26 when The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock became his first professionally published poem.

His best known works include The Waste Land, The Hollow Men and Four Quartets.

The first poem in the Quartets series, called Burnt Norton, piques the interest of enthusiasts of the poet, says Eliot scholar Frances Dickey, because of lines that suggest missed opportunities and what might have been with his muse.

The poem is named after a home in England that Eliot visited with Hale in 1934.

“His relationship with her seems to be deep and meaningful and it’s a door he chose not to open,” said Ms Dickey.

The letters could also reveal details about Eliot’s conversion to Anglicanism, something he deeply cherished, she added.

Ms Dickey, who was one of the editors of The Complete Prose of TS Eliot, said the poet was deeply ashamed of his marriage to his first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood, who he was with for more than 15 years.

She said the letters could reveal just how close he and Hale were and if the two ever considered marriage.

“Was this an epistolary romance they would carry across the Atlantic?” said Ms Dickey. “What role did she play in his emotional life?”

Eliot’s letters to Hale began after that first marriage ended.

Whatever else she was, Hale was a link to the life Eliot had left behind in the United States as a young man, Ms Dickey said.

“He was really thinking more about the United States and his childhood during the period where he was in correspondence with Hale,” she said. “I have a feeling that having a relationship with an American woman helped him to uncover his past in a way.”

The unsealed boxes, which also contain photographs, clippings and other ephemera, were actually opened at the library’s special collections area called Firestone Library in October for cataloguing and digitising.

Daniel Linke, interim head of special collections at the library, was part of the team working on the 14 boxes. He said there was very minimal, if any, reading.

He said scholars from around the world will be travelling to Princeton in the first days they are available since they are copyrighted and will not be made available online.

“It will be the special collections equivalent of a stampede at a rock concert,” he said.

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