When, on October 23, 1922, T.S. Eliot assembled and dispatched to the New York lawyer and bibliophile John Quinn a packet containing drafts of The Waste Land as well as a notebook of early poems tentatively entitled Inventions of the March Hare and a selection of loose-leaf manuscripts of individual poems, he included in the package (surely inadvertently) the receipts for the three weeks he’d spent in the Albemarle Hotel, Cliftonville, Margate, in October and November of the previous year. While there, he had composed sections of what became part 3 of The Waste Land, “The Fire Sermon,” in which an oblique reference is made to this seaside town: “On Margate Sands./I can connect/Nothing with nothing.” Though a “First Class Family Hotel,” as the heading on its bills declares, the Albemarle charged extra for baths, which cost a shilling. Eliot scholars piecing together the creation of the most influential poem of the twentieth century in the reading room of the Berg Collection at the New York Public Library, which acquired this material in 1958, were therefore able to ascertain that Eliot took just two baths between October 22 and 28, four the following week, and seven the week after that, including two on November 5.
Like most of the symbols deployed in The Waste Land, water ends up accruing meanings that are quite different for its male and female characters: among the rituals that the husband in “A Game of Chess” thinks might soothe the “nerves” of his frantic wife is “The hot water at ten,” while the drafts for this section depict in Augustan couplets the socialite Fresca performing her morning toilette:
This ended, to the steaming bath she moves,
Her tresses fanned by little flutt’ring Loves;
Odours, confected by the cunning French,
Disguise the good old
female stench./ hearty female stench.
An aquatic metaphor is just as scathingly applied to her taste in literature: “Fresca was baptised in a soapy sea/Of Symonds—Walter Pater—Vernon Lee.” For the male characters water can be transformative (“Those are pearls that were his eyes”) or tragic (“Oed’ und leer das Meer”) or eschatological (“Then a damp gust/Bringing rain”) or elegiac (as in “Death by Water”) or biblical (“By the waters of Leman I sat down and wept”) or mythical (“I sat upon the shore/Fishing, with the arid plain behind me”—a reference to the legend of the Fisher King) or epic (as in the excised account of a sea voyage beyond “the farthest northern islands”) or invested with elemental yearning (“If there were water/And no rock”) or redemptive (“This music crept by me upon the waters”). But satire or ribaldry pervades the ablutions carried out by the poem’s women:
O the moon shone bright on Mrs. Porter
And on her daughter
They wash their feet in soda water
Eliot’s note to these lines refers to an Australian “ballad” that was, as his most recent editors, Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, point out, popular with Australian soldiers at Gallipoli in a bawdier form with which Eliot was in all likelihood familiar:
O the moon shines bright on Mrs. Porter
And on the daughter
Of Mrs. Porter.
They wash their cunts in soda water
And so they oughter
To keep them clean.
While the male characters seem caught up in a quest for spiritual purification, water, for the women, is for comfort or hygiene.
The Albemarle receipts were not included by Valerie Eliot in her 1971 edition of the drafts of The Waste Land but have been added to this centenary edition, which seems aimed at the Eliot aficionado ready to pore over every scrap surviving in the archive and eager to discover new angles on a poem more exhaustively interpreted than any in the language—or rather languages, for it is the most polyglot of poems. This gala volume is the first to reproduce manuscripts and typescripts in color and boasts of various “additional materials,” namely those bills and the versos of three leaves: on one of these Eliot has jotted down a couple of cosmetic skin creams that he has been instructed to purchase for his first wife, Vivien, at a pharmacy on the Champs-Élysées, and on another a compressed account of the plot of The Duchess of Malfi. On the third, the verso of the ending of “A Game of Chess,” Vivien has written, “Make any of these alterations—or none if you prefer. Send me back this copy & let me have it.”
Eliot did in fact make the alterations that she suggested to the pub scene, replacing “No, ma’am, you needn’t look old-fashioned at me” with “If you don’t like it you can get on with it,” and “You want to keep him at home, I suppose” with “What you get married for if you don’t want children?” He also accepted her recommendation that he change “medicine” to “pills” (“It’s them pills I took, to bring it off”). “WONDERFUL,” “wonderful,” “& wonderful,” and “Yes” were her responses to his depiction of the agitated woman and the silently brooding man in the scene beginning, “My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad”—husband and wife here in amiable accord, as is so harrowingly not the case for the couple in the poem itself.
She seems to have been puzzled, however, by his elaborate pastiche of fin-de-siècle aestheticism in the opening passage describing a woman at her dressing table surrounded by jewels and “strange synthetic perfumes,” writing against this: “Don’t see what you had in mind here.” And, in light of her final years in a private asylum in Finsbury Park in North London, there is a certain irony lurking in her fulsome commendation of Eliot’s decision to end the conversation in the pub by quoting the close of Ophelia’s first mad scene. “Splendid last lines,” she writes beneath “Good night, ladies, good night, sweet ladies, good night, good night.”
In her introduction to the first volume of Eliot’s letters, published in 1988, his second wife, Valerie, quoted from “a private paper, written in the 1960s,” in which Eliot reflected on the miseries of his life with Vivien as well as on the poetry that resulted: “To her, the marriage brought no happiness…to me, it brought the state of mind out of which came The Waste Land” (her ellipses). We now know that this quotation was taken from a statement that Eliot dated November 25, 1960; this statement was to be opened on the day that his correspondence with the woman whom he thought of as his first love, Emily Hale, was made available to the public. Hale’s cache of 1,131 letters from the poet, deposited in 1956 and under embargo until fifty years after the death of whoever lived longer, became available on January 2, 2020, as did Eliot’s attempt to get in his retaliation first.
The extract quoted by Valerie continues, “And it saved me from marrying Emily Hale. Emily Hale would have killed the poet in me; Vivienne nearly was the death of me, but she kept the poet alive.” The “nightmare agony,” Eliot goes on, of his seventeen years with Vivien still seems to him preferable to life as a “mediocre teacher of philosophy” back in America with Hale as his consort. There follow bitter denunciations of Hale’s “insensitiveness and bad taste” and of her lack of interest in poetry in general and in his poetry in particular, but what seem to have rankled most were her misguided views on religious matters:
It may be too harsh, to think that what she liked was my reputation rather than my work. She may have loved me according to her capacity for love; yet I think that her uncle’s opinions (her uncle by marriage [John Perkins, a Unitarian minister], a dear old man, but wooly-minded) meant more to her than mine…. I could never make her understand that it was improper for her, a Unitarian, to communicate in an Anglican church: the fact that it shocked me that she should do so made no impression upon her. I cannot help thinking that if she had truly loved me she would have respected my feelings if not my theology.
In the unlikely event that this display of religious right-mindedness might not prove enough to scotch all possible gossip, a single paragraph is accorded the statement “I might mention at this point that I never at any time had sexual relations with Emily Hale.”
Nevertheless, Eliot wrote her those 1,131 letters, to which she replied, although we’ll never know how, since he had a Faber colleague destroy her side of the correspondence sometime between 1960 and 1963. Eliot and Hale had met back in 1905, when he was sixteen and she was thirteen. Her father, like her uncle, was a Boston Unitarian minister, and indeed in many ways she incarnated precisely the social milieu and the religious outlook that the young Eliot was so desperate to escape, and that he habitually reviled in later life. Their flirtation began in 1912, while Eliot was at Harvard Graduate School, and was fanned by amateur theatricals and Wagnerian opera, in particular Tristan und Isolde, the source of the “Oed’ und leer das Meer” quote that concludes the hyacinth-girl episode in the first part of The Waste Land, and a performance of which he attended with Hale and her parents.
In a letter of November 3, 1930 (among the first dispatched in more than a quarter-century of regular correspondence), Eliot urged her to consider “the hyacinth lines” as a belated tribute to their nascent love and as a poetic version of his inability to declare himself convincingly on the eve of his departure for Europe in 1914. In the same letter he draws attention to the passage in “What the Thunder said” that seems to come closest to the confessional heart of the poem—or at least that is how it has been interpreted by generations of readers:
My friend, blood shaking my heart
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
These lines, the letter indicates, were at once autobiographical and connected to Eliot’s inability to “surrender” to the woman whom he addressed as “my dear Isolde” in a missive of the following year.
Many of Eliot’s alter egos, from the dithering Prufrock to the oracular philosopher-prophet of Four Quartets, brood compulsively on missed opportunities or moments of visionary paralysis that the poems then attempt to reconfigure into some ineffable yet deeper and more significant pattern of meaning. To what extent Hale was slotted into the role of Beatrice to his Dante retrospectively, in accordance with his imaginative habits, is impossible to determine, but his figurations of her in his letters place her as firmly on a pedestal as the saintly “Lady of silences” of Ash-Wednesday. In his detailed and thoughtful assessment of Eliot’s correspondence with Hale published in the London Review of Books in October 2020, Paul Keegan aptly characterizes the tone that Eliot adopts toward her as “a blend of amour courtois and mariolatry.”
Eliot’s language frequently derives directly from the uplifting conventions of the troubadour tradition: his love, he declares, is “as pure and unsullying as any love can be,” while the letter that she sends in return is greeted as “a Gift of Divine Grace,” inducing in him “a kind of supernatural ecstasy.” Undoubtedly she came to represent to him the antithesis of the “nightmare agony” of living with Vivien, an agony vividly captured in two photographs taken by Leonard Woolf in the garden at Rodmell in Sussex in 1932, which are included in Robert Crawford’s Eliot After “The Waste Land.” In the first, a smiling Eliot and Virginia Woolf stand side by side, almost touching, while to their left and apart, Vivien stares at the ground like a chastised child (see illustration on page 37); in the second, it is Eliot who is being chastised, and his smile is painfully slipping as an enraged and glaring Vivien jabs at him an accusing finger.
The caustic statement that Eliot composed in November 1960 is a dispiriting coda to his relationship with Hale, which was enormously important to him, even though it was conducted almost entirely on paper. Employed by a series of American colleges as a drama teacher, she ended up drifting from Boston to Milwaukee to California and then back to the East Coast, never settling long. Although they met occasionally in London, the Cotswolds (where she spent a number of summers with her uncle and aunt), and America, it was their correspondence that seems to have been crucial to Eliot’s well-being, enabling him to express devotion to a woman without having to engage in the problematic business of living with her; the regular exchange of letters allowed him “to care and not to care,” as he phrased it in Ash-Wednesday.
Ever alert to a literary parallel, in his statement he somewhat unfairly invokes Henry James’s The Aspern Papers as an analogy to her decision to deposit her epistolary trove at Princeton; for, rather than “a publishing scoundrel,” Hale seems to have been remarkably scrupulous and long-suffering, even when, having waited seventeen years for Vivien to die, her supposedly infatuated transatlantic admirer then declined to marry her. Indeed, the James novella that their relationship most insistently calls to mind is The Beast in the Jungle, a masterly study of election and evasion; like John Marcher and May Bartram, Eliot and Hale conspired to share a complex secret that allowed their lives to proceed on parallel tracks, precluding fulfillment or union and generating all manner of paradoxical formulations. Here, for instance, is Eliot, two years after Vivien’s death in 1947, when all notions of marriage have been tacitly abandoned, at once keeping her at arm’s length and refusing to let her go:
I only know, my dear, that you mean a very great deal to me—there has been no other woman in my life at all; that I always long to be in touch with you, and that any long silence between us makes me unhappy, and that your unhappiness is mine.
The all-too-Jamesian limbo dramatized here, in which the “overwhelming question” loomed and shimmered like a mirage, lasted until late 1956, when Eliot handed his secretary Valerie Fletcher a sealed letter containing a marriage proposal to her. After her acceptance and their wedding in January of the following year, Hale’s unhappiness was all her own.
Her bequest to Princeton seems to have taken Eliot by surprise, although it had been previously agreed that these letters would end up in some library, and that an embargo would be placed on them until well into the twenty-first century. The unwelcome news of the deposit set him to pondering his life and his revulsion at the thought of writing his own autobiography—“There is much for which one cannot find words even in the confessional,” he dryly notes in a statement written for the opening of the Hale letters. While conceding that any attempt to explain his reckless decision to marry Vivien, whom he barely knew, would “probably remain unintelligible,” he mentions in mitigation the urgings of Pound, who was desperate to keep his protégé in London, and also his innocence, so reminiscent of that of an early James protagonist such as Christopher Newman of The American. “I was very immature for my age,” he reflects in his statement, “very timid, very inexperienced.”
And yet, within eight years of that fateful day in June 1915, the immature, timid, inexperienced newcomer was the highly respected editor of The Criterion (funded by Lady Rothermere), boomed everywhere by Pound as the future of modern poetry, and the honored recipient of The Dial’s $2,000 annual award. Eliot conquered literary London as swiftly and decisively as James had done forty years earlier, principally through his consistently surprising and unnervingly self-confident critical prose, while his poetry, although fulsomely hailed in his native country by leading critics such as Edmund Wilson, continued to baffle English reviewers and readers, who were confused about what to make of the American cuckoo in their midst.
Anyone looking to track Eliot’s evolution into the most potent critic of the twentieth century can now follow his career as a tyro literary journalist in volumes 1 and 2 of the magnificent eight-volume edition of his Complete Prose. His versatility is astonishing: the subjects of the twenty-seven reviews that he published in 1916, for instance, range from Charles Doughty to Émile Durkheim, from Euripides to Henri Bergson. It was Bertrand Russell, with whom Vivien conducted an affair not long after marrying Eliot, who introduced him to the editors of magazines such as The New Statesman, The Monist, and The International Journal of Ethics, where many of his early reviews appeared. His willingness to take on any commission can be gauged from his first piece for The New Statesman, an omnibus review of ten books on India, most of which were about agricultural economics. Given the part played by his own allusions to the Upanishads (“Shantih shantih shantih”) and the Bhagavad Gita (“I sometimes wonder if that is what Krishna meant,” in “The Dry Salvages”) in inculcating in Western readers a taste for ancient Indian mystic texts, it is amusing to see him here reprimanding a British India hand, R.W. Frazer, for confining his discussion of Indian thought to the Vedas and the Upanishads and ignoring more recent philosophers and writers.
Although convinced that he would make, as he put in his statement, only “a mediocre teacher of philosophy” had he returned to America and pursued an academic career there, for The Monist and The International Journal of Ethics he happily accepted commissions on Leibniz and R.G. Collingwood and Georges Sorel and Schopenhauer, handling even quite technical topics with vigor and panache. It was with freestanding essays such as “The Borderline of Prose” and “Reflections on Vers Libre,” however, both published in The New Statesman, that Eliot’s critical persona really began to find definition: an element of professionalism, indeed almost scientific exactitude, is here introduced into the dilettantish conventions of literary journalism, and one feels the embryo of the New Criticism stir. The latter essay’s resonant ending typifies the mixture of authority and originality and precision central to the impact of the young Eliot’s critical pronouncements, his ability both to dazzle and to convert: “And we conclude that the division between Conservative Verse and Vers Libre does not exist, for there is only good verse, bad verse, and chaos.”
During the summer before The Waste Land was published, Eliot engaged in what appears to have been a brief and desultory liaison with the heiress and, later, writer and activist Nancy Cunard.1 While it may have delivered a measure of vengeance for Vivien’s adultery with Russell, it clearly afforded him little pleasure—eight years afterward he reported to Hale that it left only “a taste of ashes which I can never forget.” A fragmentary letter of 1926 indicates that at some point Vivien, too, was apprised of this affair, for in it she complains, “Why can’t I even have the freedom & respect which is accorded to Nancy the real tart?” It was Hale, however, the very opposite of a “tart,” a proper New Englander through and through, who Eliot decided would provide a genuinely meaningful counterbalance to the grind of coping with his wife’s multiple afflictions and demands. They met on several occasions in the course of a visit that Hale paid to London in 1923, and he later told her that his “active spiritual life” dated from these rendezvous.
With Hale as his notional Beatrice, and with the purgatory of The Waste Land behind him, Eliot gradually equipped himself to embark on his arduous ascent to the mystical paradiso most memorably commemorated at the conclusion of “Little Gidding,” which figures a divine unity where all is forgiven and redeemed:
And all shall be well
And all manner of thing shall be well
When the tongues of flame are in-folded
Into the crowned knot of fire
And the fire and the rose are one.
These lines were composed in 1942, fifteen years after he had been received into the Anglican Church, and they articulate a triumphant sublimation of the memory and desire that so trouble the poet of The Waste Land. It is intriguing to learn from Crawford’s discussion of Eliot’s correspondence with Hale at this juncture of his life that it was now her turn to be on the verge of a nervous breakdown, one partly brought on by his steadfast refusal to consider divorce. He frequently outlined in his letters to her the absoluteness of this taboo, even after Vivien had been certified and consigned for the rest of her life to Northumberland House. “The position of the Church,” he explained in a letter of 1933, “is completely uncompromising about the indissolubility of marriage.” His own prominence as a public figure complicated matters still further:
I am—I can say it without the slightest vanity—the most conspicuous layman in the Church to-day, and my defection would be all the more significant because I was not born into it. I should of course be excommunicate, I should no longer take any part in Church affairs, and if I ever raised my voice to speak for the faith or attack paganism I should meet only with ridicule and contempt.
The irony can’t have been lost on either of them; if his reignited love for Hale was a major catalyst in the spiritual vita nuova that he embraced in the 1920s, it in turn led him to commit to a religious institution that effectively prevented them from ever marrying, at least while his first wife was alive. And Vivien’s death in fact made him realize that he no longer wished to wed the woman for so long imaginatively construed as the antidote to all his troubles. “Gradually,” as he put it in his statement, “I came to see that I had been in love only with a memory, with the memory of the experience of having been in love with her in my youth.” It was, he summed up, “the love of a ghost for a ghost.” Given his repeated epistolary protestations that she was the only woman in his life, he would surely, in a previous era, have been liable for a case of breach of promise.
It is only obliquely that Eliot’s relationship with Hale is registered in his poetry. The opening of “Burnt Norton” commemorates their visit to an abandoned country house near Chipping Campden in Gloucestershire in the summer of 1935, and is a brilliant example of his ability to inhabit a world of “speculation,” to dwell in “the memory of the experience” as a means of evading experience itself:
Footfalls echo in the memory
Down the passage which we did not take
Towards the door we never opened
Into the rose-garden.
Subsuming echoes of a short story by Rudyard Kipling called “They,” in which a secluded garden turns out to be a limbo for the ghosts of lost children, as well as of Lewis Carroll’s Alice books, and indeed of a whole poetic tradition of garden poems stretching back to the medieval Le Roman de la Rose, “Burnt Norton” patiently uncovers, layer by layer, the unlived life buried in the folds of memory. It is tacitly acknowledged that a companion is needed for this—“My words echo/Thus, in your mind”—but Hale’s presence is kept as spectral and disembodied as the voices of the absent children and the sound of birdsong. As they explore the deserted grounds, moving through the autumn heat, one of the round empty pools that are such a peculiar feature of the garden at Burnt Norton is momentarily transformed by the sublimating pressures of the imagination into a site of visionary plenitude.
The passage describing this purposefully echoes the failed communication with the hyacinth girl in The Waste Land, a crisis that left the stricken narrator of that poem “looking into the heart of light, the silence”:
Dry the pool, dry concrete, brown edged,
And the pool was filled with water out of sunlight,
And the lotos rose, quietly, quietly,
The surface glittered out of heart of light…
In his critical prose Eliot rarely found much to commend in the work of nineteenth-century precursors such as Emerson and Thoreau, and yet at such moments he emerges as a latter-day Transcendentalist, one who happened to experience his moments of exaltation not alone in the New England woods but in a centuries-old English garden, chanced upon in the company of a scion of precisely those New England traditions that he’d fled two decades earlier but found so hard to escape.
Crawford’s Eliot After “The Waste Land” is the first biographical account of Eliot to appear since the release of Hale’s letters. It is as dense and detailed as its predecessor, Young Eliot: From St. Louis to “The Waste Land” (2015),2 and sensitively weaves together poetry, letters, and criticism to present Eliot in all his complexity—one is tempted to say in all his perversity. The tale of the agony that he endured, and of the manifold sufferings that he caused others, only genuinely lightens after his all-transforming marriage to Valerie—and even that came at a price for some, like John Hayward, who was brutally dropped by his former flatmate.
Hayward was prominent in the committee that offered advice on the drafts of Eliot’s poetry of the 1930s and 1940s, a process meticulously documented by Helen Gardner in The Composition of “Four Quartets” (1978). To give a single example of Hayward’s literary acumen, it was he who advised Eliot to alter the final line of “Little Gidding” from “And the fire and the rose are the same” to “And the fire and the rose are one,” which is obviously far better. After more than a decade of sharing quarters in Cheyne Walk, Hayward was handed a formal letter by Eliot terminating the arrangement and requesting that his friend and collaborator “avoid discussion” of this change of affairs. Known in his circle as the Tarantula on account of his poisonous wit, Hayward forthwith took to signing his letters “the Widow.”
Eliot’s actual widow, Valerie, died in 2012, and in the decade since there has been a veritable explosion of Eliot publications: we now have nine volumes of correspondence (and that takes us only to 1941); the comprehensively annotated editions of The Poems, edited by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue; the 6,500 pages or so in eight volumes of The Complete Prose. And sometime this autumn all 1,131 letters to Hale will be released on the T.S. Eliot website. The “deathbed” edition of his Collected Poems, published in 1963, runs to a mere 234 pages, from which there now radiates a staggering amount of ancillary material. There seems, indeed, no end to our fascination with all that pertains to the creation of the best of these poems, from the baths that he took during his stay in Margate while working on The Waste Land to the original of the pool “filled with water out of sunlight” hymned in “Burnt Norton,” to which I once made a pilgrimage.
Where significance slides into trivia is not always easy to determine. Is it important that there was a furniture company in St. Louis run by one Harry Prufrock, or that Hale performed in a play in 1917 with an amateur thespian named W. Graydon Stetson? “That corpse you planted last year in your garden,/Has it begun to sprout?” the narrator of The Waste Land inquires of the Stetson whom he encounters on King William Street. “Will it bloom this year?” When questioned on the identity of Stetson and the implications of his name, the poet responded that he was a “superior bank clerk: a person in a bowler hat, black jacket and striped trousers.” Eliot himself, while working for Lloyds in the City, often sported just such an outfit, and his own planted corpses undoubtedly keep sprouting, keep blooming.