Book Review

When I was studying poetry at New York University in the 1990s, my friends and I participated in an event called The Poetry Olympics at Brooklyn Brewery. Each New York City grad school was represented by a team that competed in categories including recitation and instant haiku. The grand prize was a keg of beer. My team and I really wanted to win that beer, so we set out to not only memorize, but dramatize “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” for the competition. For weeks, we carried the poem around with us, recopied on little cards, until we each knew every word by heart. When the big day came, I stood on the stage clad in a velvet blazer and rolled trousers, bent over like an old man, wheezing out Eliot’s famous lines, “I grow old, I grow old!” Sadly, we didn’t win the beer, but ever after Eliot’s poem has been embedded in my memories. We’d thought “Prufrock” was written from the point of view of a frustrated, middle-aged man. But what I found out recently, when I read Lyndall Gordon’s groundbreaking biography, The Hyacinth Girl: T.S. Eliot’s Hidden Muse, was that “Prufrock,” like so many of Eliot’s esteemed poems, was not a persona poem. It was a confessional poem written by a young Eliot living in Paris.

At the center of Gordon’s book is a photograph of Eliot’s muse, Emily Hale, an American  actress and drama teacher, in her later years, framed with the caption, “She wished she could have been there when the letters ‘burst upon the world.’” Indeed, the correspondences she saved between herself and T.S. Eliot (mostly from Eliot, as he burned her letters to him) have forever changed the narrative that Eliot so carefully crafted for himself. Hale’s letters were released on January 2, 2020, from their sealed boxes in the Princeton University Library Special Collections. Frances Dickey chronicled the unbinding of the bands in Reports from the Emily Hale Archive, which were “live” posted on The International T. S. Eliot Society website. As Frances Dickey later states in the article “May the Record Speak: The Correspondence of T. S. Eliot and Emily Hale,” in the letters Eliot “reveals a trove of personal information of the kind that he successfully withheld during his life. . . . Eliot’s letters to Hale will reshape our understanding of the poet and the literary era that bears his impress.” However, given that a pandemic loomed between the unsealing and the publication of this biography, the impact of the added information found in these letters has been less dramatic than Hale had perhaps anticipated.

Eliot sent 1,131 letters to Hale—as Gordan points out, “more than he had written to anyone else”—and these letters give us an intimate view into a huge swath of his life as he wrote them from age twenty-four until his late sixties. In these letters, Eliot reveals the confessional nature of his poems. How Hale was the “hyacinth girl” in “The Waste Land” and “a rose of Memory” in the Four Quartets. As Gordan tells us in her introduction, “to read Eliot’s letters to Emily during the thirties and early forties is to enter poems in the making.”

The relationship Eliot and Hale shared was modeled (in Eliot’s mind) on Dante’s muse Beatrice. Eliot loved Hale, yet he never wanted to let himself attain her. It was in his longing for her that derived inspiration. But the two did meet; the two did become intimate. As Gordan points out, “Emily Hale did not exist solely as a figment of a poet’s imagination.” Hale didn’t just accept this role of muse—as the years went on and Eliot refused to marry her, despite constantly professing his love, Hale confronted him by calling their relationship “abnormal.” However, their correspondence became a place where Eliot discussed his life, and where he tried out ideas that would late appear in his poems. In a February 19, 1932, letter Eliot makes clear how important it is to save his letters to her, writing that his work cannot be understood without the information revealed in his letters.

Biographer Lyndall Gordan first heard about the letters in 1972, when she was a student in New York and discussed Eliot with the chair of the Princeton English department, who told her about the “priceless gift sequestered in the Firestone Library.” After that, she awaited the day the letters would be unsealed.

The story of Eliot’s autobiography is a story of archival violence whereby Eliot tried to curate the image of himself he wanted to be remembered. Toward the end of his life, Eliot asked Hale to destroy his letters to her. Then, when she refused and told him she was donating them to Princeton, he asked that the letters remain sealed for as long as possible. When Hale wrote to Eliot near the end of his life, asking him what he would do with her letters to him (which he at one time had said he would donate to the Bodleian Library at Oxford), he never answered. Instead, Eliot enlisted a colleague to burn all of them for him. As the person in power, Eliot hoped that by burning Hale’s letters to him and extending the time before the letters he’d written to her would be unsealed that he could control what would be remembered about him and his poetry. He presented himself as an unemotional poet, and he did not think his authority over his poems would ever be questioned. He also assumed that when the world learned about the truth behind his poetics it would do little to shake the bedrock of his reputation. The letters completely dismantle this self-imposed image.

In the epilogue of her biography, Gordon recounts the very moment when she and Frances Dickey sat at the long table in the Princeton library and read the first read proof that Emily Hale was the hyacinth girl in “The Waste Land.” In his second letter to her, Eliot asks Hale to compare the “Hyacinth girl” passage and “My friend, blood shaking my heart” in The Waste Land with “Pipit” in Ash Wednesday so that she could see how his love for her had developed between the writing of these poems. The letter ends with Eliot’s declaration that he will always write for Hale. Gordan tells us that when she and Dickey “read that extraordinary letter for the first time we jumped up to hug.” Their elation was derived from the fact that the letter confirmed what they had long argued: that Hale was the most important female figure in Eliot’s life. A point which had always provoked “annoyed reviews from men who put Hale in her place as a female of no importance.” Gordan’s Eliot’s New Life (1988) was the first scholarly text to posit Hale’s significance to Eliot—claims that were dismissed by many scholars due to the fact that there were no letters between Eliot and Hale. It’s not surprising that it was the female scholars who were able to see the cracks in Eliot’s bedrock, and who were able to look through the narrative that had been fully accepted by their male colleagues, toward other possible stories.

During those years I spent at New York University, I was taught a great deal of Eliot, and great pains were made to separate his reserved poetic style as being different and more elevated than those who were called the emotive and feminine confessional poets (whom I was drawn to), like Sylvia Plath, Anne Sexton, and Adrienne Rich. How satisfying it would be now to visit that classroom again, as a ghost from the future, and bring this knowledge back to my young, unsuspecting self and to my smug male teacher, who fully believed the mythology Eliot had woven about himself. To un-erase Emily Hale’s voice is to better understand Eliot, but it is also an empowering act of biography where Eliot can no longer block our full view of him. It’s because of this that Lyndall Gordan’s biography is, in my opinion, one of the most important published this year.

About the Reviewer

Iris Jamahl Dunkle is an award-winning literary biographer and poet and former Poet Laureate of Sonoma County, CA. Her latest books include the biography Charmian Kittredge London: Trailblazer, Author, Adventurer (University of Oklahoma Press, 2020) and her poetry collection West : Fire : Archive (The Center for Literary Publishing, 2021). Her next biography Done Dirty: Sanora Babb, the American West, and a Forgotten Literary Masterpiece will be published by the University of California Press in 2024. She’s received fellowships from Vermont Studio Center and Millay Arts. Dunkle teaches at Napa Valley College and UC Davis and is the Poetry and Translation Director at the Napa Valley Writers’ Conference.