LEILA FADEL, HOST:
It's not often that new writing from a Nobel Prize-winning author comes to light. But that's what happened this week to poet T.S. Eliot. Yes, that T.S. Eliot. Over 1,000 love letters Eliot wrote to a woman, who was not his wife, were unsealed this week at Princeton University - 50 years after the recipient's death. Eliot scholars have long wondered what the poet's correspondence with drama teacher Emily Hale would contain.
To learn more about this extraordinary literary unveiling, we called Frances Dickey, professor in the English department at the University of Missouri. We reached Dickey in Princeton, where she got to see the letters for herself.
FRANCES DICKEY: Hi.
FADEL: So give us the scoop. There must be stacks of love letters. Are they bound up in scented ribbons? What's it look like?
DICKEY: (Laughter) I've been looking at them via digital scans. But the originals are also available to look at and touch. But the real thrill of these letters is what they say and what they reveal about the poet that we didn't know before.
FADEL: What do they say?
DICKEY: Well, just the depth of his emotional attachment to Emily Hale. He professed his love to her in 1914, which - she says this in a narrative that she wrote to accompany the letters. Then he went to England, and he married another woman. But he never gave up his love for her, and they began a 30-year correspondence that is just truly staggering. They're single-spaced typed letters of three, four or five pages in which he pours out his heart.
FADEL: Right now is there any one line that has stuck with you?
DICKEY: He makes a very clear declaration of his love for her. And even more significantly, he identifies poems that were inspired by her. He says that his love of her has helped me to the church and to the struggle of the spiritual life. And in the midst of agony, a deep peace and resignation springs. Not as the world giveth, but the peace of God. Of course there were many concurrent paths leading me to the altar, but I doubt whether I should have arrived but for you. And now there is no need to explain Ash Wednesday to you. No one else will ever understand it.
DICKEY: So he's really laying it out there in the first paragraph of his first letter. She is his muse. And she has led him to God. So for him, it was very clear what Emily meant to him.
FADEL: So what do we know about what she made of all this correspondence after - you know, she did preserve these letters, donate them for eventual public viewing. What do we know about her side?
DICKEY: Well, we don't know what she said in the letters that she sent to Eliot because unfortunately, he burned them quite late in 1963. But she did write a five-page pencil narrative of their relationship, which she included with his side of the correspondence that was sealed at Princeton library. And in that narrative, she tells a very even-handed tale of their meeting and coming to love each other. And at the end of the narrative, she writes, let the record speak, which I think is very powerful. She wanted his letters to be preserved so that the world would know how he had felt about her all those years.
FADEL: And really, all we have from her is that five-page narrative you described, right?
FADEL: And after the opening of these letters, it triggered the publication of another letter - one Eliot wrote - to be opened when this correspondence became public. And it seems he needed or wanted to give context for his letters to Emily Hale. But he goes on to deny that he was ever really in love with her. He really basically trashes her, it seems, in this letter.
DICKEY: It's unfortunate that he felt he had to write that letter because I think it's beneath him. But from the letters, we can see that that's not true and that his love for her was very important to his poetry. But I think in time as these letters that he wrote to her are published and more people read them, the rebuttal is not going to matter because it's overwhelmed by the volume of his love letters for her.
FADEL: Frances Dickey, professor of English at the University of Missouri. She's speaking to us from Princeton. Thank you so much.
DICKEY: Thank you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.