04 November 2023

The promises of authors
are like the vows of lovers:
‘A Dedication to my Wife’

Patrick Comerford

A Dedication to my Wife

To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quickens my senses in our wakingtime
And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,
The breathing in unison

Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other
Who think the same thoughts without need of speech
And babble the same speech without need of meaning.

No peevish winter wind shall chill
No sullen tropic sun shall wither
The roses in the rose-garden which is ours and ours only

But this dedication is for others to read:
These are private words addressed to you in public.

– TS Eliot (1888-1965)

I tried to avoid any speech when we went back from Camden Town Hall to the Boot and Flogger restaurant in Southwark last night. But, apart from a few asides, I really wanted to read ‘A Dedication to My Wife’, one of the last poems by TS Eliot.

Eliot first drafted this short poem in 1955. He finished it three years later and it was first published as an introduction to his last play, The Elder Statesman, when it was first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1958. He revised the poem slightly, and it was then published as the final item in his collection, Complete Poems 1909-1962.

Eliot’s play The Elder Statesman is a social drama that contains some of his most tender and expressive theatrical dialogue. The backdrop of the play is Oedipus at Colonus, the second of the three tragic Theban plays by Sophocles, and written shortly before Sophocles died in Athens in 406 BCE.

Eliot recalled in an interview how he referred to the Greek originals as points of departure rather than models. They were more like a springboard where the situation has been established by Greek myth then rethought in modern terms. From this setting he developed his own characters and then created another plot. In The Elder Statesman, Lord Claverton, a former cabinet minister and banker, is helped to confront his past by the love of his daughter Monica, his Antigone.

The Elder Statesman is Eliot’s last poetic production and is regarded as one of his most sympathetic treatments of humanity. The dialogue, and the love scenes in particular, contain some of his most tender and expressive writing for the theatre.

It is a play about compassion, forgiveness and the need to divest oneself of lies. It is a romantic comedy that portrays the moral renaissance of a man who, after a long life of public achievements, finally accepts his private disappointments.

In a moment of revelation in Act III, Lord Claverton observes:

If a man has one person, just one in his life,
To whom he is willing to confess everything – …
Then he loves that person, and his love will save him.

In the closing moments of the play, Charles Hemington tries to describe for Monica his love for her, but knows any words are inadequate:

I love you to the limits of speech, and beyond.
It’s strange that words are so inadequate.
Yet, like the asthmatic struggling for breath,
So the lover must struggle for words.

In her final lines, Monica tells Charles:

I’ve loved you from the beginning of the world.
Before you and I were born, the love was always there
That brought us together …

Age and decrepitude can have no terrors for me,
Loss and vicissitude cannot appal me,
Not even death can dismay or amaze me
Fixed in the certainty of love unchanging.
I feel utterly secure
In you; I am part of you …’

Writing in the Guardian, the music and theatre critic Philip Hope-Wallace suggested that in the play Eliot is saying ‘totally shared love is the supreme road to reality, and that ‘love is capable of being self-sufficient, provided it is love which is founded on true confession and resignation.’

Of course, Eliot’s toyed with the idea of love in his previous plays. But his new-found gentleness in The Elder Statesman owed much to his recent marriage. Eliot and Valerie sat in the audience on the opening night, hand in hand. This relationship led Time to conclude that ‘more than any of his previous plays or most of his poems, TS Eliot’s The Elder Statesman extols love. Compared to The Cocktail Party and The Confidential Clerk — intellectual avocados spiky with Greek myth and Christian mysticism — Eliot’s latest seems as simple as the peach that Prufrock was once afraid to eat.’

Eliot had studied at Harvard in 1906-1909 and was at Merton College, Oxford, when he was introduced to Vivien Haigh-Wood. On an impulse, they married at Hampstead Register Office, London, on 26 June 1915.

That same month, ‘The Love-Song of J Alfred Prufrock’, Eliot’s first widely-acclaimed poem, was published in the June 2015 edition of Poetry. It is a truly subversive poem, whose first three lines signal the arrival of literary modernism and which can be practically read as its credo.

Prufrock is a miscast troubadour of the Edwardian drawing room who fails to raise his lute or his voice due to simple lack of courage. The poem is an anthem for all those who have failed through inaction, which probably includes all of us at some time, providing the poem with its great poignancy.

Eliot’s first marriage soon became a nightmare, partly of his own making. Some of this is reflected in The Waste Land, which he wrote between 1915 and 1922. Vivien’s emotional and physical health declined, the strain of her health took its toll on Eliot, the marriage worsened, and the couple separated. However, because of his high Anglican beliefs, Eliot refused to contemplate divorce. For most of the 1930s he isolated himself from Vivien’s frequent attempts to humiliate him into a reunion. Eventually, she was committed to a psychiatric hospital in Finsbury Park, and she died on 22 January 1947.

After World War II and Vivien’s death, Eliot led a secluded life. He was awarded the Nobel Prize for Literature and received the Order of Merit in 1948. Yet it was another decade before he married again.

Valerie Fletcher was 38 years younger than Eliot when they married in Saint Barnabas Church, Kensington, at 6:15 on 10 January 1957: she was 30 and he was 68. Later, Craig Raine recalled in his eulogy at Valerie Eliot’s funeral: ‘He wrote her a love letter every Sunday because, he said, he was a writer, and so that she would know after he was dead how much he loved her.’

Eliot’s second marriage was as brief and sweet as his first had been long and tormented. His poem ‘A Dedication to My Wife’ celebrates that happy marriage that followed. It is his only outspoken love poem.

In The Waste Land, bodies smell dreadfully unpleasant and there is no place for a word like ‘lovers’ that is not accompanied by irony and devoid of savage purpose. In his final poem, ‘To My Wife,’ Eliot revisits his images of roses and rose gardens. But this time there is no pretence, no density and no isolation. Eliot’s experience of fulfilment was so late in coming, and without it we would have missed the ‘rose-garden’ which becomes ours as well.

The original dedication written by Eliot for The Elder Statesman, but truly written for Viv, reads:

To My Wife

To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quickens my senses in our wakingtime
And the rhythm that governs the repose of our sleepingtime,
The breathing in unison

Of lovers …
Who think the same thoughts without need of speech
And babble the same speech without need of meaning:

To you I dedicate this book, to return as best I can
With words a little part of what you have given me.
The words mean what they say, but some have a further meaning
For you and me only.

Perhaps a romantic poem is an unusual dedication for a play or any other major writing. But as Charlotte and I walked from the Harvard Chapel under the Samuel Johnson windows and out of Southwark Cathedral this morning, I was reminded that Johnson is said to have once written: ‘The promises of authors are like the vows of lovers.’

‘The promises of authors are like the vows of lovers’ … the Samuel Johnson window in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

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