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)

Daily prayers in Ordinary Time
with USPG: (154) 4 November 2023

Inside the Harvard Chapel in the north transept of Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Patrick Comerford

We are still in Ordinary Time in the Church Calendar, and tomorrow is the Fourth Sunday before Advent (5 November 2023).

Before today begins, I am taking some time for prayer and reflection early this morning.

Throughout this week, with the exceptions of All Saints’ Day on Wednesday (1 November) and All Souls’ Day on Thursday (2 November), my reflections each morning this week have been following this pattern:

1, A reflection on a church or cathedral in Southwark;

2, the Gospel reading of the day in the Church of England lectionary;

3, a prayer from the USPG prayer diary.

The stained glass window by John La Farge in the Harvard Chapel was unveiled in 1905 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Harvard Chapel, Southwark Cathedral:

The Harvard Chapel in the north transept of Southwark Cathedral commemorates John Harvard as a ‘godly gentleman and lover of learning.’ Harvard, who gives his name to Harvard University in Cambridge, near Boston. He was baptised in Saint Saviour’s Church, now Southwark Cathedral, on 29 November 1607, and his father’s signature is in the cathedral register.

John Harvard (1607-1638) was the fourth of nine children of Robert Harvard and his wife Katherine Rogers (1584-1635), originally from Stratford-upon-Avon. Robert Harvard was a prominent businessman with a butcher’s business in Pepper Alley. As a Warden of Saint Saviour’s, he had considerable influence in his community. John Harvard attended Saint Saviour’s Grammar School, where his father was a governor.

Robert Harvard and four of the children in his family died during the plague in Southwark in 1625. His widow Katherine remarried twice, and acquired the Queen’s Head Inn on Borough High Street. The street had been lined with galleried coaching inns since the days of Chaucer’s time, each one a starting point for a different destination.

John Harvard entered Emmanuel College, Cambridge, in 1627, and graduated BA (1632) and MA (1635). At Cambridge, he learned of John Winthrop’s plans to establish a Puritan settlement in New England. John married Ann Sadler (1614-1655), a minister’s daughter, in 1636 or 1637.

After the death of John’s mother and elder brother, John and Ann left for Massachusetts in 1637. He died of consumption in 1638 and left half his estate and his library of books to the proposed new college, now known as Harvard University.

He is commemorated by the Harvard Chapel, originally the Chapel of Saint John the Evangelist, in the north transept of Southwark Cathedral. The Harvard Chapel was rebuilt with donations from Harvard graduates and dedicated in 1907.

The Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist depicted in the central panel in the window in the Harvard Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The splendid stained glass window was donated in 1905 by the then US Ambassador to London, Joseph Hodges Choate, a Harvard graduate, and was unveiled on 22 May 1905. The window was designed by the American artist, John La Farge (1835-1910), whose work is scarce in Europe. He was a contemporary and rival of the acclamed designer Louis Comfort Tiffany, and his window in the Harvard Chapel was made in the US under the supervision of the architect Charles F McKim.

The window is composed of six lancet panels in a large traceried frame. The lower register of the lancets depicts the Baptism of Christ by Saint John the Baptist in the central panel, and attendant angels flanking them in separate panels. The baptism scene is modelled on a painting by the French Baroque artist Nicholas Poussin (ca 1658) in the Philadelphia Museum of Art.

The three panels in the upper register show the coat of arms Harvard to the left, the royal arms in the centre, and the coat of arms of Emmanuel College, Cambridge, where Harvard studied, to the right.

Decorative swags fill the inset panels above the three upper lancets.

The window was well received at the time. The Times reported that ‘In obedience to his care for unity in all architectural features, Mr La Farge planned this window in harmony with the style of the great periods – the thirteenth and twelfth centuries. The strong pure reds and blues and the blazing La Farge green glow in the blonde walls with the force of jewels.’

The window was damaged during World War II in a bombing raid, and was reconstructed in 1948. The reconstruction of the faces particularly shows the damage. A modern text panel below the royal arms notes the damage and acknowledges the restoration sponsored by Harvard alumni.

The altar or Communion table in the Harvard Chapel was at one time the High Altar in Saint Saviour’s Church. It is noted for its fine twisted ‘barley legs.’ It was the gift of Joyce Lady Clarke in 1623, the widow of a lawyer-poet, and her memorial in the cathedral was designed in 1626 by Nicholas Stone who worked for Inigo Jones.

The Blessed Sacrament is reserved in the Harvard Chapel in the tabernacle designed for the Great Exhibition by the Gothic Revival architect AWN Pugin in 1851, a year before his death in 1852.

The three panels in the upper register of the Harvard window show the coat of arms Harvard (left), the royal arms (centre), and the coat of arms of Emmanuel College, Cambridge (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Luke 14: 1, 7-11 (NRSVA):

1 On one occasion when Jesus was going to the house of a leader of the Pharisees to eat a meal on the sabbath, they were watching him closely.

7 When he noticed how the guests chose the places of honour, he told them a parable. 8 ‘When you are invited by someone to a wedding banquet, do not sit down at the place of honour, in case someone more distinguished than you has been invited by your host; 9 and the host who invited both of you may come and say to you, “Give this person your place”, and then in disgrace you would start to take the lowest place. 10 But when you are invited, go and sit down at the lowest place, so that when your host comes, he may say to you, “Friend, move up higher”; then you will be honoured in the presence of all who sit at the table with you. 11 For all who exalt themselves will be humbled, and those who humble themselves will be exalted.’

The altar in the Harvard Chapel was once the High Altar in Saint Saviour’s Church (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Today’s Prayers (Saturday 4 November 2023):

The theme this week in ‘Pray With the World Church,’ the Prayer Diary of the Anglican mission agency USPG (United Society Partners in the Gospel), has been inspired by a Reflection – ‘He restores my soul’ – by Revd Dale R Hanson, introduced last Sunday.

The USPG Prayer Diary today (4 November 2023) invites us to pray in these words:

Bless the Lord, O my soul, O my soul. Worship His holy name. Sing like never before, O my soul. I’ll worship Your holy name.

The tabernacle in the Harvard Chapel was designed by the Gothic Revival architect AWN Pugin in 1851 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

The Collect:

Blessed Lord,
who caused all holy Scriptures to be written for our learning:
help us so to hear them,
to read, mark, learn and inwardly digest them
that, through patience, and the comfort of your holy word,
we may embrace and for ever hold fast
the hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ,
who is alive and reigns with you,
in the unity of the Holy Spirit,
one God, now and for ever.

The Post-Communion Prayer:

God of all grace,
your Son Jesus Christ fed the hungry
with the bread of his life
and the word of his kingdom:
renew your people with your heavenly grace,
and in all our weakness
sustain us by your true and living bread;
who is alive and reigns, now and for ever.

Yesterday’s Reflection

Continued Tomorrow

‘God is Love, God is Light, God is with us’ … a panel in the north ambulatory in Southwark Cathedral, close to the Harvard Chapel (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)

Scripture quotations are from the New Revised Standard Version Bible: Anglicised Edition copyright © 1989, 1995, National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved worldwide. http://nrsvbibles.org

John Harvard is remembered in the name of Southwark Library on Borough High Street (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2023)