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)

When Samuel Johnson wrote, "the promises of authors are like the vows of lovers” surely he intended to convey the fleeting moment of expressions. No part of a book is so personal as the dedication. The long hours of labor are done, it is where the author descends from his platform to disclose the names of those who have weathered his hopes and fears, proffered sympathy for his difficulties, and provided defenses or defiances, according to their temper, against the stumbling blocks which he anticipated. Beginning in the 15th century publishers were naming authors with regularity on play title pages, writers themselves were starting to compose dedications for their plays. Printed plays were not only monuments to their authors' literary accomplishments, but were vehicles for patronage as well, but by the 19th century dedications to friends and family became commonplace.

A Dedication to My Wife first came out as an introduction to TS Eliot’s last play The Elder Statesman and then, slightly revised, as the final piece in Complete Poems 1909-1962. Drafted originally in 1955 it was finished three years later and first performed at the Edinburgh Festival in 1958. The popular social drama contains some of Eliot's most tender and expressive theatrical dialogue and is the third of Eliot’s plays to have been successfully produced at the festival before opening in London. The backdrop of the play is Oedipus at Colounus and Eliot relates in an interview that he refers to his Greek originals as points of departure rather than models; 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 then created another plot out of it.

His last poetic production is a romantic comedy portraying the moral renaissance of a man who, after a long life of public achievements, at last accepts his private disappointments. It is significant because it is one of Eliot's most sympathetic treatments of humanity. Philip Hope-Wallace of The Manchester Guardian summarizes the play:

    What Mr. Eliot wishes to tell us in The Elder Statesman is something profoundly true and important: that we cannot flee the past or ‘retire’ from responsibility – we can at best only off-load it by contrition. And that to find ‘the truth that shall set you free’ you must lay by all pretense, all ‘acting’ to others and yourself and become again as a little child. Furthermore, that to enter into reality is only possible through others; so that totally shared love is the supreme road to reality, and that as such (and this is the greatest difference between this new play and the earlier ones) love is capable of being self-sufficient, provided it is love which is founded on true confession and resignation.

Forty-four years earlier Eliot had spent the summer of 1914 at a seminar in Marburg, Germany, with plans of attending Merton College, Oxford by fall. The looming war hastened his departure and by August he had arrived in London The following spring Eliot's friend Scofield Thayer introduced him to Vivien Haigh-Wood. Eliot was immediately attracted to the dancer who possessed an exceptional frankness and charm. On an impulse they wed in June 1915. “His parents were shocked," says Ronald Bush in T. S. Eliot's Life and Career,” and then, when they learned of Vivien's history of emotional and physical problems, profoundly disturbed. The marriage nearly caused a family break, but it also indelibly marked the beginning of Eliot's English life. Vivien refused to cross the Atlantic in wartime, and Eliot took his place in literary London."

Six years after their marriage Eliot’s father passed away leaving behind a deep guilt in his son who thought he would have more time to heal the bad feelings caused by his marriage and emigration. Simultaneously Vivien's emotional and physical health declined, and the financial and emotional strain of her condition took its toll. Near the end of the summer Eliot suffered a nervous collapse and, on his doctor's advice, took a three month's respite beginning on the coast at Margate, then at a sanitarium and finally in Lausanne, Switzerland.

No one is sure if it was the rest that helped, but soon after his collapse Eliot overcame a relentless writer's block and finished a lengthy poem he had been working on since 1919. Gathered together from a group of dramatic vignettes based on Eliot's London life, The Waste Land's bizarre passion sprang from an unexpected mingling of sundry materials into a metrical fullness of vast talent and courage. It was recognized as an effort of jazz like syncopation--and, resembling 1920s jazz, in effect iconoclastic. The poem was bathed with Eliot's horror of life and claimed by the postwar generation as a rallying cry for its sense of disillusionment.

After 1925 Eliot's marriage gradually worsened. Separated from Vivien, the poet refused to consider divorce because of his Anglican beliefs and for most of the 1930s he isolated himself from Vivien's frequent unrestrained attempts to humiliate him into a reunion. Sadly by the end of the decade she was committed to a mental hospital north of London and died in Januray1947. In her essay Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt Doris Enright-Clark Shoukri writes:

    Vivien, I believe, failed him not only because she was sick and neurasthenic, but because she did not share and, therefore, could not reenforce (sic) his memories of a first world. She was part of his relational experience. She did not inspire him to lyric expression or at least his lyricism expresses neither his desire for her nor his awakening to life in his love for her. She may, indeed, have inspired the mood of despair apparent in The Waste Land in the notes to which he expresses his adherence to Bradley’s (1846-1924) belief that one’s, “external sensations are no less private to myself than are my thoughts or feelings. In either case my experience falls within my own circle, a circle closed on the outside; and, with all its elements alike, every sphere is opaque to the others which surround it…”

Following the war, Eliot turned entirely to literary compositions and plays, the most noteworthy of which revisited the French symbolists and the progress of language in twentieth-century poetry. After Vivien’s death Eliot led a secluded life and the following year he received the Order of Merit and was awarded the Nobel Prize for literature. It would be another decade before Eliot remarried. Valerie Fletcher was 38 years younger than her husband when they were married in 1957 and it is this poem A Dedication to My Wife that celebrates the happy marriage that followed. His steadfast loneliness, his desire for the vanished simplicity of his early life was eased by contentment likened to “immediate experience.”

The relaxed nature of the poem with its matter of fact opening becomes beautifully insecure by the last line shaping a credible apotheosis for the hero. By the time it was published several generations had already joined in with his poems that opened in bashful hostility leading up to shrewdly blunt poetic moods. Today some prefer the forceful grimness of Eliot's colder spring while others take pleasure in reading Eliot's only outspoken love poem. With its "… breathing in unison/ Of lovers whose bodies smell of each other" Eliot returned and drastically reworked the mind-set articulated in The Waste Land where bodies smell dreadfully unpleasant and where there is no place for a word like "lovers" that is unaccompanied by irony and devoid of savage purpose. Eliot at last confiscated the opportunity of this final work to revisit and dote upon his oft-evoked images of roses and rose gardens where he acts the part of the poet-as-autobiographer, for autobiography is a steady reassessment of experience. As a result of this effect the verse loses merit. In his lines to her, there is no pretense, no density, no isolation, and consequently almost nothing Eliotic. Such verses might have readers rejoice for Eliot the man, but it’s impossible to equally rejoice in the experience of fulfillment that was so late in coming because we would have missed the “rose-garden” which his loneliness made, not hers-- but ours as well. We “should have lost a gesture and a pose.”

Note Bene to the Gentle Reader: This poem has resided in a special place for a long time. First there were a few phrases that appeared, placed there by Ms Coby. Our editor-in-chief sweetly persuaded her to allow its recitation during their nuptials!


Index of Authors, A Dedication to My Wife:
Accessed August 13, 2005.

Lidia Vianu on Four Quartets:
Accessed August 13, 2005.

Nur wer die Sehnsucht kennt, by Doris Enright-Clark Shoukri
Alif: Journal of Comparative Poetics © 2001 Department of English and Comparative Literature, American University in Cairo.
Published by Department of English and Comparative Literature, American University in Cairo and American University in Cairo Press.
Accessed August 13, 2005.

"The Elder Statesman" and Eliot's "Programme for the Metier of Poetry". Rudd Fleming; Eliot, Wisconsin Studies in Contemporary Literature, Vol. 2, No. 1. (Winter, 1961)
Accessed August 13, 2005.

for Sally and Ryan, may your love story be a long and richly colored tapestry.

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