“To Whom I Owe the Leaping Delight”—Requiescat in Pace, Valerie Eliot

A friend shared this obituary from the Telegraph for T.S. Eliot’s second wife, Valerie, who died on November 9. As anyone who reads this blog regularly knows, Eliot is my favorite poet. I’ve always loved the story of his late life romance with his secretary, Valerie. And even though, as the obit writer points out, it isn’t “remarkable as art,” this poem, the dedication to his play The Elder Statesman and the last one in his Collected Works, has always been one of my favorites because it serves as a perfect capstone to his life’s work:

A Dedication to My Wife

To whom I owe the leaping delight
That quicken 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.

After all the anguish about love and sexuality in The Waste Land, this sweet little dedication suggests a final peace.  It captures Eliot’s recurring fascination with time and the possibility of eternity, this garden is a place outside of time where the seasons cannot reach nor decay corrode. The image of the rose garden is a recurring one in Eliot’s work and in The Four Quartets the rose seems closely linked to Dante’s image of the multifoliate rose, his symbol of the beatific vision. Here it has always seemed to me an image of paradise found, the culmination of a long journey through the inferno and purgatory to a place where love is pure and unfading.

Critic Albert Gelpi writes:

The loathesome bodily odors which filled the earlier poems become here the aura of a love which embraces mind and body. There is no mention of the Incarnation, but the poem betokens Eliot’s most personal and intimate experience of that mystery. The unspoken Word stands behind the lovers’ speechless thoughts and babbled speech; the rose has bedded in the garden which is theirs only in season and beyond season.
(from A Coherent Splendor: The American Poetic Renaissance, 1910-1950)

I’ve always loved the story of their romance but Valerie’s obituary adds details I hadn’t previously seen.

The headmistress of Queen Anne’s may also have smiled wryly when Valerie Fletcher told her, on leaving, that she was determined to become TS Eliot’s secretary. For six months she worked at the Brotherton Library of the University of Leeds, and then as private secretary to the novelist Charles Morgan. But her aim, as she artlessly phrased it, was always “to get to Tom”; and in August 1950 she duly succeeded in becoming his secretary at Faber & Faber.

The essential prerequisite of Valerie Eliot’s final triumph was that she knew better than to alarm her formidable employer with uncontrolled and gushing admiration. Mary Trevelyan called Eliot “the Pope of Russell Square” on account of the fawning respect with which he was treated at Faber & Faber; such was his fear of women, however, that he would duck into the lavatory rather than risk having to leave the building with a secretary. For years, therefore, Valerie Fletcher’s office hours were consecrated simply to earning a formidable reputation for efficiency.

“I can’t get to know her at all,” Eliot complained to Mary Trevelyan as late as 1955, “she shuts up like a clam.” After their marriage he would acknowledge that for a long time he was not even sure that she liked him. He had no notion that, outside the office, the discreet secretary was building up a collection of his works that rivalled his own. In whatever way the breakthrough was made, once Eliot had discerned Valerie Fletcher’s unconditional love he did not hesitate.

It is said that he proposed by slipping a note into a batch of letters which he gave her for typing.

I love the story of the young woman in love with the poet who determined to become his secretary and eventually married him. Although today her actions might be characterized as “stalking”, her restraint and circumspection as she maintained a professional relationship show that there was something more there. How wonderful that it bloomed into love for both of them.

Another article about Valerie published after the release of the film Tom and Viv.

 

4 Responses to “To Whom I Owe the Leaping Delight”—Requiescat in Pace, Valerie Eliot

  1. priest's wife November 16, 2012 at 9:36 am #

    beautiful and in no way irreverent, Auntie Leila

    I must confess…years ago I tried Sayers and for some reason I was put off- I must try again!

  2. Bearing January 19, 2013 at 9:40 am #

    I’m reading all of these so far for the first time (that’s why so late to the party) and I just wanted to acknowledge my delight at the wordplay, “the alpha in the room.”

  3. Leialoha Perkins August 20, 2016 at 10:40 am #

    When T.S. Eliot, it was announced in Boston, was going to give a reading at Harvard –it was the late 1950ʻs — the English Lit students, like myself, who skeptically considered hearing him in person because we could scarcely follow Eliot in his books, so strangely obscure were his Madame Sostrises and bowing Japanese among the Western paintings in a museum, after Prufrock the dandyʻs wonderful sensitivities and Sweeneyʻs honest-to-God low class doings . . . well, I personally went out of rank curiosity. At least to see his secretary-wife, Valerie, whom I was sure I would understand and probably like. What surprised me was how much the talk that followed the announcement was about her, rather than Eliot, but no doubt these talkers really understood Eliot. But the talk was strange with what seemed like ill will. At the reading, there was a lectern that Eliot was ushered to, as many scrambled to be close, so that Valerie who was small, and though fair among the dark suited,agitating for closer proximity to the poet, was almost unseen. She was literally pushed aside. Like the pre-reading mean talk. And found Eliotʻs reading much livelier than expected, for he read slowly, with great deliberation that gave a certain gravitas to the words that I had not expected was to be read without a near ministerial tone. I wondered how much Valerie Eliot had to do with that. So it comes as a surprise to find that Eliot “confessed to Mary Trevelyan” that Valerie “closed up like a clam.” On stage on the night of the reading, she seemed indifferent to the pushiness. Eliotʻs “Dedication to My Wife” is
    reassuring to read, especially after the biographical expositions. And Valerie Eliotʻs response to the question –why did Eliot marry (and so late?): Because, she reportedly said, he wanted to know what a happy marriage was. Not like. But was. Despite his formidable poetry, he really was intuitive about people and everyday life, which he showed also when, upon reading Joyce found him important for everybody, not deterred as Virginia Woolf was by blow-by-blow internal monologues about, for instance, defecating and (I swear the real word was) farting. Square that with the complexities of “Little Gidding” and the mystery that was in the marrying of Valerie Fletcher — thereʻs an Eliot one might understand more easily than before. He understood simplicity (which is not simple) and change — in the end, he did provide footnotes to some of his poetry.

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  1. Building Stately Mansions - The Wine-Dark Sea - February 19, 2017

    […] about the private in public, the liminal space Eliot refers to in his public love poem to his wife, A Dedication to My Wife: “These are private words addressed to you in public.” How do we talk in public about those […]

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