A Bowl of Rose Leaves

22 Jun 2020 8:47 AM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Many years in the making, a turning point for Hale and Eliot arrives on 18 November 1935, when she writes her first love letter to him. (In January tells her that he draws a line between all the letters she has written beforehand, and the true love letters she has written to him since the 18th). While they first exchanged kisses on his visit to Scripps in 1933, the physical dimension of their relationship has clearly become more passionate, and Eliot describes their recent kisses with tender amazement on 22 November. He delights in knowing that she needs his letters as much as he needs to write to her. They have been seeing each other frequently in London and writing less (there is a two-week break at the beginning of November), but something happens to precipitate her letter and a sudden intensification of their relations —perhaps Eliot's encounter with Vivienne on the 18th at the Sunday Times Books Exhibition (see Letters 7.841). Hale departs for America on 11 December.  The last three weeks they spend together are both consequential and somewhat mysterious. On 25 November, Eliot describes his excitement and a combination of agony and delight at receiving her most recent letter. (On 26 November, Virginia Woolf records her rather negative impression of Hale following tea at her house—again, like Ottoline, perhaps motivated by jealousy.)

On 5 December, Eliot writes happily about the previous day spent together—from the Fuller’s shop in Walbrook to the cart-horse in Queen Victoria Street—assuring her that no other woman in the world could have done for him what she has done. He always thinks of her in the morning before anything else, and last thing at night. His next, dated 11 December, is a passionate love letter addressed to Hale at the Adelphi Hotel in Liverpool, her last stop in England before embarking on her transatlantic crossing. One of these two letters, I think the second, contains an important enclosure:  the first seventeen lines of “Burnt Norton.” Eliot wrote the first fourteen lines—up through “the door we never opened/Into the rose-garden”—the previous March for inclusion in Murder in the Cathedral, long before their visit to the gardens at Burnt Norton. The passage was cut from the play before its first performance, and Eliot repurposed it for this occasion with the addition of the following lines: “My words echo/Thus, in your mind.//But to what purpose/Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves/I do not know” (lines 14-17). We will have to wonder whether the “dust on a bowl of rose-leaves” refers to Eliot’s twenty-year-old love for Hale, finally reciprocated.

Eliot’s 11 December letter is one of his most ecstatic and explicit, describing the previous evening and the morning of her departure, when she came to say good-bye. After she left she came back a second time to reassure him that when she is gone, she is also there with him. He feels dazzled and humbled by the thought she loves him; he is a new person who belongs to her. He is in two places, just as she is also. He wishes that he could be with her now to brush her hair and help her get ready for travel, but instead he faces their love, a thing far greater than he is. He signs the letter by combining their names.


  • 22 Jun 2020 8:50 PM | CR Mittal
    A delight to read. Your expression matches the beauty of their supreme moment of love, Frances. Also, it is for the first time that I understand the possible meaning of “Disturbing the dust on a bowl of rose-leaves”. Thanks.
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  • 24 Jun 2020 3:10 AM | TS Eliot Society (UK)
    A postcard picturing the Adelphi Hotel, Liverpool in 1935: https://bit.ly/2Z1N5lD
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  • 24 Jun 2020 11:35 AM | CR Mittal
    “Neither flesh nor fleshless; / Neither from nor towards; at the still point, there the dance is”
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