What follows is a paper I wrote for a undergraduate class at Christendom College. Looking back over the paper, i realized that the whole thing was kinda, well, meh. Not that great. But I'm posting it anyway. Hopefully it still makes sense to the general reader.
ELIOT’S ASH WEDNESDAY: A CHRISTIAN POEM
In 1930, just three years after his baptism and confirmation into the Anglican Church, T. S. Eliot published his conversion story. It was his poem Ash Wednesday.[i] He had converted amid tides of intellectuals rebelling against the over-secular society of the early twentieth century. Ash Wednesday is the chronicle of this conversion, told in beautiful allegories and metaphors. It portrays the struggle Eliot faced in converting. “It is a poem about the difficulty of religious belief, about the difficulty of renouncing the temporal world.”[ii] However, there is more in the poem than simply “the difficulty of religious belief;” the poem is at its core Christian. The allusions reference prayer, great pieces of classical Christian literature, and the Bible. Therefore, one should not simply lump Ash Wednesday together with Eliot’s other social commentary poems, but instead look to it as an example of modern Christian literature.
The poem’s title points the reader in the appropriate direction. Caroline Philips notes that, “as the title suggests, Ash Wednesday is essentially a meditation associated with the prayer and penitence appropriate to the beginning of Lent: a coming to terms with one’s unworthiness.”[iii] Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a period of penance and reparations for sins. It culminates with Holy Week, containing Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, ending with Easter Sunday, the day celebrating Christ’s rising from the dead. The title Ash Wednesday calls these feasts to mind, the suffering of Lent that leads to death and eventually salvation. Salvation can only come about through suffering. This theme is frequent throughout Western Literature, and does properly set up the poem.
The poem opens with the following lines:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn. [iv]
Eliot perfected the art of lifting lines from other sources and placing them within his own poems (his great work The Wasteland is another prime example) to drive home the poem’s point. Ash Wednesday is no different. The opening lines reference two things. The first is a short poem by Guido Cavalcanti, a friend of Dante, which contains the line “Perch’io non spero di tornar gia mai,” translated into the opening line of Ash Wednesday. The other allusion here is more Christian, since the Cavalcanti reference is to a poem of despair. The Epistle read at Anglican service from the Book of Common Prayer for Ash Wednesday is from Joel. It reads, “Turn ye even to me, saith the Lord, with all your heart.” The speaker in the poem, who represents Eliot himself, is responding to God’s call to turn to him in the negative. He does not want to enter into the sufferings of Lent. Therefore, he does not hope to turn to God. He turned his back on the Lord. He has despaired. He asks why the Lord should try to save him: “(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)” (I. 6). This allusion of the eagle and his wings has a Christian origin, particularly in St. Augustine’s Confessions,[v] as well as a biblical reference to Exodus 19:4: “I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.”[vi]
The speaker proceeds to list several negative comments:
Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again (I. 9 – 15).
This litany of negatives “develops the idea of religious emptiness, of moving into the world of the Void, with a certain gloomy satisfaction.”[vii] Because of the speakers apathetic view of existence he has ignored everything that is important, including that Power who keeps him in existence, that is, God. He does not hope to know the “infirm glory of the positive hour,” that is, his death.
The speaker then moves into a discussion that is peculiar, and has been covered by many critics, but is not in particular Christian in subject. It shows the speaker has some understanding of the world. Time is time, and place is place. The speaker proclaims, “I rejoice that things are as they are and,” (I.20) and what? The speaker again slips back into despair:
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice (
I. 21 – 25).
The speaker had joy, had understanding, but he rejected it, renouncing the voice and the “blessed face,” admitting that the only thing he had to rejoice about was something he himself created.
The blessed face and voice could recall
’s when he
heard the voice of the Lord, but did not see His face. The speaker, like Paul, is being pushed in
the direction of conversion. God is on
his side. Another possibility is that
the “blessed face” is a woman’s, the Lady that appears later in the poem. If this is so, argues Craig Raine, “she
cannot be the Virgin.”[viii] This debate will be taken up later. Either way the speaker is hopeless in own
mind; he cannot hope. “Under these
circumstances Eliot almost wills himself to be positive, ‘having to construct
something / Upon which to rejoice,’ and the succeeding prayer to God for mercy
is, at least in part, that construct which will provide him with a framework
for rejoicing.”[ix] St. Paul
The speaker moves on to a prayer for mercy, praying, “That I may forget,” forget what has made him turn away from God, that which has made him hopeless. “Only thus can the serenity of faith emerge and the poet move on from ‘what is done, not to be done again.’”[x] This passage calls to mind Psalm 130, where it states, “If thou, LORD, shouldest mark iniquities, O Lord, who shall stand” (Ps. 130:3). Following this pleading for God’s mercy the speaker invokes another religious character, the Blessed Mother. The ending line of the stanza is the last line in the Hail Mary: “Pray for us, now and at the hour of our death” (
I. 39). The invocation of Mary is a central aspect of
the Catholic Church, one forbidden by the Church of England. Not only is the speaker becoming Christian,
he is becoming Catholic, or at least Anglo-Catholic like Eliot.
The image that opens the second stanza is a Lady with three white leopards. The leopards have eaten the speaker. They could represent the 3 beasts that Dante encounters at the start of the InfernoAs mentioned above, Raine does not hold that the Lady in this scene and Mary are the same person, for “She honours the Virgin in meditation,” (II. 10) and since Mary could not honor herself in meditation, she cannot be this Lady. So who is this Lady? She bears striking resemblance to Dante’s Beatrice, or even Lady Fortune in Boethius’ Consolation of Philosophy, or other such noble ladies from past literature. Philips offers an all encompassing answer: “This figure is not only the Virgin Mary, appealed to at the end of the first poem, but also the chivalrous ideal of medieval romance and Dante’s Beatrice.”[xi] All three possibilities add to understanding the poem as Christian. If the Lady is the Virgin Mary, the Christian symbolism is clear enough. If the Lady is Beatrice or Lady Philosophy, the symbolism is still there. Both Beatrice and Lady Philosophy are from the literary world of Catholic creators, Beatrice to a lesser degree since she was a real person. Whichever of the three the Lady is, she is obviously a Christian symbol. She is garbed in white, the symbol of purity, innocence, and holiness, the color of the garment the saved in the Book of Revelation wear. White is.
After the line with the Lady, another image appears, this one more blatantly Biblical in nature. God speaks to the bones of the narrator and commands them back to life:
And God said.
“Shall these bones live? Shall these
Bones live? (II. 5 – 7)
This references Ezekiel 37:3, the vision of Ezekiel where God brings the valley of dried bones back to life. The bones in response cry praise to the woman, for her piety, purity, and wisdom. The woman contemplates, resembling again Lady Philosophy in The Consolation of Philosophy. The bones are purified, shinning white like the woman’s gown, because of the woman, who has allowed the leopards to eat all the organs of the bones, which represented the evil that was inside them. There is no life in the bones now, and only God can and will give it back.
After this image, there is the song of the bones. It is a prayer, resembling countless invocations of Mary and the saints. It seems that the bones invoke Lady as we do Mary. This allusion then is of Our Lady. Again the theme of a litany appears, as different names of the Lady are listed: “Rose of memory / Rose of forgetfulness” (II. 28, 29). Philips presents a beautiful analysis of this passage:
The format of the song is effectively that of a prayer to the Lady. Within her person she contains both temporal and eternal aspects – Beatrice and Mary – she embodies a unification of experience symbolized as ‘the single Rose’ which is also ‘the Garden / Where all loves end.’[xii]
The last line in the stanza states, “This is the land. We have our inheritance” (II. 54). This is an allusion to the Jews in the Old Testament and their struggle for the land promised to Abraham by God.
The next stanza has the speaker on his way to conversion. He is at the point where he has decided to follow the Lady to the Lord. It is a stairway, resembling Jacob’s stairway dream in Genesis 28, leading towards heaven. It involves climbing, as Dante had to
There is, however, another image. As the speaker reaches the top of the three stairs, he utters a prayer to God:
Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only (III. 23 – 25).
These are the prayers before one receives communion in the Mass: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you under my roof, but only say the word and my soul shall be healed.” The stairs could be stairs leading up to the altar of sacrifice. Once the speaker has reached the top, he prays for worthiness to stand before the Lord. He knows he is not worthy and that in the end God’s mercy will determine if He heals him. The speaker has converted. He is now a Christian.
The fourth stanza opens with more lines referencing the Lady:
Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour (
The reference of the Lady as Mary again comes up. She is wearing her colors, white and blue, through violet. Returning to the Lenten imagery, Violet, the color of penance, is the color of vestments worn by clergy during Mass throughout Lent. Another analogy is noted by Philips: “The open-endedness of ‘Who walked between the violet and the violet,’ suggests the constancy of the concept of the Lady moving steadily through the poem; now in the foreground, now unseen, but with her presence always felt.”[xiii] The Lady is there and not there, showing a sort of divine power. Suddenly the poem describes in beautiful images the place where the woman is walking. It is an amazing garden, reminding one of the top of
in the Purgatorio. It is like Mt. Purgatory , Eden Paradise.
The stanza ends with a line from the Hail Holy Queen, another Marian prayer: “And after this our exile” (IV. 29). The implication is clear enough. After our exile here on earth, that is (to use a Catholic phrase), our earthly pilgrimage called life, we will reach this
, this Eden Paradise, but only if
we turn to God. The prayer is invoking Mary
to pray for us, that we may be worthy, as the last stanza begged. By stressing the word “our,” not “mine,” the
speaker “reiterates the association of his life with that of all humanity.”[xiv] This spiritual journey is not just for the
speaker but for the entire human race.
This leads into one of the most explicitly Christian passages of the poem, where the emphasis is on the Word, that is, the Word made Flesh, Christ. It is a reference to the beginning of
the Christ is called the Word of God.
Dal–Yong Kim notes, “Eliot’s poetry attempts to bind human words to the
Word or Christian Logos through repeated soul-searching.”[xv] Ash Wednesday is the prime example of
this attempt. Throughout the passage are
scattered references to Christ. The poem
reads: St. John’s
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word (V. 4 – 9).
This section reflects many of the statements concerning the Word in John’s Gospel. There is even a reference to Isaiah 9:6 in the line “and the light shone in darkness.” “In the absolute authority and power of the Lord, the penitent-poet finds ‘strength beyond hope and despair,’ after resisting puritanically all distraction, indecision, and temptation.”[xvi]
Another Christological reference is found in the repetition of the line “O my people, what have I done unto thee” twice in the stanza, which concludes with a fragment of the line. The Catholic immediately recognizes the phrase as part of the Reproaches for Good Friday service, where Jesus asks the people of
why they have
betrayed him, despite Him doing such great things for them. The Reproaches themselves come from the
Prophetic book of Micah in the Old Testament: “O my people, what have I
done to you? / In what have I wearied you?
Answer me!”[xvii] In Micah as well as in the Reproaches, God is
admonishing sinners. The place this
phrase plays in Ash Wednesday is similar. The speaker poet has fallen after his
conversion, committed some kind of sin, etc, and needs to be forgiven. Israel
There is also another woman allusion:
Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose (V. 20 – 27).
After stating the phrase of admonishing, the poet speaks on the woman again: “Will the veiled sister between the slender / Yew trees pray for those who offend her” (V. 29, 30). This veiled sister is most likely another allusion to Mary, praying for the souls who have fallen away from the Word. “As she embodies both human and divine it is she who is best able to act as an intermediary for those torn between the worlds of flesh and spirit.”[xviii] We trust in Mary for her intercession, for she speaks to her divine son.
The next analogy the poem provides is that of a desert with a garden in it, a clear reference to
: “The desert
in the garden the garden in the desert / Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the
withered apple-seed” (V. 34, 35). Mary,
the new Eve, spits out of her mouth the apple seed from the Garden of
Eden. Moody provides an interesting
insight: “According to Christian legend, it was from the seed of the fruit
plucked from the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil that grew the tree upon
which Christ was crucified. That is the
one tree which can make ‘the garden in the desert.’”[xix] So from one seed the Tree of Life is born,
just as one act of turning can lead to conversion. Eden
This leads to the last stanza, which opens with a converse of the poem’s opening lines:
Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn (VI. 1 – 3).
This change from “Because” to “Although” signifies the completed conversion. The speaker knows what he was attached to before, this life, is only temporary, and that he cannot hope in that temporary. He still fears leaving his comfort, but that does not mean he will not. “At the end of his poem, although he is equally without hope, he turns again; he is unable to renounce the temporal world – although he knows the temporal world to be an illusion.”[xx] He has a better grasp now of picking himself up when he falls in his new Christian life. There is an allusion to the sacrament of Penance with a small line “(Bless me father)” (VI. 7) cutting to his confession.
There is also one last litany to the Lady: “Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden” (VI. 25). Again it closely resembles a litany to Mary. At the end of the litany there is another reference, showing that it is not just Mary the poet is invoking:
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee (VI. 32 – 35).
The first references are again to Mary, but the last two are towards Christ. “Suffer me not to be separated” is part of the Anima Christi. The line reads “Suffer me not to be separated from thee.” If Eliot had included the entire line, it would have completed the couplet, of “And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea, / Suffer me not to be separated.” However, he wanted to extend the prayer a little bit. The rhyme for “sea” is still “Thee,” but it is preceded by, “and let my cry come unto.” This extension of the prayer, of which this section is an example, invokes one last plead to God to hear the prayer of the writer. It is the culmination of a spiritual poem, ending in a prayer.
It is quite plain to see that T. S. Eliot wrote Ash Wednesday as specifically a Christian poem, not simply a religious meditation. The images in the text are not just generally religious but Anglo-Catholic specifically. Critics who clump Ash Wednesday into the category of Eliot poems that are critiques of modern society miss the point of the poem. There is more behind the words than just social commentary. Eliot would not accept anything less.
[i]Peter Ackroyd, T. S. Eliot (New York: Simon and Schuster Inc., 1984), 162.
[ii]Craig Raine, T. S. Eliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006), 22.
[iii]Caroline Philips, The Religious Quest in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot (Lewiston, New York: The Edwin Mellen Press, 1995), 49.
[iv]T. S. Eliot, Ash Wednesday in Collected Poems: 1909–1962 (New York: Harcourt Brace & Co., 1991),
I. 1–3. All citations
of Ash Wednesday will be from this edition and will be cited by stanza
and line number as follows: ( I. 1–3).
[v]A. David Moody, Thomas Stearns Eliot: Poet (New York: Cambridge University Press, 1994), 138.
[vi]KJV. All quotations from the Bible will be from this edition, unless otherwise noted, and henceforth will be cited parenthetically by book, chapter and verse, as such: Ex. 19:4.
[xv] Dal–Yong Kim, Puritan Sensibility in T. S. Eliot’s Poetry (New York: Peter Lang Publishing, Inc., 1994), 16.
[xvii]Micah 6:3, RSV.
[xx] Raine, 33.