T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday: Conversion & the Transcendent

eliot3.jpg (3942 bytes)

Eliot's Ash Wednesday is often called his conversion poem.  It represents a particular search for "self-transcendence," what Eliot early in his career called "an all-inclusive experience outside of which nothing shall fall."  The protagonist of the poem almost fails in his search for the transcendent, but not entirely.  It is cyclical in its form, moving from a sense of despair and choice of renunciation in death, to a vision of one's sin, to a vision of something heavenly and eternal, back to a sense of this world and its sensual claims and struggles.  Still it ends with hope in prayer.

The poem is a study in the struggle between the worlds of time and that of the eternal, between the worlds of faith and evidence, and between self-sufficiency and repentance.  It invokes a number of themes and images from Dante's final cantos of the Purgatorio, which address Dante's repentance and cleansing in Eden before Beatrice.  Eliot's Lady is alternately Lady Poverty or Renunciation, Death, the Virgin Mary, or (perhaps) a woman like Beatrice.  Eliot's later developed neo-Platonic themes are already in evidence here, esp. the notion that the eternal and transcendent somehow exist beyond our sense of history and the contingent in this life. 

It is also important to keep in mind the liturgical ritual revolving around Ash Wednesday, where the priest smears the ashes on the worshipper's forehead after confession and is enjoined, "Remember, man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return."  The poem is a paradoxical attempt to reflect on one's death and what that offers.  Two important biblical source passages are John 1:1-4 and Ezekiel 37.

Commentary

sec. I (Written in Exile)--The speaker is set to renounce covetousness and the things of this world.  But it is an act of despair. His present circumstances are empty and void--he can't drink of the garden of this world.  He "rejoices" because he renounces the beauty in a "blessèd face" and "voice," which may be either sensualiaty or the Lady of later sections of the poem.  Indeed, he cannot but renounce in his weakness.  He believes that this world is this world alone. Yet this weakness also prepares him for spiritual dependence because in his weakness, his "wings are no longer wings to fly."  He prays that God would teach him the way of negation--"to care and not to care." Out of his death something may be made "Upon which to rejoice."

sec. II (Salutation to the Lady)--The leopards of death eat away at the organs of his desire, while his pure white bones announce their praise of the Lady Poverty.  He gives his love to the desert of loss, so he would forget the world.   God tells him to prophecy to the empty wind of his present state. The Lady is representative of a singular commitment and all the paradoxes that it contains. Such devotion ends in the garden he is longing for.  His inheritance is ironically in this desert realm.

sec. III (Scaling the Summit)--The speaker climbs the stairs and looks back on former temptations of self-deceit, despair, and lust. "At the first turning of the second stair," the speaker turns to see himself a devil farther down on the stairs. "At the second turning" the stair is dark and damp beyond repair.   "At the first turning of the third air" he looks upon the pastoral temptations of Pan, "The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green."  He is in need of a strength that goes beyond either youthful hope or despair and is dependent upon God.

sec. IV (Petition to Be Mindful)--Now the speaker draws near to a vision of the Lady, who is the Virgin Mary, that stresses both her ignorance and her knowledge, as well as her ability to make things firm.  She walks in a realm "between sleep and waking" as a vision of light.  Like Dante's Beatrice, she is veiled, but also silent among the yews, which represent death, as well as sorrow and the church.  It is the birds who remind us to "redeem the time."   They are to redeem "the higher dream," a vision of transcendent matters.

sec. V (Revelation of the Word)--The Word/Logos of God cannot be clearly revealed in a world full of darkness and noise.  The speaker questions if the Lady will pray for those in need in this dark world with all its terror and denial.

sec. VI (Return)--The speaker returns to the world of the senses and of desire.  All the world's claims quickly revive in the speaker, and "the blind eye creates/ The empty forms."  Life is the world between birth and death.   Still, one must pray--that "[o]ur peace is in His will" especially among the rocks of this world.

Questions

  1. What is the effect of the figure of the Lady in the poem?
  2. Likewise, what is the aesthetic effect of Eliot's use of symbols in the poem?
  3. How is Eliot's poem true to the nature of Ash Wednesday?
  4. Contrast the vision of the Virgin with that of the stairs.
  5. Do you agree with Eliot's neo-Platonic bifurication of time and eternity? Why or why not?
  6. In your opinion, does Eliot's poem end hopefully or in renewed despair?

"All manner of thing shall be well/ When the tongues of flame are in-folded/ Into the crowned knot of fire/ And the fire and the rose are one." -- T.S. Eliot, Little Gidding