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