There is perhaps no poem of T. S. Eliot’s that is as deceptively complex as “Ash-Wednesday.” Like many of Eliot’s other works from the period following the publication of The Waste Land in late 1922 and the renown that it brought him, the first three parts of the poem that posterity would come to know as “Ash-Wednesday” (in keeping with Eliot’s own practice, the hyphen is retained here) were published as separately titled poems in the years preceding the complete poem’s publication in a volume of its own in the spring of 1930. As in the case of “The Hollow Men,” there is no reason to conclude that Eliot was not conceiving of the three separately published poems to begin with as pieces in a larger whole, just as there is no reason to conclude that he was.
By now, he had a sufficient reputation as a major poetic voice, not to mention his publishing outlets as editor of the Criterion and as poetry editor for Faber & Faber, to publish works in progress easily, without having to think of them or introduce them as such, rather than as single, coherent pieces, as was the case with The Waste Land. In any event, Part II of the completed poem, “Ash-Wednesday,” would first appear as “Salutation” in 1927, Part I as “Perch’ io non spero” in 1928, and Part III as “Al som de l’escalina” in 1929. Each of those three titles gives some insight into Eliot’s intentions by identifying, through a direct allusion, a particular literary source and figure for each.
A Map of Allusions
In the first case, “Salutation,” Eliot appears to be alluding to Dante Alighieri’s La vita nuova, a poem in which he celebrates both the beginning of his love for Beatrice and, with his love for her, the introduction of the great theme of love into his poetry as well. It is a theme that cannot be taken too lightly in the hands of a poet like Dante, who, for all the unique reputation that he holds as a man of letters now, in his own time would have been seen to be in the tradition of the school of love poets known as the troubadours. For them, love for a lady was both akin to and a deliciously mind- and spirit-opening rival to one’s love for the divine. That said, something of Eliot’s plans for the larger work that may then have been taking shape can be seen in the fact that the other two sections of the poem that were also published as separate pieces, “Perch’io non spero” (Part I) and “Al som de l’escalina” (Part III), hark back to two other troubadour poets, Guido Cavalcanti and Arnaut Daniel, both of whom are also closely connected with Dante.
In his typical fashion, Eliot provides his readers with literary cultural markers as parts of a clear road map toward his intended meaning, just as many other outstanding features of the eventually published complete work, too, virtually plead with the reader to accept that finished poem as the true bill of goods that it pretends to be. Indeed, as testaments to its own directness in its attempt at unabashed clarity, the completed poem sequence, “Ash-Wednesday,” despite its difficulties, offers the attentive reader a plethora of signposts for the poet’s intentions, making the poem surely something of a first for the self-made modernist Eliot, who hitherto had seemed to regard obscurity of intention as an obligation.
In addition to the links to the troubadours, these signposts include the hardly obscure Christian liturgical observance identified without fanfare or embellishment in the sequence title, “Ash- Wednesday;” the use of lines from devotional prayers and rituals of the Catholic Mass; and the poetry’s haunting but no less obscure overtones of, if not outright allusions to, passages from Scripture and from a major religious poet, Dante.
Several commentators have also identified in the poem’s stress on exercising severe self-abnegation to achieve spiritual salvation the influences of the 16th-century Spanish Christian mystic St. John of the Cross, whose program of fleshy austerity had already played a significant role in Eliot’s epigraph to “Sweeney Agonistes.” John’s particular emphasis, in his Dark Night of the Soul, on a complete emptying of self through a denial of personal will and a renunciation of worldly pleasures for the sake of receiving God into one’s soul may play a role in the excessive purgative processes that the poetry of “Ash-Wednesday” proposes, particularly in Part II, in which the speaker is reduced to bones. However, there is more of a disciplining of the senses than a denial of them in Eliot’s approach, making the eroticism of Dante’s approach to expressing the spiritual in poetry seem to be the more prevalent model.
Yet, despite this untypical effort on Eliot’s part not to cloud his general intentions, the poetry of “Ash-Wednesday” is often more troublesome for readers than the far more difficult, convoluted, and obscure poetry of The Waste Land, say, because “Ash-Wednesday” seems to demand a reading based on belief, not poetry.
Matters of Belief
The poetry of “Ash-Wednesday,” for all the constraints of its religious overtones, is as open to interpretation as any other of Eliot’s poetry. Still, the suspicion persists that “Ash-Wednesday” is quite different from anything that had come from his pen before. That, too, should not prove to be the case, however.
Many contemporary followers of Eliot’s poetry had regarded him as a forceful voice of dissidence in his critiquing of the cultural and social status quo of the postwar world. Hearing of his religious conversion to the established Church of En gland, in which he had been first baptized and then confirmed in June 1927, these readers had then come to regard him as a turncoat and a lost leader. Those passions were of their own time and have passed, of course. Still, there are many readers to this day who, finding something companionable in the iconoclastic and despairing cynic of the earliest Eliot, are prepared only to be let down when the poet takes what seems to be his sudden turn toward a verse that is centered on longstanding traditions that are religious in nature. The cause for that disappointment may be laid at the door of the discomforts caused not so much by the religious content and context per se as by encountering in the poem what appears to be the revelation of an intensely intimate and private spiritual experience. The more “religious” such poetry seems to be, the more commonly it provokes discomfort.
The key to this observation, however, is the distinction between the spiritual and the religious. The poetry of The Waste Land, for example, is highly spiritually charged. By that poem’s closing, as the reader hears the injunctions from the Upanishads in “What the Thunder Said,” there can be no doubt that the thrust of the poetry has been moved wholly into spiritual realms—but not the realm of what is normally perceived of as religion or the religious. The same can be said for “The Hollow Men,” whose poetry is contrived to express what ultimately can be regarded as nothing more than a spiritual paralysis in that poem’s collective speakers— but a spiritual paralysis is not a religious crisis.
The same exception cannot be made for “Ash- Wednesday,” however, whose entire focus seems to require the reader to acquire a particular religious bias in order to decipher the poetic moment. The majority of readers generally resent such a requirement, even if they happen to be strongly religious or perhaps even share the very belief system that is ostensibly being expounded. Since much of the rest of Eliot’s poetry from his conversion on is nominally religious in nature, such is a critical problem that needs especially to be addressed inasmuch as his poetry is concerned.
Readers have long been used to hearing poets lament a lost love or bare the innermost parts of themselves in their longing for beauty or human brotherhood or liberty or countless other common enough themes, but let a poet speak about events or feelings that give even a hint of the religious, as opposed to the spiritual, that is to say, and the level of both intellectual tolerance and aesthetic patience among readers drops dramatically. The believer already familiar with the religious tenets and devotions being expressed misses the value of their poetic function and wonders instead what the fuss is all about; the nonbeliever, meanwhile, imagines himself or herself wrongly being excluded from the experience of the poetry by virtue of its being channeled through religious experiences for which that reader most likely has no personal reference points. Either way, it is as if the poet has violated some unspoken rule of what topics and approaches constitute proper modes for poetic discourse. Whether the reader is a profound believer who resents the presumptions of the religious poet or is someone who feels that religion, particularly of a highly developed doctrinal and devotional nature, ought to be kept out of the bounds of serious creative literature altogether, both of these problems can be solved if one thinks first of the poetry. Then, if thoughts turn to the religious context at all, it is done not with an eye toward some sort of doctrinal classifications but toward what permanent human impulses the religious context allows the poet to explore and express. For the religious impulse, nurtured or ignored, fostered or rejected, is surely a far more common, dare we say universal one than romantic love or dreams of glory and conquest have ever been.
At the very least, it would make sense that a poet whose career had been devoted up to this point to commenting on major social and cultural issues, as Eliot’s had, would eventually find himself addressing the matter of belief—both its personal and its socially and culturally structured dimensions— in his poetry, and as poetry. (Eliot himself commented, rather sagely, that belief in poetry ought be read as leading one not to believe but instead to feel like what it is to be a person who believes—experiences that are universes apart.)
Not that Eliot’s poetry is ever simple, but it is always poetry, not religion or psychology or philosophy or even autobiography, for that matter. Regarded as poetry, “Ash-Wednesday” not only expresses a considerable and welcome advance in Eliot’s poetic vision as it had been shaping itself from the time of “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to “The Hollow Men,” but represents the coming together as well of his experimentation with simplification. He had begun to experiment with a more direct poetic style as far back as some of the poetry in part V of The Waste Land, “What the Thunder Said.” Then, as now, he eschewed the aesthetically obscure for the sake of the spiritually clairvoyant. This effort toward a measured simplicity and directness is in keeping with and may have inspired the turn toward a more clearly pronounced thematic intent as well. Often poets can express their most profound thoughts and feelings only after they have found the simplest and most direct ways to express themselves.
In the fifth and final section of Little Gidding, the last part of the Four Quartets (1943)—the last major poetry he wrote—Eliot speaks of what he apparently regards to be the characteristics of a perfectly balanced poetic style. He describes it as one wherein “every word is at home” and there is “[a]n easy commerce of the old and the new,” with common words that are exact but not vulgar, formal language that is “precise but not pedantic,” to the end that the “complete consort danc[es] together.” Students of Eliot know that this is a description of the style that he had been utilizing all along in composing the poetry of the four long poems that had become, finally, the Four Quartets. However, it was with “Ash-Wednesday” that this sweet, new style of his had first come perfectly and completely into its own, because he had finally clarified for himself a focus to his art that had until then eluded him. That focus, on the surface, may seem to be a sharp turn toward religious themes, whereas in fact it is a turn toward a faith in a communal rather than a personal foundation to individual salvation. That salvation need not be eternal (although, again, Eliot’s private interest may at this time seem to have taken a decided turn in that direction) as long as it be, at the very least, salutary to the spirit.
“Sweeney Agonistes” had been Eliot’s last word on the philosophic mind that could live even remotely successfully alone, at a psychological distance from the rest of humankind. That is why Sweeney had failed himself, and the play, too, was a failure in the sense that Eliot never completed it. He had been exploring this possibility at least from the time of “Prufrock,” always with an eye toward assessing its shortcomings while nonetheless recommending the cynicism of its benefits at least as a coping mechanism in the impersonal urban landscape that the modern world seemed to be bent on becoming. Is it any wonder, then, that the putative hero/speaker of The Waste Land can finally only confess to a private revelation and achieve a Hemingwayesque separate peace (although Eliot beat Ernest Hemingway’s A Farewell to Arms to that jump by at least seven years), or that, for all the rest of humanity, both “Sweeney Agonistes” and “The Hollow Men” end with the characters all waiting for what otherwise is the only hope of such hollow men, death?
In “The Hollow Men,” however, Eliot had played that vein out, a conclusion implicit both in the spiritual overtones that that poem’s poetry assumes, as if groping for a key that the hollow men themselves cannot even begin to imagine, and, of course, in the further attempt at a turning that “Ash-Wednesday” blatantly announces. The turning is into a poem, and a poetry, that is, rather than a lament for the failure of vision, an expression of acceptance and communion with what vision there is that is available not just to the poet but to any mere mortal. If the poetry of “Ash-Wednesday” is in fact founded on Eliot’s own recent process of conversion, it is in this manner—turning his own personal spiritual agon, or struggle, into a richly poetic but nonetheless general commentary on the literature and culture of any individual’s personal spiritual struggle—that Eliot succeeds in transforming biography into poetry, exactly as he argues, in the 1919 essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent,” that poets do.
In a later (1932) essay on the 17th-century English playwright John Ford, Eliot is heard to observe that “a dramatic poet cannot create characters of the greatest intensity of life unless his personages . . . are somehow dramatizing, in no obvious form, an action or struggle for harmony in the soul of the poet.” Imagining that the speaker of “Ash-Wednesday” is no more the poet than Prufrock or the hollow men were and is instead a characterization invented by Eliot for the sake of giving the poetry purpose and direction, then it would seem that the operative words there in Eliot’s observation are “in no obvious form.” Eliot had always been the dramatic, or at least dramatizing, poet. The strange, almost ritualistic action of “Ash-Wednesday,” as much as its religiosity may seem to point obviously toward events in Eliot’s own life, far more likely only dramatizes, for the sake of universalizing, not the process of Eliot’s personal conversion experience but the results of its effects upon his poetic outlook.
“Ash-Wednesday” should be seen as a reflection not of Eliot’s beliefs but of his vision of the world and of the individual’s place in it. That harmony of soul, or balance, is what all great art and artists seek to achieve and to exemplify. Eliot, who until now had been the great poet of chaos and of disjunction and the fragmented, is trying to effect a new goal for his poetry, balance. Approaching “Ash-Wednesday” in this way, the reader can sort out the biographical from the poetical and thereby come to see how much the poem is not any break from but a continuance of issues and themes that Eliot had been essaying in his poetry all along.
The Religious Observance
In the Christian religious calendar, Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, the 40 days of fast and abstinence preceding Easter. On Ash Wednesday, Catholic Christians, for example, receive ashes in the sign of the cross on their forehead as a reminder of the repentance and penitence that will be required of them as they prepare to celebrate the spiritual fullness of Christ’s coming resurrection from the grave and his triumph over death. The reception of ashes is also a way, however, for them to signal their recognition, through their faith in Christ, that the world and all its worth, including the flesh, is but dross, ash, in comparison to the glory of God and of the individual soul’s eternal place with him in paradise.
It is in this spirit of self-abnegation and denial of the world, the flesh, and the devil, despite its temptations, that Eliot’s poem will proceed, but so, for that matter, did The Waste Land. In that earlier work, however, Eliot felt free to make temptation obvious by casting it in sexual garb; thus he can depict the seductiveness of behavior that is both self-serving and self-centered in the flawed sexual adventurism of Lil’s friend and Albert, or the typist and the rental clerk, or the three game Thamesdaughters, or Sweeney and Mrs. Porter’s daughter, or the Archduke Rudolph and Marie, or Tristan and Iseult, or Elizabeth and Leicester. Sex serves as an emblem of the unbridled desire that binds us to this world at the expense of any focus on our hope for the other.
But for that same reason, using sex is taking a pretty cheap shot at making a rather profound point and nowhere near as effective as the theme of love itself, as the troubadours well knew. Temptations that call the individual soul to sins of the flesh are as relatively easy to overcome as they are poetically to depict, after all, compared with temptations that ask of the soul nothing more than that it pay the world its due through the individual’s nurturing a love of created things. Resisting those temptations, however, the soul can run the risk of denying the fact that creation is a spiritual gift of God as well, a place in which the soul can come to know God through his creation. These are all far more complicated patterns of discovery and resolution, it should be clear, than sexual desire can ever properly delineate, requiring a poetry that does not cheapen and yet cannot bewilder either.
It is this precarious tightrope act, balancing the demands of the flesh, and of love, with the demands of the spirit, and of love, that Eliot hopes to exemplify in the poetry of “Ash-Wednesday.” He is aware of the paradoxes in the lonely, because isolated, search for spiritual balance and worldly contentment. These must have a single focus, for the man a woman, and this woman must be both the objective and the mere emblem of the objective, the focal point and the pale reflection of the focal point. The objective is love. As much as these are relationships harder to portray, they are zones of reference in which it is difficult to make the true objective and point clear, and that is that one seeks union not with the beloved but with love. For as Eliot himself would soon write in his first completed verse drama, Murder in the Cathedral, the worst sin is to do the right thing for the wrong reason.
The famous opening four lines of part I of “Ash- Wednesday,” in keeping with the poem’s theme of representing in poetic terms the human yearning for union with a love that is divine, combines two celebrated love poems by two celebrated love poets, as well as, by association, a third. To the uninitiated reader, the lines may express perfectly the sudden realization of the speaker that he has come to the end of a lifeline and must, if he wishes to go on, change his ways or at least his values. It can be referred to as a “veiled couplet” because the first four lines, two of which are truncated, can easily be seen to be reducible in fact to two: “Because I do not hope to turn again . . . / Desiring this man’s gifts and that man’s scope.” The speaker seems to be expressing a desire to reform his life by renouncing his former ways, but only because he has no other choice—“I do not hope.” While that desire is appropriate to the religious observance that the title has announced as the poem’s topic, each half of the equated impulse as stated owes its source to a poem of attachment, not detachment.
The first half is a cleverly altered translation by Eliot of the first line and traditional title of a ballatetta, or short ballad, by the Italian troubadour, and Dante’s best friend, Guido Cavalcanti. In the original Italian, the line reads, “Perch’io non spero di tornar giammai,” and would translate into English as “Because I do not hope ever to return.” There is, of course, a considerable difference between turning, as in the sense of altering direction, and returning, which has to do with coming back to a place one has left. Eliot surely knew his Italian well enough to know that the Italian girare, not tornare, is the English equivalent of “to turn.” He must have wanted the line to serve his purposes of allowing the speaker thus to express an apparent lack of confidence in having the ability to change himself, without his, Eliot’s, sacrificing the richer meaning of the line in the context of the original Italian when its source is brought to bear.
Cavalcanti wrote the ballatetta in question when he was in exile from his native Florence, a state of affairs brought about by the actions of his good friend and fellow poet Dante Alighieri. Without going into the details of Florence’s fractured civic life and factional strife during this period, Dante’s party, the Guelfs, of whom Cavalcanti was a member, was in power in the year 1300. So fractious were the festering rivalries, however, that the party soon itself split into two rival factions of its own, the Blacks and the Whites, to the latter of which both Dante and Guido belonged. To keep the peace, Dante was ultimately forced to exile Cavalcanti. The ballatetta is a love poem Cavalcanti wrote to lament that he can never return to the Tuscany where his beloved lives. It is one of literary history’s bitter ironies that Guido’s despair proved to be unfounded. He was in fact allowed to return to Florence because he had contracted in his exile a fatal case of malaria, from which he succumbed in August of that same year.
There is a subtext to Dante’s querulous relationship with Guido that is carried on by implication into the second of the literary allusions with which Eliot opens “Ash-Wednesday.” That one is virtually a direct quote from William Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29: “When in disgrace with fortune and men’s eyes.” This may seem to be a rather circuitous route for Eliot in a poem that is supposed to convey a directness of treatment, to go from an early 14th-century Italian poet to a late 16th-century English poet back to a second early 14th-century Italian poet to make an elliptical point. But Eliot never misses the much more salient point that meaning in poetry is most often layered, even when it is not intended that way. The more the poet manages the layering himself, the more those layers of meaning matter.
So, then, Shakespeare’s Sonnet 29, ostensibly addressed to a beloved unknown to history but alleged to be a young man, is, like Guido’s brave lament, another expression of hopelessness on the part of a speaker who also “all alone beweep[s his] outcast state,” but who is as well so displeased with himself and what he has become that he finds himself recklessly envying all others around him: “Wishing me like to one more rich in hope, / Featur’d like him, like him with friends possess’d, / Desiring this man’s art, and that man’s scope, . . .” Surely, juxtaposing Guido and Shakespeare’s sentiments the way that Eliot does allows him very quickly to set a tone for “Ash-Wednesday” as a poem of self-abnegation if not self-degradation.
However, there is a subtext involving Dante upon which Eliot may also be playing. Dante may well have suffered a grievous and possibly professional guilt for having been instrumental in bringing about the death of Cavalcanti. The notion of “desiring this man’s art” suggests an artist who recognizes a superior talent in the other. When the one and the other are creative artists, such as fellow poets, a recognition of that kind can often lead to tragedy. In its broadest conceptualization, Dante’s Divine Comedy is his “Ash-Wednesday,” a poem not only designed to take place at the very end of the Lenten season during Easter weekend but one in which the poet confesses to his sinfulness and his desire for repentance and salvation. These echoes back to both Dante and Shakespeare resonate, enabling Eliot to open “Ash-Wednesday” on a theme suitable to the liturgical solemnity of the occasion: guilt.
Although Dante wrote his masterpiece nearly 20 years after his own exile from Florence in 1302, he sets the events of the poem in April 1300 so that its action will coincide with the Easter of his own 35th year. So, then, Guido, who was exiled in June or July and was dead by August 1300, would have still been alive and living in Florence at the time the action of the poem is supposedly unfolding. As a result, Dante’s fellow and doomed poet Guido Cavalcanti does not appear in Dante’s Divine Comedy. He is noticeably referred to, nevertheless, in a particularly telling episode in the Inferno, the first part of the Divine Comedy, when, in canto X, Dante encounters Guido’s father, Cavalcante dei Cavalcanti, in Circle Six. There the heretics, those who denied the immortality of the soul, are being punished.
In the worldliness that he still suffers from even in hell, Cavalcante wonders why his son Guido is not accompanying Dante, since as a parent he imagines that his son ought to be as worthy of such a distinguished honor as Dante is. When Dante tells him that Guido is not along because he, like his father, was not a believer in an Eternal Creator, Dante’s use of the past tense makes Cavalcante think that Guido must be dead. Considering that in April 1300 Guido was but months away from exile and death as a result of Dante’s actions, one must wonder what ghosts Dante was exorcising those 20 or more years later as he penned this scene, one in which it is suggested that Guido is as great a poet as Dante and in which, too, Guido’s death a short time later is rather dramatically adumbrated.
Perhaps such a reading would be a bit too melodramatic for some tastes, but this is poetry, after all, and there are such things as the little murders, of self and of others, of dreams and of plans and of hopes, that every human being commits with regularity along life’s way, or so must it surely seem to the Dantes and Shakespeares and Eliots of the world. The common element binding all the historical and literary details in the opening lines of “Ash-Wednesday” is the restless spirit of factitiousness and competition, ambition and envy, and the poet seems to ask the eternal question of a mortal humanity: Where is there an end to it, and when, the ceaseless wailing of the disconsolate chimera? Thus, as melodramatic as it may seem, knowing Eliot’s propensity for the subtlest of insinuation, these opening lines of “Ash-Wednesday” can be seen as the speaker’s effort no longer to hide from or run from or excuse away those buried corpses of past sins and secret betrayals that also haunt the speaker of The Waste Land in part I, “The Burial of the Dead.” That “awful daring of a moment’s surrender” from “What the Thunder Said” may also come to mind here. However they be interpreted, each individual’s little, self-remembered acts of spitefulness and envy, betrayal and deceit that can never be recalled but are never forgotten haunt those two, bare lines: “Because I do not hope to turn again. . . / Desiring this man’s gifts and that man’s scope.”
No wonder Eliot’s speaker, whatever the implications of the intricate web that the opening allusions have spun, does not hope to turn again. He has no desire to turn back to whatever he had to this time been, and he says quite clearly and boldly, “I no longer strive to strive toward such things.” So, then, on this Ash Wednesday, since he cannot turn back, he begins to make at last a forward motion into purgation and renewal, for there is no end to it, not as long as one is alive. “Why should the agéd eagle stretch his wings,” except that he must— especially if he has any hopes to move past the past and on to whatever vague promise of redemption the future may hold. And so this traveler, this pilgrim, fares forward. Nor are past triumphs spared. They, too, come under a withering scrutiny, for once the world and all its empty promises is seen for the sham that it is, it can never be seen again as anything real, although that world and life do go on. “The infirm glory of the positive hour” is no less a pain to be reckoned with than the pains of shame or guilt.
The remainder of part I continues in this same vein of an emptying, a conscious process voiding the spirit of worldliness and vanity that is required if the individual is to be made open and ready for the acceptance of grace. This is a purgative process, after all, so for all the apparent resignation and despair of the tone, the speaker vacates his ties to the world with a methodical precision mirroring his determination to yield everything ultimately for the paradoxical sake of everything—the world for eternity. The speaker suffers no delusions, however: He can prepare himself, but he can make nothing happen. He knows that he shall not know “the one veritable transitory power,” which is that moment of grace—that he shall not drink, that place is only ever place, that he must renounce in order to accept. And so, surrendering the egotistical will, the self-centered vision, he nevertheless can rejoice just in “having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice,” which is what life still remains to him.
Even that self-emptying can run too close a track to self-obsession, and as part I draws to a close, its energies at self-expression virtually winding down to a murmur (but not the hollow men’s whimper at least), he comes to see that he must renounce even the spirit of renunciation, for that will still require engaging the will, which is not openness to God’s will but attention to his own. The speaker prays to “forget / These matters . . . I too much discuss,” that the judgment may “not be too heavy,” that he may learn “to care and not to care,” to “sit still.” That is the most difficult of spiritual tasks: to relinquish even the passion for salvation, since it is impatience, and impatience is no less an unwillingness to yield and let be. And so, appropriately enough, part I of “Ash-Wednesday” ends not with poetry but with prayer. If Eliot’s last previous major poem, “The Hollow Men,” ended with a refrain taken from the Lord’s Prayer, the prayer to God admitting that his, not the world’s, is the kingdom and the power and the glory, then it is a significant indication of how humbled the speaker of “Ash-Wednesday” is in comparison that his prayer is from the Hail Mary, the prayer addressed to the Virgin Mary as the human mediator and advocate between God and his children. “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death / Pray for us now and at the hour of our death,” he repeats, throwing himself as he does so, like any and every other sinner, on the mercy of the court of heaven itself.
In keeping with this movement toward the feminine and maternal in the speaker’s seeking for succor, solace, and surrender—or, in a single thought, peace—the next part of the poem openly addresses her: “Lady.” The supposition, based on Eliot’s original title for part II, “Salutation,” when it was first published as a separate poem in 1927, is that Eliot is here echoing that passage from Dante’s La vita nuova (The New Life) in which he recounts the moment that Beatrice first greeted him. Such a supposition, however, requires that the layering of this transitional device be given its full due.
Dante is thought to have begun to compose La vita nuova in 1293, although there is no precise dating of how long he was engaged in writing it. La vita nuova is a series of love lyrics framed by a continuing chronological narrative of Dante’s various encounters with Beatrice and their effect on his growth as a person who is consumed by a single passion, love. In keeping with the poetry of the troubadours that celebrated the traditions of courtly love that had originated in Provence, a region of France adjacent to Italy’s northwestern borders, in the late 12th century, such poetry requires that the beloved be worshiped from afar. Indeed, the less she knows of the lover’s ardor, the greater the salutary effects of the love on the lover’s spirit, although the greater too must be the lover’s pain caused by his secret beloved’s unintended whims and slights.
To say that it is an ennobling and pure love is putting it mildly. It is surely earthly love ennobled and purified, as much as is imaginable, into a simulacrum of desire for union with the unattainable, which is the divine.
While there is no doubt that there really was a Beatrice Portinari whom Dante knew as a young man and in whom he may have had a romantic interest, there may be some doubt that she was in fact a person whom the poet Dante loved in this extremely rarefied way. Dante was a poet, after all, and the testimony in La vita nuova of his love for Beatrice may be controlled more by the conventions of the literary tradition in which Dante was writing than by biographical fact. (Like a good investigative reporter, a poet will stop at nothing to get a great poem for his readers.) Nevertheless, that such a love had a profound effect on the poet is testified to by both La vita nuova and, more particularly, La commedia divina, wherein it is Beatrice in the spirit, she having since passed away, who guides Dante, by virtue of his lifelong devotion to love and by virtue of God’s will and grace, to the point where he might witness paradise.
Surely, the psychology of this kind of love literature is all that matters finally, for it is the spiritual essence of the record that remains in the poetry, rather than the veracity of its details, that itself is capable of inspiring others. Furthermore, it seems to be the psychology of a self-denying love that attracts Eliot to this particular aspect of Dante’s life and work at this particular juncture in “Ash-Wednesday.”
Dante’s foremost contribution to the literature of the spirit or inner person was not so much that he extended the language of romantic love; a number of equally notable Provençal poets had already done that before him, most important among them Arnaut Daniel. What Dante adds to that literature, especially in La vita nuova, is his poignantly beautiful commentary on the power of love to transform the individual not just in terms of his devotion to the female object of his love, but especially in terms of his interaction with the entire world around him. So much, indeed, did Dante invent the discourse of love’s transformative powers that his language in this regard may seem commonplace nowadays. Eliot is sensitive enough to the lingering freshness of the original implications of Dante’s imagery and language as a means to exemplify the growth of the individual spirit that he reinvigorates that initial spiritual impulse of Dante’s in his own poetry in part II of “Ash-Wednesday.”
In La vita nuova, the speaker, whom the reader has every reason to believe is in fact Dante, tells of how he first saw and fell in love with Beatrice when both he and she were but nine years old. The true turning point comes, however, some nine years later (Dante being always keen to note the numerological coincidences of the timing), when she actually greets him. This is the celebrated “salutation” to which Eliot apparently is making reference. Dante reports how, it being the first time that her words were addressed directly to him, he became drunk with their sweetness and, having retired to his own room to think about her, fell asleep. Sleeping, he had a vision in which a figure, who later turns out to be his master, Love, brings the sleeping Beatrice in his arms to Dante. She is naked, although her body is covered lightly with a crimson cloth. In one of his hands, Love holds a burning object, which he says is Dante’s heart, and then feeds it to the lady. For all the eroticism of the imagery, the meaning is clear and wholly pure: Love permits the self to be consumed in selflessness by virtue of a complete devotion to another. More, it is by that very awakening of the person to love through a selfless devotion to another that the soul is prepared for its own awakening to a selfless love for God.
In the 11th chapter, Dante gives the most adroit expression to the transformation that her greeting exercised on his own animal nature, rendering him, in a word, human. He writes:
I say that when she appeared from any side, out of hope for that wondrous greeting no one remained my enemy, in fact a flame of charity seized me, which made me pardon anyone who may have offended me, and whoever then may have asked me about anything, my response would have been only, “Love,” my features draped in humility.
In summary, Dante concludes, “[C]hi avesse voluto conoscere Amore, fare lo potea mirando lo tremare de li occhi miei [Who would know Love, could behold it tremble in my eyes].”
Despite the liberties that Eliot, for the sake of originality, takes with Dante’s rendering of the moment when love for others seizes the human soul and re-creates out of its animal nature the divine image that it is capable of assuming, Dante’s La vita nuova is clearly there when Eliot’s speaker calls upon his own “Lady” to observe as part II of “Ash-Wednesday” opens. Just as Love fed Dante’s heart to Beatrice, three white leopards devour every consumable part of Eliot’s speaker, down to his bones. This is Eliot’s way of representing and expressing the same reductive and yet restorative effect of divine love, which reduces the person to the least possible remnant of his own being, thereby enabling him to find new life.
Here the speaker echoes the question the Lord asks in 1 Kings 19 of Ezekiel, who also had sat down under a juniper tree in his flight from Jezebel and requested that he might die: “Shall these bones live?” And like Ezekiel, the speaker will find that they can live and more, a far cry from The Waste Land’s “rats’ alley / Where the dead men lost their bones” but got nothing in return for the experience. This process of abandoning the self to the corrosive powers that inhabit the corruptible flesh leaves the speaker “[t]hus devoted, concentrated in purpose,” so that now, like his lady who “honours the Virgin in meditation,” the bones might do more than live; they might sing. Their song is not Ezekiel’s, however, for Eliot’s speaker is the child of a new dispensation. Instead of prophesy, there is the Christian fulfillment of “the Rose / . . . the Garden / Where all loves end.”
In “Sweeney Agonistes,” Sweeney could neither imagine nor promise any earthly paradise where he and Doris could be in love and at peace “under the bamboo tree.” The hollow men, too, could see the “multifoliate rose” only as a distant star from the pit of their hollow valley, “the broken jaw of their lost kingdoms,” harking back to an image of bones again. How refreshingly life-giving it is, then, to encounter this different poetic landscape in “Ash-Wednesday,” where even though he has been reduced to nothing but, literally, a bare-bones reality, the speaker finds that the rose and the garden are near enough in spirit to be one’s song. Thus, rather than in “The Hollow Men”’s place of broken stone and bone, in “Ash-Wednesday” these bones—the self reduced by love to nearly nothing— may rest restored to life “[u]nder a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of the sand,” and that is better than nothing.
As Part II ends, the idea is further expressed that, if nothing else, “[w]e have our inheritance,” a vast part of which, surely, is the continuing poetry of that love whose history has been recorded by Ezekiel, by Dante, by St. John of the Cross, and now by Eliot. While it may be a love that is far greater than any love mere flesh may know, it is one that can be experienced by creatures of mere flesh and blood and bone.
If it is Dante who continues as the speaker’s guide through his purgatorial ritual of “Ash-Wednesday,” exactly as Virgil had guided Dante, then Eliot is free to use the concept of Dante’s Purgatorio as the scaffolding, or rather staircase, on which to construct the rising movement that must now succeed the annihilation and reconstitution of self that has just taken place in Part II. The idea is that death of self is alone not itself the sufficient action. One is then left either like Sweeney, the embittered husk of his former self, or like the hollow men, about whose hope for fulfillment there is no question or doubt, since there will be none. The speaker’s self and its attachments and animosities, jealousies and envy, all having been extinguished by the flame of love, there must now be, if not resurrection or rebirth, at least the creation of a spiritual life for this new self to take up.
This process of renewal or regeneration will be, in part III, represented appropriately enough by the speaker’s mounting steps “al som de l’escalina”—to the top of the stairs. When it was first published separately in 1929, part III was entitled just that: “Al som de l’escalina.” The phrase comes from remarks made to Dante in canto 26 of the Purgatorio by the Provençal poet Arnaut Daniel, the greatest of the French troubadours, who were Dante’s precursors in the poetry of courtly love. Indeed, that moment from Dante had already provided Eliot with a fitting note among the various “fragments . . . shored against my ruins” at the conclusion of The Waste Land, so it is especially intriguing that Eliot should feel obliged to revisit it here, at another critical juncture in a poem that seems to be putting the vision of The Waste Land, with its painful and painstaking search for a private mode of salvation, entirely behind him now.
In the passage in question from the Purgatorio, Dante, still guided by Virgil, has continued to ascend the purgatorial mountain at whose base he had found himself on leaving the Inferno, or hell. Dante encounters a fellow Italian poet, Guido Guinizzelli, whom he finds suffering in the purgative or refining, as opposed to infernal or damning, fires, where he is being cleansed of the sin of a bestial carnality. When Guinizzelli inquires why Dante is apparently an admirer of his, Dante tells him that he admires him for his “sweet verses” that will be treasured “as long as modern usage endures.” Guinizzelli declines the compliment, however, and points out to Dante another poet suffering in the same fires for sins of carnality. He tells Dante that this poet, Arnaut Daniel, was “was a better craftsman [il miglior fabbro] in the mother tongue.”
Since Arnaut Daniel was also a poet whom Eliot’s good friend and erstwhile mentor Ezra Pound, in the earliest phases of his own career as both a language scholar and poet, had studied and translated, Eliot had put himself in the position of Guinizzelli in his dedication to The Waste Land by complimenting Pound as il miglior fabbro, and Eliot then returned to the same section of the Purgatorio one last time in line 428 of The Waste Land. The line reads: “Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina [Then he hid himself in the fire that cleanses them],” and with this line Dante ends canto 26. Eliot uses it, among others, in The Waste Land to signal the successful closing to the arduous journey that crossing the waste land from start to finish had been for the speaker. Now, some eight years later in “Ash- Wednesday,” Eliot alludes directly to the closing of canto 26, this time, however, to cite the words that Dante had first had Arnaut speak to him before that canto’s end (some of which Eliot had cited in his footnote to line 428 of The Waste Land).
Upon Guinizzelli’s calling Dante’s attention to him, the figure in the purgatorial flames freely identifies himself as Arnaut. He is one “who sings and goes weeping,” he tells Dante, for he is spending this part of his time in eternity regarding past follies but looking forward with joy to that day when, purged of these remnants of his worldly sinfulness, he shall be joined at last with God. Arnaut sends Dante on his way with a plea common enough among Catholic Christians, that they should pray for the souls in Purgatory, telling him in his own native Provençal:
“Ara vos prec, per aquella valor
que vos guida al som d’escalina,
sovegna vos a temps de ma dolor.”
[Now I pray you, by that valor
which guides you to the topmost step,
think at times of my own dolor.]
Just as Dante’s rhyme contrasts his own courage to change himself for the better while he still lives with Arnaut’s grief and sorrow for a life ill spent, so too does Arnaut’s arrested movement in the fire of his purgation—“Then he hid himself in the fire that cleanses them”—contrast with Dante’s forward movement as he now continues onward up the stairs cut into the purgatorial mountain toward the summit, where both the vista of paradise and his beloved Beatrice await him.
As the speaker of “Ash-Wednesday” now begins, in part III, his own purgatorial ascent out of Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones, the reader is asked to be mindful of the contrast between Arnaut and Dante’s condition. (In “Little Gidding,” Eliot describes the choice between a worldly and a heavenly desire as one of being “saved from fire by fire.”) Since it is a spiral staircase that the speaker seems to be ascending, each turn brings a different vista on a journey that, fraught with danger though it may be, is nevertheless upward. Although the speaker’s direction is upward, at the first turning of the second stair, the speaker, rather like Arnaut, who remains as mindful of his past follies as he is of the eternal reward that awaits him once he has been cleansed of the last traces of his worldly attachments, finds his thoughts turning downward toward past mistakes and frustrations. This hesitancy is characterized as the “devil of the stairs” with his “deceitful face of hope and of despair.” The soul, like the bones, would awake and sing, but memory is a distraction that can derail the entire undertaking.
Still faring forward, the speaker comes to the second turn, where the prospect is now, if possible, worse than the prospect of vacillation that had just assaulted him. Here there are no faces, only darkness, and beneath him suddenly yawns the pit of a pure, black despair (shades of St. John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul). Portrayed as an old man’s “drivelling” mouth or the “toothed gullet of an agèd shark,” it is characterized in images of a consuming force that would feed on and devour the speaker’s flagging hope much more cleanly than the three leopards of part II had reduced his fleshy self to bone. This despair, instead, is capable of swallowing him whole and leaving not a trace.
There is, however, a reward in persevering, for as the speaker arrives at the first turning of the third stair, clearly a step up, the vista suddenly opens on blossoms and a pasture scene vested with a wealth of inviting colors—blue and green, lilac and brown—and there is the music of a flute. Even the architectural detail through which this vista is witnessed—a “slotted window bellied like the fig’s fruit”—calls up the image of a pregnant woman about to give birth, in keeping with the processes of a spiritual rebirth which the speaker is undergoing. In the midst of this more than hopeful scene is the lady, both emblem of the attraction through the flesh to perfect otherness that draws the soul out of an obsession with self and toward God and the type of Mary, the perfect mother and second Eve in and through whom humanity experienced a second birth. Her back is turned to him, and she is not yet in Mary’s colors (that will come in part IV), but in the light that she brings, as if into a painting from the Renaissance whose own brilliance poetic visions like Dante’s had ushered in, the previous darkness and threats of defeat are dispelled.
Filled with a “strength beyond hope and despair,” the speaker, thus inspired and refreshed, climbs the third step, intoning the words, “Lord, I am not worthy.” In the Catholic Mass, these words are the opening of the communion rite on which the Liturgy of the Eucharist draws to a close. As the priest raises the sacramental host, which in the Anglican rite would represent the body and blood of the Christ, the faithful, who are about to take communion, kneel to say some variation of the following prayer: “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you. Speak but the word and my soul shall be healed.” This prayer is taken virtually verbatim from the words of the Roman centurion whose story is recounted in both Matthew 8:5–13 and Luke 7:2–10. Recognizing Christ’s divinity and miraculous powers to heal the sick and dying, the centurion comes to beg Jesus to heal one of his servants but does not want to presume upon Jesus’ time or scruples (as a Jew, it would have been unclean for Jesus to enter a Roman’s home). So, instead, the centurion tells Jesus: “Lord, I am unworthy that you should come under my roof. Speak but the word and my servant shall be healed.” Jesus found this man’s faith in him to be so remarkable that, in Luke’s account, he called it to the attention of the multitude gathered around him.
It has become commonly accepted that faith alone is what is required to achieve salvation, for it is out of faith that all gifts flow. Part III ends with the speaker, who till now has been struggling as if in private for the conversion of his life away from sin and guilt and a turning toward God, making the same declaration of faith in the power of God to heal his soul: “but speak the word only.”
“Ash-Wednesday,” however, is not prayer; it is poetry, though it may be poetry about prayer. Those are vast distinctions, nevertheless, and in parts IV and V, the two parts of the poem that were not published until the poem was released as a completed piece, the poetry brings together the personal and literary history with the history of the soul, the three divergent but complementary pillars of experience on which the entire poem has been constructed. By doing so, Eliot justifies not his vision—few poets have ever felt the need to defend what they see or how they see it—but his technique for accomplishing such an intensely religious vision in what remains nevertheless a poem. Throughout the poem, Eliot has been employing a technique that seems to run the risk of erasing the boundary between poetry and belief, whereas his is really a poem about the poetry of belief. Those, too, are vast distinctions.
Part IV is virtually a hymn of praise to the lady, with whom by now the Virgin Mary has merged completely. There are her colors now, white and blue, just as the hawthorne of part III had signaled the coming of May, her month. The significance of this emphasis in the poem on the cult of the Blessed Mother in both Roman Catholicism and the High Church Anglicanism to which Eliot was drawn cannot be overemphasized. It is precisely Dante’s devotion to his lady as the embodiment of otherness and therefore of pure love that links her, in the person of Beatrice, to the Virgin in his Commedia. It is the Virgin Mary, after all, who, with a mother’s love for a desperate child, intercedes on behalf of the lost Dante as the Commedia opens, thus sending Beatrice to Dante’s aid, although Beatrice herself first must appeal to Virgil, as embodied reason, to guide Dante during the earliest parts of his journey toward spiritual renewal and rebirth.
If thus far in Eliot’s own considerably abbreviated version of the same conversion process, Dante has been his Virgil, then Eliot’s Lady has to be not Beatrice but the stylized lady of the courtly love tradition on whom Dante’s adoration of Beatrice is itself based. By the same token, Dante finds Beatrice waiting to guide him on the remainder of his journey when he reaches the topmost stair at the end of the Purgatorio, and it is thus by virtue of her guidance, not reason’s, that he will be able finally to witness, as much as any mortal is capable, paradise itself, where the blessed have gathered about the throne of God centered within the multifoliate rose. It stands to reason that now that Eliot’s speaker has completed his own purgatorial ascent, he should find awaiting him there, as part IV opens, the lady’s ultimate manifestation in the Virgin herself. To reiterate, Eliot’s speaker has no Beatrice of his own, only the abstract lady (although Eliot did dedicate the poem to Vivien, his first wife, from whom he was by then virtually estranged). The Virgin will not speak, although she does bend her head and make a sign to him, admitting his presence and, so, acknowledging his request. It is a request that is rather bluntly stated: “Redeem the time.”
If Eliot’s speaker has already declared himself unworthy, it is not of salvation (that would be a presumptuous usurpation of God’s judgment) but, as a modern man, of the sort of vision Dante had been capable of having in an earlier age and time. Eliot explains this more fully in his essay “Dante,” published in 1929 during the period when he was completing his work on “Ash-Wednesday.” In this essay, Eliot comments on how Dante’s La vita nuova mixes what Eliot calls biography and allegory. He cautions, however, that it is a “mixture according to a recipe not available to the modern mind,” which he then defines as the minds of readers capable only of reading “confessions.” That is because ours is an age that thinks in terms of “facts as they are” and of “personalities,” he writes. He continues: “It is difficult to conceive of an age . . . when human beings cared somewhat about the salvation of the ‘soul,’ but not about each other as ‘personalities.’ ” Dante, Eliot contends, was the product of just such an age, and this accounts for a marked difference in how he combined personal experience, such as the encounters with Beatrice as he relates them in La vita nuova, with the very stuff of his poetry.
For Eliot, a poet like Dante “had experiences which seemed to him of some importance . . . [not] because they had happened to him and because he, Dante Alighieri, was an important person . . . ; but important in themselves; and therefore they seemed to him to have some philosophical and impersonal value.” The astute reader may quickly observe that this premise could be applied to a poet like Eliot himself as well, at least if the position on impersonality in poetry that he had staked out some 10 years before in the essay “Tradition and the Individual Talent” was more than one to which he was simply paying critical lip service. Still speaking of Dante, Eliot concludes that for such a poet, the stuff of both actual or personal experience and of intellectual and imaginative experience, which he identifies as thought and dream, become modified into a third kind, which is neither: “If you have that sense of intellectual and spiritual realities that Dante had,” its “form of expression,” as Eliot puts it, “cannot be classed either as ‘truth’ or ‘fiction.’ ”
It is with such an openness to the range of possible experiences that “Ash-Wednesday” has thus far organized into its poetry that the reader can appreciate the speaker of the Eliot poem when he speaks of “restoring / With a new verse the ancient rhyme”—that is, a poetry of experience that is both intellectual and spiritual in the range of realities with which it deals. The silent sister cannot speak because people of Eliot’s time cannot “hear” her. They have, he explains elsewhere in his “Dante” essay, the capacity only to dream what he calls the low dream. He contrasts that with what he calls the “ ‘pageantry’ ” of the high dream of which poets and readers to at least the time of Dante were capable. Surely it is some vestige of that older kind of poetic imagination to which Eliot is either alluding or attempting to revive when, in part IV, the speaker continues by speaking of the “unread vision in the higher dream / While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.” What the speaker both misses and muses on is the “ancient” capacity of poetry, as the 17th-century English poet and cavalier Sir Philip Sidney once put it, to take our brass world and give us back a golden one in return.
Till now, the speaker has been reaching upward toward the highest expression of the high dream, the human aspiration toward an understanding of the nature of the divine, of eternity. Child of the modern world that he is, however, he knows that he can hope only to be able to approximate the vision that once had seemed to flow as freely and easily as music from the poets’ lips. So, then, he proposes, “redeem the dream / The token of the word unheard, unspoken.”
The words with which part IV end come from the prayer to Mary in her manifestation as the Queen of Heaven, “Salve, Regina” or “Hail, Holy Queen.” “And after this our exile,” in the prayer, alludes to humanity’s exile from the rewards of paradise following the Fall in the Garden of Eden. It is a fall from which, in Christian terms, Christ’s death on the cross redeems humankind, and that Good Friday event begins the close of the Lenten season that the observance of Ash Wednesday opens, all of it culminating in the Resurrection on Easter Sunday. No doubt, Eliot chooses those words from that prayer to end this part of “Ash-Wednesday” for that reason alone, but the words also connote what Eliot sees as the modern world’s exile from the ancient rhyme and high dream that a poet of Dante’s time could both know and convey so well. The prayer continues, “show unto us the blessed fruit of thy womb, Jesus,” though the poem does not.
The yew, a tree traditionally grown in graveyards, has branches that both overhang and are nourished by all the past generations buried there. Like the voices of older poetry and a more vital belief in belief, such an ancient tree can offer a thousand whispers as the wind rustles its leaves, but to be able to hear those whispers is not in and of itself sufficient. One must also be able to decipher them, and be able to do that in his or her own terms, the terms of timeless vision.
How otherwise can the fifth part of “Ash-Wednesday” begin than with its great and ominous conditional clause: “If the lost word is lost . . .”? What may sound like paradox or circular reasoning or even nonsense makes perfect sense in the double meaning of “this our exile” that the closing of part IV has just established.
Here, all are exiled from being in the perpetual presence of the Word, none more than another. In a poem that has had for its focus virtually from the outset two poets for whom exile became both a reality and a poetic theme, Guido Cavalcanti and Dante himself, the theme of humanity’s heavenly exile resonates as both a poetic theme and a spiritual reality. Dante and Cavalcanti, however, were, in Eliot’s view, not as much exiled in that other sense. Theirs was an age nearer to heaven because it was more in tune with the imaginative necessity of such an idea. They were far closer in their capacity for vision, if not in time as well, to a belief system and culture that supported and encouraged a poetry of faith in the supernal, whereby the use of metaphor to reach beyond the mere mundane without abandoning its accoutrements was recognized as a proper domain for poetry, perhaps even its only proper domain. From the time of Plato onward, poetry had been recognized as the most unique human endeavor for giving utterance to the otherwise unutterable, and voice to the soul’s great silence. So, then, echoing Lancelot Andrewes, the 17th-century English clergyman and prose stylist, the speaker acknowledges that the Word is always within the world and, though unspoken and unheard, remains a focus, a presence, a “centre” that the “unstilled world still whirled / About.”
When the speaker asks, however, where the word will be found, he knows one thing emphatically and with a certainty that is far more desperate than reassuring, that it will be “[n]ot [be] here”—not be found, in other words, in his own time and place, where there is “[n]o time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice.” The speaker’s, in simple terms, is not a time or age for poetry or the high dream. Rather this is the world of The Waste Land again, the landscape where the best are “hollow men” who have some knowledge of what they have lost but no will to find where it might yet be, content to moan in their collective misery, too spiritually inept to see, literally, their way out of their hollow valley except as if from a great distance.
In this cultural context, the “veiled sister” becomes a trope for all that is mysterious and thus draws humanity out of the mere mundane with the tedium of its attractions, distractions, and demands. She is most certainly Mary, the most human of portals to the mystery of the Incarnation, but she is also the Lady, the ideal of love and otherness that frees the spirit from its prison of self, and she is most certainly the Lady Poetry, long regarded as the highest and most rigorous of the arts.
The Lady is like Prufrock’s mermaids, who will not sing to him. The modern world recognizes but does not know her, not in the same imaginative ways that that old world did, so, she will not pray for those moderns who stand tepidly always only “at the gate” of understanding, the gate into the imagination’s ancient and still green garden, aware of the traditions, but “[w]ho will not go away and cannot pray.”
The modern world is one in which “there is not enough silence,” the speaker had earlier reflected, one too, for all the pride it takes in its having “lit up the night,” that “walks in [a spiritual] darkness / Both in the day time and in the night time.” Its failure, however, has to be a failure as much if not more of its poets as of itself. It must be they who, having somehow lost the capacity not only to dream the high dream but to express it effectively and suitably in verse, have been instrumental in leaving their brothers and sisters in darkness despite, or because of, all of our technological advances.
Thus, echoing both Christ’s rebuke and the phrase with which Dante reputedly began a public letter to his fellow Florentines following his exile, the speaker seems to take the brunt of the failure on himself, but leaves open the possibility that the failure of a poetry that is capable of finding the means of expressing belief must ultimately be a failure of the culture itself: “O my people, what have I done unto you.” It is a double-edged question: What have I done to you? What have I done to deserve your reproach? The desert may be in the garden, but there must also be a garden in the desert. “Ash-Wednesday” is still Eliot’s poetry of drouth, as the critic Edmund Wilson titled a review of The Waste Land. It is, as ashes suggest, a poetry of waste, but the question must be: What has been wasted, and who has wasted it? For all the bitterness of the closing image of a mouth “spitting a withered apple-seed,” there is a hint of the garden still remaining, the fruit of the trees remaining on their branches yet.
Eliot seems always to have had a talent for doing nothing easily, at least as far as the comfort levels of his readers might be concerned, but he always would argue that one does things as well as one is able and as much as one’s epoch requires and enables, nothing less, nothing more. The question “Ash-Wednesday” poses in Part V, as if the poetry has been heading toward just that consideration, is an important and a valid one: Is it still possible to write a poetry of belief, of the effects of the action of faith on an individual? Homer did. Virgil did. Dante did. It is fair, then, for Eliot to ponder whether the modern world can or cannot, and if it can, what it might look like. If from the time of Plato the Western imagination had held poetry in the highest esteem for giving utterance to the otherwise unutterable aspirations of the human spirit in its yearning for contemplation of and union with the divine, why should this same esteem and skill seem to be denied the imagination in the modern world?
By the end of part V, the opening lines of “Ash- Wednesday,” with their strong hints of a literary rivalry—“desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope”—take on a new range of meaning, too. The contemporary speaker seems to be all too painfully conscious, as the poem continues, that his is a lesser age than most, not for a lack of religiosity necessarily but for a lack of a poetics of sufficient clarity and vision with which to express the experiences of his time. Thus, the speaker’s every echo of their visions and expression expresses an overarching envy for the past poets whom he also seeks to emulate.
By pondering this contemporary state of affairs aloud in his own poetry, however, the speaker also runs the risk of seeming to endorse, or at least lend his own efforts to identifying, the very lack that one is ostensibly hoping to remedy. However, instead of writing a poetry that merely laments the absence of a serious poetry of belief in his time, Eliot chose to write just such a poetry himself in part VI of “Ash- Wednesday.” He very likely could not have gotten away with writing the sort of poetry that he writes in the concluding part of the poem, however, had he not, to this point in the rest of the poem, run the gamut of a poetry that muses about faith as a topic for poetry as much as, or even more than, it may express it, and muses as well about what sorts of conditions not just of self but of one’s culture permit the proper expression of belief in poetry. Indeed, because of the kind of double-think and double-speak that Eliot had exercised in his earliest poetry and had been exercising thus far in “Ash-Wednesday,” he is able, in part VI, to do the unspeakable. He frees his speaker to achieve the same sort of personal revelation regarding faith that the speaker at the end of The Waste Land also achieved.
To do so, however, Eliot had to realize that, even for the poet, the task is to set one’s own house in order—to see the beam in his own eye, as it were—if he ever hopes to come to peace with himself and achieve a meaningful way to address the same doubts and struggles with faith that may well be afflicting everyone else. It is an old solution to what may be a new problem: When a problem cannot be solved, shift the focus. The only difference between Eliot’s and the poetry of belief of the past may be that he, through his speaker, feels compelled to analyze the problem of writing about believing rather than facing head-on the larger problem of writing belief itself. Again, his speaker resolves that problem in part VI finally by addressing the issue of belief in and of itself, but only after having muddied those waters in the preceding five parts by struggling with the devil of the stairs, which was as much an aesthetic, cultural, and literary historical problem as a spiritual and personal one.
So, then, the “Because I do not hope to turn . . .” of part I has become, by part VI, “Although I do not hope to turn . . . ,” which expresses at the very least that such an event may not yet prove to be the case but is not an entire impossibility. There is also the suggestion, since these words now come immediately after the cultural critique of part V, that, along with turning himself away from the ways of the world toward the repentance that the Lenten season will require of him in keeping with its spiritual austerity, the speaker does not hope to turn the tide of the spiritual emptiness that he imagines to be assaulting the present moment in which he lives. Resigned to the fact that he can manage only his own affairs, he throws himself on the mercy of the court, as it were, to plead not his age’s but his own case in resigned self-abnegation.
This, too, is in keeping with the great, tried-andtrue spiritual poetry of the past, particularly Dante’s. Dante may include an encyclopedic account of the figures and events of his time, indeed, of much of human history, in his accounting of his own spiritual trial as it is told in the Commedia, but its greatness as a work of art lies in the intensity of the personal and intimate tone he strikes by making himself the focus of his own dramatic struggle, just as he had done in his La vita nuova. The Commedia is not a treatise on the difficulties of writing religious poetry; it is a poem on the difficulties attendant upon seeking personal salvation.
Self-conscious modernist that he is, Eliot’s speaker has till now felt more obliged to establish his literary credentials than to present the drama of his quest for redemption in poetic form. But perhaps having done so for the first five parts of the poem, he is now prepared, in the sixth, to do freely what he has imagined till now no child of his age can do: Use poetry to empty his heart of its longing for salvation. It is a typical Eliot “turning,” stealing that key term from his own present poetic lexicon, to go quickly from the place that one is not to the place that one wants to be, the kind of paradox he played on as, after “Ash-Wednesday,” he wrote more and more poetry in a decidedly religious vein, culminating in the great artistic achievement of his own Paradiso, “Little Gidding,” in 1942.
That poetry is still more than a decade away, however, and in 1930 and “Ash-Wednesday,” the speaker calls up words and images that do not look forward but hark back instead to the critical turning point in The Waste Land, “Death by Water,” where the drowned Phoenician sailor, Phlebas, “[f]orgot . . . the profit and the loss.” It is between those same two extremes of worldliness that “Ash- Wednesday”’s speaker wavers. They provide an appropriate reference to the pursuits of worldly gain and glory that plague the spiritual seeker “[i]n this brief transit,” an image that puns on both the shortness of a human life and the demands of commerce and other material enterprises.
For the next few stanzas, images from earlier moments in the sequence—the lilac, the window, the rock, the yew-tree, the garden—are intermingled with yet more sea imagery and the movement of sails, the flight of birds, all of it calling more and more to mind not only Phlebas but the seashore and sailing imagery near the conclusion of The Waste Land’s fifth part, “What the Thunder Said.” (They also call to mind “Marina,” another, more recent poem of Eliot’s dealing with one who was lost but now is found.)
In The Waste Land, however, the spirituality was couched in the terms of an Eastern religious tradition, the Upanishads, whereas here the tradition in which the spiritual quest is rendered is wholly Christian and by and large Catholic in nature, in keeping, possibly, with the poet’s own reversion to his own orthodox roots in the years during which he was composing the various parts of “Ash-Wednesday” as apparently separate poems.
The interjection of the parenthetical “Bless me father” into the second stanza, with its “dreamcrossed twilight” reminiscent of another intervening poem, “The Hollow Men,” calls immediately to mind for a Catholic the formulaic prayer of greeting and submission by which the penitent sinner begins his confession to a priest, which may also call to mind Arnaut Daniel’s farewell greeting to Dante “Ara vos prec” (“Now I pray you”). Eliot’s speaker, having survived the purgatorial passage that has brought him to this shore and having transcended the allure of “[t]he empty forms between the ivory gates,” which are, in Greek mythology, the gates through which false dreams come, is ready to stand in the “tension between dying and birth.” There dreams cross, seeking to know the dream that is true. (As Eliot had written of Dante, the high dream is neither “truth” nor “fiction” but rather an intensely personal admixture of both— primarily of experience with its greatest possible significance.)
All that the speaker can ask by this point is some blessing on his own vision, that it may not prove to be wrong: “Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood”—the greatest danger being to accept what Eliot will call in After Strange Gods “attractive half-truths.” Those need not be only doctrinal matters. Indeed, if the poetry has revealed anything to this point, it is how intricately the spiritual, with its questions of belief, resignation, and acceptance, is combined with other considerations—the social, the historical, the cultural, the aesthetic, the public, the private. So virtually inextricably are these strands of thought and feeling, allusion and memory, hopefulness and despair, that constitute the individual existence intertwined in the poem, in fact, that to try to isolate any one of those elements from a consideration of the speaker’s state of mind and spirit leaves the poetry flat and, at times, almost pointless, little more than a series of rhythmic musings that seem to go nowhere.
The poetry points instead in one direction, and that is toward completion and resolution. Its final moments are taken up, as they should be, with a consideration not of all of the details again but of what the religious call “final things.” Those can be nothing less than a consideration, by the speaker, not of his relationship with past literary figures or contemporary culture and society but with his creator, God, who, for a Christian, would be embodied in his Savior, Christ. It is absolutely fitting then that the poem ends in total humility as the speaker recites a key passage from the Anima Chisti (Spirit of Christ). Attributed to St. Ignatius de Loyola, the 16th-century Spanish priest who founded the Jesuits, these sentiments from this early 14th-century prayer crown the conclusion to “Ash-Wednesday” very much as the “shantih” of the Upanishads crowns the conclusion of The Waste Land.
Similar again to The Waste Land and almost like a symphonic musical composition, as “Ash- Wednesday” rolls to a close, the speaker continues to reiterate past themes, particularly from part I with its plea to “[t]each us to care and not to care.” Echoing Dante one last time, this time in the words of Piccarda di Donati from canto V of the Paradiso (suggesting that the speaker has made it, by poem’s end, at least that far past the Purgatorio passages recounted in part III), the speaker abandons falsehood and fixes his mind on a single truth: “Our peace in His will.”
The poetry continues to summarize the quest, the spiritual ordeal, that has taken place to this point. In quick order of short bursts of poetic verses, there follow snapshot references to a place of rocks (a familiar enough spiritual terrain throughout Eliot’s poetry, always calling to mind, ultimately, the spirit of desolation figured in Christ’s 40 days in the wilderness), the female figure that is identified as both sister and mother and that has consistently represented the saving grace of an engagement with otherness, and finally the sea, age-old emblem of the rebirth and renewal that the speaker has been seeking, or at least verbally flirting with, throughout the entire poem.
Then, from the Anima Christi, comes the closing plea to Christ that introduces the final two lines: “Suffer me not to be separated” (“. . . from you,” is how the Anima Christi concludes this sentence). To this plea the speaker appends the response of the faithful, “And let my cry come unto Thee.” On that note, “Ash-Wednesday,” itself a cry, a plea, a critique, and a lament, comes to an end.
So much of “Ash-Wednesday” is self-reflective as poetry that much of the preceding part-by-part commentary on the poem has been itself a running critical analysis of the poet’s apparent intent. The poem, it seems, enunciates a stinging cultural critique while exposing nevertheless the speaker’s apparently genuine spiritual struggle as it undergoes its own step-by-step development. “Ash-Wednesday” thus becomes such an intensely compounded poetic, intellectual, and emotional experience that it would be invaluable for any reader to take final stock of the rich variety of options for meaning that the poem seems to be making available.
As with any Eliot poem, there is the almost immediate temptation to read it autobiographically. A reader discovering that Eliot had undergone a profound spiritual conversion experience from 1926 through 1927, the years when he started composing the individual pieces that would eventually emerge in 1930 as “Ash-Wednesday,” might be all too ready to assume that the conversion experience is precisely what the poem is all about. From the preceding synopsis, however, the reader will understand that such a conclusion could not be further from the truth. But, then, what is the truth?
Even to begin to approach a satisfactory answer to that question, it would be wise to begin by taking to heart that signal from Eliot himself regarding the distinction between the personal and the poetical whereby “truth” and “fiction” often meet and change places, first in that crucible that is the poet’s mind and then, more important, in the part of that process that finally becomes fixed and cast as the poem. The distance from the so-called truth that is autobiography to the so-called fiction that is poetry is an immense one once the reader regards the steps that it takes for the one, raw experience, to become the other, polished verse. So, then, although Eliot’s, like any other poet’s, biography can provide the reader with a cue, it hardly ever provides even so much as the trace of a satisfactory clue. It is, after all, by the intensification of personal experience—that “larger than life” quality expected of products of the imagination— that the poet makes the successful transformation of such experience into great art so that the personal experience that had apparently inspired the art seldom seems to measure up to expectations and virtually never provides more than the most fundamentally “useful” insight. Unfortunately, in art, the useful is seldom the purposeful.
For genuine clues into the possible “meaning” of any work of literature, it would be wiser to turn to other cues, such as those that are provided by poetic and other conventions and traditions. Here, incidentally, Eliot typically proves to be generously unstinting, so much so as to make readers occasionally question the poet’s motives, perhaps rightly. Based on those kinds of cues, “Ash-Wednesday” falls conveniently into a genre of literary composition that is relatively common, being what might be called the spiritual biography. Even here it is necessary to distinguish between the idea of personal experience and the idea of spiritual experience. The emphasis in the term spiritual biography is on the spiritual, denoting that sensitivity to the inchoate to which mere biography gives order and coherence but not necessarily any factual basis. “Ash-Wednesday,” in that regard, makes far more sense as the spiritual biography of a carefully designed and delineated speaker, totally unrelated to the “real” T. S. Eliot.
The same may not always be said of other examples of the genre, especially since there is no prescribed way of executing such a biography, nor should there be one. The English romantic poet William Wordsworth (1770–1850), for example, relied heavily on autobiography in his long poem The Prelude, which traces the progress of his moral and spiritual growth, while Dante Alighieri concocted, in The Divine Comedy, the most outrageously outlandish fiction—that finding he had lost his own moral and spiritual way, he was rescued by the ghost of Virgil at the command of God—to lay bare a fairly true record of his own personal encounter with the shortcomings of his age. The Irish novelist James Joyce (1881–1941), Eliot’s contemporary, delved into the most fascinating aspects of an individual’s moral and spiritual growth by thinly veiling an autobiography of his coming of age as a young poet in A Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man. In every case, however, including Eliot’s, the critical and scholarly interest aroused is, as it ought to be, invested in the execution of the work, not the life that inspired it.
Such works virtually always entail three stages of dramatic development, or, in the case of mystics such as John of the Cross, steps in the spiritual life, on which these literary works are often unconsciously modeled—the awakening, the purgative, and the unitive. The duration of each phase need not be equal, but all three are always present and generally in that order. In the first, the initiate quite literally awakens to the perilous state of his soul or the sorry state of his life, which is pretty much the same thing. Any sensitive reader can see this process taking place throughout most of parts I and II of “Ash-Wednesday,” where the speaker gives his life an unflinchingly realistic evaluation and finds it wanting. Here he comes to recognize his shortcomings and failings, which are by and large self-centeredness, so that by the end of part II, he has been reduced to little more than the remnant of his former self—bones picked cleaned by these remorseless leopards of self-analysis.
Needless to say, the next phase, the purgative, has already begun once the speaker has been reduced to far less than even the figurative shadow of his former self. Memory, regret, doubt, and despair all persist, however, as in part III, the speaker ascends from those lingering elements of the self he no longer wishes to be toward the person that he fears he may, through a lack of courage and perseverance, fail to become. Rendered appropriately as the mounting of a circular staircase, this ascension is toward union not so much with the creator/godhead, although that is the ideal goal, as with the fulfilled self, who will have emerged successfully from the purgative process should the speaker overcome his former failings and shortcomings.
For Eliot, this last phase, the unitive, is never quite achieved. The speaker instead divides himself, according to his interests, into three distinct parts, as it were. It is critical for him to resolve each part if he is to achieve the completion that the unitive phase requires, but no one of the three zones of interest is capable of being treated in coordination with the other. Therefore, it can be demonstrated that the literary historical analysis implicit in part IV, the reflections on the distractions of the modern world addressed in Part V, and the personal submission to God’s will and the mercies of Christ of Part VI each forms a part of the speaker’s needs for achieving a satisfactory spiritual resolution. Only the last of the three, however, is traditionally thought of as within the spiritual action normally required of the supplicant.
It is this addition on Eliot’s part not of superfluous requirements so much as of his excessively objectifying what must remain, nevertheless, an essentially private spiritual process that makes the poem peculiarly modern while it ironically illustrates the very sort of fragmenting of focus that modernism entails and that the poetry decries. Read as an Ash Wednesday exercise, that is, as a penitential entry into a state of mind and spirit suitable for the Lenten season, with its overtones of mourning and death and requirements for abstinence and selfdenial, the poetry no doubt goes over the top and may be even regarded as a dismal failure.
It is important to reiterate at this juncture, however, the earlier observation that “Ash-Wednesday” is not prayer, nor is it poetry about the need for prayer or to pray. Instead, it is poetry about what conditions are most conducive to the human capacity for prayer, and it finds those conditions lacking in the contemporary scene that the speaker inhabits. Regarded in that manner, “Ash-Wednesday” is a resounding success, though one that the reader cannot easily share in, since it requires an aesthetics of failure to achieve its aim. The poet succeeds by demonstrating that such poetry can no longer succeed.
“Let my cry come unto Thee” is a plea, not a poetic resolution. It is as if Eliot has chosen to define the general problem of belief in the modern world—surely a worthy theme—by simultaneously commenting on the problem, partly through his literary allusions, while illustrating the problem through his speaker’s confusion and consternation with what appear to be his own personal spiritual concerns. Though not necessarily working at crosspurposes, this strategy, however, may finally have only deflected the reader’s attention from either theme. In a normal narrative or dramatic context, one can move such a dual agenda forward fairly easily, either by means of clearly plotted antagonistic elements or conflicting characterizations. In the context of what sounds to be a lyric poem, however, with a single and single-minded speaker, the alternating aims of Eliot’s project do not always lend themselves well to a well-defined clarity of purpose. That lack of clarity of purpose may have very well been Eliot’s purpose, however. If he is claiming that his is not an age easily given to the expression of the religious sentiment, he can hardly write a poem that will express that sentiment as if it were some ancient clarion call.
Still, the poem works if the speaker is accepted as a fictive projection, no more real as a personality than, say, Prufrock or the hollow men or Gerontion. For then it is far easier to come to terms with this doubling effect whereby the poem and the poetry are both the working out of formal and thematic problems and an expression of the spirit of belief. Despite all the turn toward an orthodox, mainstream Christianity that his personal life had taken at this time, Eliot, forever the craftsman and poetic theorizer, might have been, at this point in his literary career, merely exploring in the various parts of “Ash-Wednesday” the limits of and limitations on religious expression in verse for wholly aesthetic and technical purposes. If so, the poetry shows him to be capable of forging out of his past technical triumphs, where he combined allusion with original statement, an effectively new and distinct poetic voice.
It is a voice that served Eliot even better as he went on, throughout the rest of the 1930s, to turn his attention more and more directly to the theme that had occupied his attention throughout most of his poetical and critical career to this time:the crisis of order in the modern world. That crisis would take on new dimensions for Eliot as he now began to see in it the manifestation of a far deeper and far more pervasive spiritual crisis. Thanks to the labor of producing “Ash-Wednesday,” he developed a poetic tool, sharp and pliant and capable of accomplishing this more formidable task as before him loomed the disastrous economic, political, and military conflagrations of the 1930s and 1940s.
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Kenner, Hugh. The Invisible Poet: T. S. Eliot. New York: McDowell, Obolensky, 1959.
Manganiello, Dominic. T. S. Eliot and Dante. London: Macmillan, 1989.
Smith, Grover. T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974.
Unger, Leonard. T. S. Eliot: Moments and Patterns. Minneapolis: University of Minnesota Press, 1966.