Summary (Magill's Survey of American Literature, Revised Edition)
“Ash Wednesday” contains many traces of Eliot’s newly found Anglo-Catholic orientation; he had officially joined the church in 1927. The poem’s title comes from the Christian movable feast day celebrating the onset of Lent, forty days before Easter: It is a day of mortification of the flesh and of turning toward the spiritual. The poem exemplifies the tensions between the flesh and the spirit, borrowing much from Dante’s medieval mysticism, as the story of conversion is told in a Symbolist dream, a favorite technique of Eliot. As in The Waste Land, characters merge; the Lady merges with other ladies, such as Ecclesia (church), Theologia (theology), and Beatrice (the blessed one, from Dante), possibly to represent the anima, or feminine principle.
The first portion of this six-part poem opens with a despairing lack of hope for conversion, followed by a prayer for mercy, a famous request for a holy indifference: “Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.” It concludes with a refrain from the last sentence of the Ave Maria, “Holy Mary, Mother of God, pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death.” Eliot thus endows the poem with fragments of prayer (along with Shakespearean allusions), varied renunciations, and some recognition of the need for rejoicing. The negative assertion of hope’s lack at the outset is modified by prayers which indicate a realization of the need for spiritual help.
(The entire section is 499 words.)
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Summary (Masterplots, Fourth Edition)
After the 1922 publication of The Waste Land had established his reputation as a major poet, T. S. Eliot wrote one important poem, “The Hollow Men” (1925), which seemed at that time to be a postlude to its predecessor but which now appears more as a prelude to Ash Wednesday. In any case, it should be read as a connecting link between the two longer poems. Its theme is the emptiness of modern intellectualism, which amounts only to “Shape, without form, shade without colour,/ Paralysed force, gesture without motion.” It is another aspect of the Waste Land, desiccated and meaningless, inhabited only by the empty and futile hollow men.
Ash Wednesday marks an important point in the author’s poetic development, for it sprang directly from his acceptance of the Anglo-Catholic faith. This biographical aspect of the poem, even more than its theme, influenced its reception by Eliot’s former admirers and caused a schism among them that was unexpectedly revealing about the pre-World War II mind.
The tone of the poem is the humility appropriate to Ash Wednesday, the first day of the penitential season of Lent; its theme is the dilemma of human beings who want to believe and yet cannot bring themselves to do so because of their dry, sterile intellectualism. This theme is stated in the first of the six parts: the poet, turning his irony upon himself, describes this characteristically twentieth century predicament of a man caught in the web of his own intellectualizing who can yet know that he must
pray that I may forgetThese matters that with myself I too much discussToo much explain,and that at this stage of religious experience the proper prayer isTeach us to sit still.
Throughout this opening section sound the echoes of the Penitential Office, “Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned,” and of Guido Cavalcanti’s sixteenth century poem, “In Exile at Sarzana.”
The second part of Ash Wednesday is based on a reminiscence of the Valley of Dry Bones described by Ezekiel, whose language it echoes. Eliot once said in a lecture that the three white leopards could be taken as representing the World, the Flesh, and the Devil. They have fed on the body of the speaker, but Ezekiel was told to prophesy that these bones should live again, that “I [the Lord] shall put my spirit...
(The entire section is 1048 words.)