“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.)