This is a poem of penitence, near despair, and hope. Its title derives from the first day of Lent, Ash Wednesday, during which a sign of the cross is made on the forehead of the penitent, a reminder of transitoriness and sinfulness.
“Ash Wednesday,” Eliot’s first major poem written after his conversion to Christianity, focuses more on struggle and doubt than on belief. Eliot does not doubt God, rather his own ability to respond to Him.
The poem begins with a nearly despairing awareness of weakness and a very unmodern sense of personal sin. Consistent with his high church predilections, Eliot has his speaker appeal to an intermediary--a Beatrice-like woman--to plead his case before God. This intermediary is necessary not only because of the speaker’s spiritual weakness but also because this world is not a place conducive to spiritual renewal and growth.
Throughout his life and his poetry, Eliot wrestled with the tyranny of self and self-consciousness. He is keenly aware in this poem that he is a public figure who has made a very public and controversial conversion to religion. He confesses the painful difficulty of matching inner reality with outer pronouncements and wrestles with that false self who mocks the new Eliot with his old weakness.
By the end of the poem, Eliot is closer to his goal. He is still crying out, still struggling, but with the hope that after the dark night of the soul, the dawn is near....
(The entire section is 561 words.)