Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 1048
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 in you, and ye shall live, and I shall place you in your own land.” There is also the figure of the Lady, who seems to play a role analogous to that of Dante Alighieri’s Beatrice as an intermediary; she is dressed in white, the color of Faith. The speaker, having been stripped of everything, has learned resignation, but through the intercession of the Lady and the prophecy of Ezekiel he has found hope.
The third section, with its description of the spiral stairway, obviously recalls Dante’s winding ascent of the Purgatorial Mount. There seems to be no direct connection with any particular canto of the Purgatorio of Dante’s La divina commedia (c. 1320; The Divine Comedy, 1802), only a linking of the journey of purgation with the penitential spirit of Lent. There is also the glimpse through the window of a scene suggestive of sensual pleasure that distracts the pilgrim from his journey. Dante is again recalled in the fourth section, this time by the Earthly Paradise and the Divine Pageant at the end of the Purgatorio. Again there are echoes: of St. Paul’s Epistle to the Ephesians and of the “Salve Regina.”
For the fifth section,...
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Eliot makes use of a sermon by Lancelot Andrews that he had already quoted in an essay on the Bishop: “the Word of an Infant? The Word and not be able to speak a word?”—an elaborate play upon the word (speech), the Word (the Logos, the most abstruse of Christian doctrines), and the Word made Flesh.
The last section, doubling back on the opening lines of the poem, suggests a scene in a confessional (“Bless me father”) during which the beauty of the natural world intrudes into the mind of the speaker and distracts him from his proper meditation. Thus the world seeks to draw human beings back to itself. The poem ends, appropriately, with words taken (with one slight change) from the Penitential Office for Ash Wednesday in the Book of Common Prayer: “And let my cry come unto Thee.”
Eliot’s Ash Wednesday deals with various aspects of a certain stage in religious experience: “Lord, I am not worthy”; it is a poem of spiritual exile, as Cavalcanti’s was one of physical exile. The dweller in the Waste Land who “cannot drink/ there, where trees flower, and springs flow” must find his way back through penitence with the humble prayer: “Suffer me not to be separated.”
This is a simpler poem than The Waste Land, though Eliot uses many of the same technical devices of ellipsis and echoes. Ash Wednesday rises to heights of verbal beauty unequaled in any other contemporary verse. Its reception, however, was curious and not without irony. To many readers of the 1920’s, Eliot had become a voice for the disillusionment of the now famous “lost generation”—a statement that he himself characterized as “nonsense.” The year 1930, with its Marxian enthusiasm for proletarian literature, probably saw the high point of the secular humanism of the twentieth century; Bertrand Russell’s A Free Man’s Worship (1923) was dominant. It was among the adherents of this way of thought that Eliot’s greatest admirers were to be found. His becoming a member of the Anglican Church and writing a poem with a deeply religious theme was to them a grievous shock. Some flatly refused to believe in his sincerity, and many considered his membership in the Church of England a pose, a kind of romantic, aesthetic Catholicism. To others, to whom religion was a retreat from reality, a “failure of nerve,” he was a lost leader, a writer whose significant work had ended with “The Hollow Men.” However, there is some truth to the claim that the publication of Ash Wednesday marked the beginning of the intellectual swing in Western thought from the left to the right, with the consequent decline of the secular humanist attitude.