“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.
Biblical references crowd part 2, forming a litany; the response to many of its phrases is the unvoiced but expected “Pray for us.” In part 3, the speaker ascends a spiral staircase, past a devil and past a vision of an earthly paradise; this portion ends with the liturgical prayer before Communion from the Mass of the Faithful, echoing phrases from one of the miracle stories about Jesus. Part 4 blends the biblical Mary with other female figures, asks for a redemption of time, and concludes with a phrase from the prayer Salve, Regina, which asks that Mary show the fruit of her womb, Jesus, “after this our exile.”
Part 5 is a meditation on the Word of God, the Logos from the Gospel according to John, that Eliot would amplify in Four Quartets. This is accompanied by the refrain from the Improperia of the Good Friday service, “O my people.” The poem’s final segment returns to the original state of mind of the narrator as the poet recapitulates the themes and images of the entire poem and ends with a phrase addressed to the Lord in the Indulgentiam of the Mass of the Catechumens, the early dialogue between priest and laity which asks God to forgive sins, show mercy, hear prayers, “and let my cry come unto Thee.”
In many respects, Eliot’s Ash Wednesday is a poetic public demonstration of a change of heart, an assertion of Christian desire balanced by a recognition of frailty, that ends with a striving, itself a conversion from the poem’s opening posture.
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...
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