Ash Wednesday

(Critical Survey of Contemporary Fiction)

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.)


(Masterpieces of American Literature)

Ackroyd, Peter. T. S. Eliot: A Life. New York: Simon & Schuster, 1984. A very readable biography that treats Eliot’s life as an integral part of his work. Also examines the critical reception of Ash Wednesday and its relationship to Eliot’s other works, as well as the author’s indebtedness to the Bible and Dante.

Gardner, Helen. The Art of T. S. Eliot. New York: E. P. Dutton, 1950. Chapter 5 offers a fine analysis of Ash Wednesday as a transitional work reflecting Eliot’s emerging understanding of Christianity. Gardner analyzes this poem in the context of Eliot’s other prominent poems such as The Waste Land and Four Quartets (1943).

Hinchliffe, Arnold P. “The Waste Land” and “Ash Wednesday”: The Critics Debate. Atlantic Highlands, N.J.: Humanities Press International, 1987. A useful review of the critical reception of these two poems since publication. A fine introduction to major critics and positions held by them, along with a succinct and helpful bibliography.

Smith, Grover Cleveland. T. S. Eliot’s Poetry and Plays: A Study in Sources and Meaning. 2d ed. Chicago: University of Chicago Press, 1974. A standard critical work on Eliot’s poetry. Includes a detailed exploration of Eliot’s clever use of allusions and quotations to express his spiritual and philosophical concerns.

Southam, B. C., ed. T. S. Eliot, “Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” “Ash Wednesday” and Other Shorter Poems: A Casebook. London: Macmillan, 1978. A collection of excerpts from the criticism of prominent critics. Contains five essays on Ash Wednesday.