Themes and Meanings

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Last Updated on May 10, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 670

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“The Ash” is a poem of spiritual affirmation in the face of death. Its underlying theme is the search for transcendence. It presents two points of view on death. The sick friend exemplifies Dylan Thomas’s famous injunction to “Rage, rage against the dying of the light.” The poet, however, finds balm for the physical and spiritual decay of man not in any specific religious beliefs, but in a vision of the teeming life of nature, which itself is filled with decay and dying. The poem suggests that if, in nature, beauty and decay are inextricable (“blossoms of white filth”), then, for man, despair need not be the only perspective on death. Unlike the friend, the poet refuses to allow the fact of mortality to turn him against life. Against the friend’s “hate-vapors,” the poet embraces “my own oval of flowering ash.” The pain of consciousness, the consciousness of death, is answered by the body’s capacity for natural experience. There is at least a hint of possible transcendence in the poet’s vision of a larger beauty: “the rainbow glaze of mucous,/ the milky beauty of pond-scum.” Such images suggest that physical decay may not be absolute. By imaginatively opening his senses, by immersing himself in the natural rhythms—rather than mentally holding out against them—the poet embraces an identity larger than individual consciousness and seems to discover a body beyond the “sick-room odors.” His is, however, a vision that does not deny death. Finally, the image of the circle suggests unity, wholeness, connecting him to his friend’s dying—from which, at first, he turned away. Both of them are “circling,” but the friend’s circle is “lower,” closer to the earth. The poet is “outside” this final circling—but, crucially, only “for now.” Somehow, he is able, at the end of the poem, to accept even his friend’s impoverished spirit, to merge the friend’s death with an intimation of his own. The tree becomes the comforting symbol of a realm that includes both of them, containing life and death in a larger whole, the way the friend’s bitter resistance is contained within the poet’s larger affirmation.

The theme of transcendence intimated in “The Ash” is more fully developed in the sequence of six poems that William Heyen subsequently published under that title. The second poem is “The Ash: Its End,” which takes place in June, when the tree has lost its blossoms and is perceived as “almost pure spirit at its end.” The next poem, “The Eternal Ash,” is set in August, when the tree’s “berry clusters/ already tinged orange” are “bending its body/ almost to breaking.” Yet the ash is seen as somehow eternal, “its changes mine, delusion,” a matter of limited human perception. The fourth poem, “The Flowering Mountain Ash Berry,” is a single four-line sentence that takes the cycle further, into the phase of regeneration, by describing the tree’s “sperm floating in the air,” impregnating earth, the earth itself becoming “one luminous oval seed.” The fifth poem, “The Zenith Ash,” is a September prayer. The poet explicitly addresses a divine power to which the tree’s luminous presence has somehow given access. The tone is urgent: “If I, in human error, lose her,/ even You, my Lord, will curse me.” Acknowledging “the slanting cancerous rays/ of autumn sunlight” as divine, the poet sees the ash as a token of divinity, “my ash of praise.” The sixth and final poem completes the circle. “The Friend” takes place in winter. We hear again the dying man’s bitterness as the poet heard it: “I hate the chairs, the words,/ the winds, the bastards.” This time, however, the poet, returning home from a visit to the hospital, has an experience of transcendence: “I stepped/ from my car onto the shocked bone/ of my body, and walked// into the snow-sheathed tree.” At the end, he is able to say good-bye to his “dead friend” and even “to love the dead.”