Themes and Meanings

(Critical Guide to Poetry for Students)

“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...

(The entire section is 670 words.)