I read T.S. Eliot’s poem Ash-Wednesday every year, right before the day itself. I used to read it so that I’d be stimulated to deep and important thoughts, as a kind of crib sheet for writing a meaningful sermon about the day. But lately I read it for itself. As a poem, it sometimes feels and functions as if it were a liturgy. It leads me into a place of prayer and readiness, a preparation for the season that’s at hand.
I’m not going to write a literary analysis here, or pretend that I can create anything as beautiful and evocative as the poem itself. But I do want to offer some thoughts on it, informed, as always, by some supplementary reading. But first, here’s a place where you can go and read the poem if you’d like: Ash-Wednesday.
The poem opens on a note of deep melancholy, in a mood of surrender. All the old ambitions of our lives, the hope we had, get worn out, and we notice their passing without the energy to mourn it, because if we still had energy we would be using it to keep those ambitions alive. Envy dies with ambition, but there’s a loss even in this, since we don’t know who we are once we stop being envious, desiring creatures. And often that envy was the engine of our ambitions, our hopes for ourselves and our place in the world. But “why should I mourn the vanished power of the usual reign?” Eliot is talking about more than just the personal, here. The reign might be the whole secular world and it’s effects on the individual. When our desire to succeed in that world dies, so does that world’s power. But there’s no celebration in the desire not to mourn it’s passing. Only resignation. Only a long sigh.
But this melancholy extends even beyond the passing cares of the secular world. There’s a real fear of the absence of grace: “Because I know I shall not know the one veritable transitory power.” If that power is grace, which some of the commentaries I read suggest, than the poem’s speaker seems to be denying the possibility of grace. Or maybe he’s just denying his power to summon it, the arrogance of believing that we can make our own grace. But what follows make the first meaning more likely. The speaker rejects the possibility of grace, because “time is always time/And place is always and only place.” Only the actual world matters, but that actuality is tragically limited – “What is actual is actual only for one time/And only for one place.” If the actual is all that there is, then we can’t move beyond it to a hoped for future or any vision of a better world.
Russell Elliott Murphy, in his Critical companion to T.S. Eliot: a literary reference to his life and work, points out that Eliot was drawing from Dante and Guido Cavalcanti as he wrote the poem, and that both of these Florentine poets worked in the troubadour or courtly love tradition. The idea of courtly love is a lost one in this day and age. A troubadour would fall in love with a woman from a distance, and never let the woman know that he was in love with her. In her ignorance, she would act in the way anyone would act, falling in love with other people, slighting her unknown lover unintentionally, inflicting dozens of psychic wounds in ignorance. And the silent troubadour would bear with all of this, because it was training in love, ultimately in our love for God. God can seem as distant and mysterious as any woman who a troubadour might choose as the object of his love. God will act in ways that might seem indifferent to our desires, if not our needs. Ash-Wednesday is, oddly, a poem that works obliquely in this courtly love tradition. The Lady in Part II is akin to Dante’s Beatrice. But I wonder if she isn’t also “the blessed face” of Part I, who the poet rejects, he’s so far sunk into despair.
Which makes the Lady’s reappearance at the beginning of Part II feel like quite a relief, even it’s accompanied by the image of “three white leopards… under a juniper-tree/In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety/On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained/In the hollow round of my skull.” This is the motion of the poem so far, from materialistic despair to a possibility of hope in our ability to learn and practice a strange kind of love. A love for the divine which is akin to courtly love, self-sacrificial and often flirting with the possibility that the object of our love doesn’t know of our existence. But this is also the movement of the day itself, of Ash Wednesday. We remember that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. The full, horrible, limiting fact of our material existence is blatantly stated, and for that moment when we have the ashes put on our forehead, we may really feel it, entirely know that it’s true, that all we are is dust.
But neither the poem nor the liturgy leaves us in that state. The speaker in the poem must go through a harrowing of the flesh, a purgation of the body, which can’t be unfamiliar to readers of the spiritual classics. The rest of the poem, in fact, moves in a way that is oddly akin to Teresa of Avila’s The Interior Castle or John of the Cross’s Dark Night of the Soul. Particularly in the poem’s third section, where the speaker engages in movement up a staircase that resembles Teresa’s movement from room to room in her castle. He is being drawn closer and closer to God. And the liturgy moves in a similar fashion. After the imposition of ashes the people read the 51st Psalm, in which they beg – “Purge me from my sin, and I shall be pure; wash me, and I shall be clean indeed.” They then recite the Litany of Penitence, and are absolved. The service moves from the acknowledgment of our material nothingness, to a request for purification and the spiritual struggle of penitence, to restoration. So does Eliot’s poem, that restoration appearing so beautiful in Part IV: “restoring/One who moves in the time between sleep and waking.”
But neither the liturgy nor the poem end in restoration. Both move into communion. The God who has been the object of our courtly love is proven to be aware of us, and more than aware. Dante, when he wrote The Divine Comedy, used Beatrice as his spiritual guide. The historical Beatrice was the object of his courtly love, but she remained ignorant of it, as any object of courtly love should. But the Beatrice in his poem is his spiritual guide. So God is our guide, present to us in our spiritual pilgrimage in a way that may sometimes seem obscure in our physical pilgrimage on this earth. At the end of his poem, Eliot comes back to what, for me, our the most powerful lines of Part I: “Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still.” Only now our stillness is not the result of despair, but the result of total and immersive love. Our calm is not the indifference of hopelessness, but the revelation of a deep peace.