Tuesday, March 09, 2010

Ashes: VI

Here we are at last with our final installment of Eliot's long, difficult, intense, and intensely personal Ash Wednesday. I have not, up to this point, added much in the way of analysis and interpretation. I tend to see scripture and poetry (somewhat) in the same category: they are neither tidy nor aloof. So interpretation, however much we may desire or pretend to the contrary, is usually quite personal. That is not to say that we are reduced merely to picking the linty fruit of our own navel gazing. (That was a more revolting analogy than I intended! Sorry.) Indeed, to the extent we are able, I think both God and good sense require us to seek knowledge by the usual, pedestrian, earth-bound means: research, logic, pondering, even (gasp!) debate, or at least discussion. In this process, objectivity ought to be a goal, but we should not fool ourselves into believing that we are above the fray.

Ultimately, we are laborers, and that means we work in the valley and, with time, among the foothills. We have not yet ascended the mountain. We are masons wielding trowel and mud and brick. As such, we must have enough perspective to know how to use a square and a plumb-line. We are not, however, the Architect, and our glimpses of the blueprints are, for the most part, fragmentary.

At the same time, as believers in the reality of the Holy Spirit, we should hope in (and work for) those moments when, amid the dust and rubble, a rock momentarily becomes a seerstone––when our battered lanterns miraculously cast light through walls, and even into hearts.

With these caveats in mind, then, let's briefly (and far from definitively) examine where Eliot has led us thus far.


Ash Wednesday begins in the desert. This is a common image for Eliot, author of The Waste Land and The Hollow Men. Modernism, wandering through the territory of savage individualism, cannot help but lead to anxiety and alienation, and, ultimately, to nihilism. Ayn Rand is the marijuana to Sartre's heroin––a gateway philosophy, if you like, a path toward No Exit.

The soul is weary. All is arid sameness. Having sought the World, he finds it only ash. The power in the earth, in nature, in life itself (and it is real: "veritable") is stripped away precisely because it is "transitory." Hitting rock-bottom, the rock crumbles and the bottom drops out. Lacking power to reach for the possibility of the divine ("blessèd face"), the soul would try to build something "upon which to rejoice," but how can it lay a foundation on nothingness? Even the modern poets' reaching to outdo one another in ironic paeans of sophisticated despair (like drowning men holding a peeing contest) ultimately holds no interest. Any effort to "rejoice" is a laughless joke, and now, in the blackness, the soul must consider that it might have missed something, some reality it didn't see, some meaning. If so, surely there will be judgment. In a world of nothingness, failing to notice the single reality is the ultimate sin, indeed, the only sin. In fear then, the soul begins to pray, begging mercy. In the last few lines, quoting the liturgy, Eliot has tied this single soul to a community. Perhaps we can see here some refutation of modernism's shrill insistence on individualism and the alienation that results. Perhaps to be saved at all we must be saved together.


My immediate reaction as I begin to read the second stanza is relief. It isn't cheerful, but there is some respite from the intolerable, insuperable despair. The poet begins to consider death itself, forgetting, oblivion––perhaps there is some rest here. He has been consumed utterly: "my legs" (mobility), "my heart my liver" (life), and "that which had been contained in the hollow round of my skull" (thought). There is a "Lady." Perhaps Dante's Beatrice? There is a focus here on the colors white and blue, which are distinctly Marian. This is a strange kind of paradise. The soul has been reduced––pared down to essentials? The bones "shine" and "chirp." He offers himself to "oblivion" (are we to associate "oblivion" with God?) and thereby retains himself, or at least some part of himself (Matt. 16:25 may be applicable here). Is this a kind of resurrection? We are not really in Christian territory yet, not as it is commonly understood. There are whiffs of Oriental incense (Buddhism? Nirvana?), yet I am reminded of some descriptions of Theosis: being swallowed in, or participating in the life of God himself. And in this section God does indeed invite these bones to participate, commanding them to prophesy. Now begins a litany of paradox, some of which, again, strikes me as Marian. (She is often associated with "the Rose.") Still, this is clearly not an expected kind of paradise for the believing Christian. Three times, he refers to the end of "love." (Perhaps more of a Buddhist notion, aimed at freeing oneself from all desire, craving, and attachment.) At least, though, the torture of the first stanza is alleviated. There is peace; there is some "land," some "inheritance."


The third section is a Pilgrim's Progress of sorts, maybe a Jacob's Ladder. I think Eliot is broadening his perspective, so I look at the first two stanzas as little summations of our progress to this point. The first refers to a "devil" that wears the face of "despair," which was the major opponent in the first section. The second stanza transcends that trial, leaving the devil "twisting, turning below," and now passes through a place with "no more faces," a place reminiscent of another devouring animal (like the leopards), an "agèd shark." There is no struggle here––it is peaceful, though not paradisaical––but the soul is ready to continue upward.

(I suppose I should mention that a "stair" is also an important image in Dante's Divine Comedy, which was a constant inspiration/preoccupation for Eliot. Indeed, the fragment of Dante used in the next section comes from a line that mentions a "stair.")

The third stanza is uncharacteristically lush. It is full of life and gorgeous pastoral imagery (in stark contrast to the sere beginning), but this richer language adds a new challenge: the poet hints––finally!––at eroticism. Eliot has escaped his own head––remember, from the first section:
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
––he is now ready to face some of the basic challenges of incarnational theology. A reference to a "fig" is a common sign of fecundity, and it doesn't take a psychology major to guess at what Freud might say when addressing the meaning of a "slotted window" and an "antique flute." The soul is not immune to these temptations, but ultimately leaves behind "distraction" and the "music of the flute" [insert sophomoric joke here], finding "strength beyond hope and despair," continuing to climb.

This section ends with another quote from the liturgy:
Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

But speak the word only.
These are the words spoken by the celebrant before he consumes the Host, and so occur in the same place in this poem as they do in the Mass: the intersection of the physical and the Divine.


The soul now finds itself, again, in a kind of paradise––a moment of rest before the coming "exile." As in section II, we find the Lady, but this paradise is no valley of dry (albeit bright) bones. This is a garden growing in "violet" and "green." The Lady is still associated strongly with the colors blue and white, but notice that she makes "cool the dry rock and made firm the sand / In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary’s colour." The Lady is an agent of growth and life; there are no leopards stripping flesh from bones. In turning rocks and sand blue, she seems to be sanctifying the physical realm. There is a kind of salvation at work, perhaps a restoration to an Edenic ideal: "restoring / Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring / With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem / The time."

The poetry itself seems restored to life. We don't hear the jarring, fragmented rhythms of the opening. This "life" seems more holy (in this section, in contrast to section III, the aforementioned "flute is breathless"––Ahem), and at only a gesture from the Lady,
...the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew


I have to agree with C.E. Chaffin that the fifth section of Ash Wednesday is... unfortunate. The rhythm and bizarre rhyme scheme are distracting and tend to rob this section of what impact it might have otherwise had. Nevertheless, a few observations:

We are back in the world. This might explain the intent of the choppy rhythm and mincing rhymes: it is difficult to find transcendence here. We are too busy, the "world is too much with us" (to rob another poet). The poet meditates, rambling, on the Word. Though He created it, the "unstilled world" does not recognize Him. We are unable to fully turn to Him, so he cries out: "O my people, what have I done unto thee."

Still, there may be cause to hope. Lines like "...the last desert before the last blue rocks..." and "The desert in the garden the garden in the desert..." suggest that we move through cycles of desert and garden; there are oases along the way, where we can be taught (as in the final section) "to sit still," where we might again see the Lady, where we can be reminded of The Word.


As I haven't yet presented the conclusion, I will say little, but do want to highlight a thought or two. In this final section, we find we have come full circle. Life is still life, with all its difficulty and darkness, but the heart has changed. Where the first section begins with "Because," indicating that life has caused despair, we now find the word "Although," indicating hope in spite of the suffering and buffeting of mortal life.

More than that, maybe finding our faith (broken and weak though it might be) can return to us the love we used to feel for the world. But we must be careful to remember that "This is the time of tension between dying and birth..."––we are not here to stay.

Finally, we should see a glimpse of another possible identity for "the Lady." Wisdom is, in holy writ, often depicted as female––Sophia, in fact––but this depiction is also closely tied to another holy being, hinted at here with the words "spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden ... spirit of the river, spirit of the sea." As a guide and teacher throughout the poem, it is possible the author means to suggest that this is the work of the Holy Ghost.

So, now, enjoy the sixth and final installment of T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday:


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

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