ELIOT’S ASH WEDNESDAY: A CHRISTIAN POEM
In 1930, just three years after his baptism and confirmation into the Anglican Church, T. S. Eliot published his conversion story. It was his poem Ash Wednesday.[i] He had converted amid tides of intellectuals rebelling against the over-secular society of the early twentieth century. Ash Wednesday is the chronicle of this conversion, told in beautiful allegories and metaphors. It portrays the struggle Eliot faced in converting. “It is a poem about the difficulty of religious belief, about the difficulty of renouncing the temporal world.”[ii] However, there is more in the poem than simply “the difficulty of religious belief;” the poem is at its core Christian. The allusions reference prayer, great pieces of classical Christian literature, and the Bible. Therefore, one should not simply lump Ash Wednesday together with Eliot’s other social commentary poems, but instead look to it as an example of modern Christian literature. The poem’s title points the reader in the appropriate direction. Caroline Philips notes that, “as the title suggests, Ash Wednesday is essentially a meditation associated with the prayer and penitence appropriate to the beginning of Lent: a coming to terms with one’s unworthiness.”[iii] Ash Wednesday is the first day of Lent, a period of penance and reparations for sins. It culminates with Holy Week, containing Holy Thursday, Good Friday, and Holy Saturday, ending with Easter Sunday, the day celebrating Christ’s rising from the dead. The title Ash Wednesday calls these feasts to mind, the suffering of Lent that leads to death and eventually salvation. Salvation can only come about through suffering. This theme is frequent throughout Western Literature, and does properly set up the poem. The poem opens with the following lines:
Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn. [iv]
Eliot perfected the art of lifting lines from other sources and placing them within his own poems (his great work The Wasteland is another prime example) to drive home the poem’s point. Ash Wednesday is no different. The opening lines reference two things. The first is a short poem by Guido Cavalcanti, a friend of Dante, which contains the line “Perch’io non spero di tornar gia mai,” translated into the opening line of Ash Wednesday. The other allusion here is more Christian, since the Cavalcanti reference is to a poem of despair. The Epistle read at Anglican service from the Book of Common Prayer for Ash Wednesday is from Joel. It reads, “Turn ye even to me, saith the Lord, with all your heart.” The speaker in the poem, who represents Eliot himself, is responding to God’s call to turn to him in the negative. He does not want to enter into the sufferings of Lent. Therefore, he does not hope to turn to God. He turned his back on the Lord. He has despaired. He asks why the Lord should try to save him: “(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)” (I. 6). This allusion of the eagle and his wings has a Christian origin, particularly in St. Augustine’s Confessions,[v] as well as a biblical reference to Exodus 19:4: “I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself.”[vi] The speaker proceeds to list several negative comments:
Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again (I. 9 – 15).
This litany of negatives “develops the idea of religious emptiness, of moving into the world of the Void, with a certain gloomy satisfaction.”[vii] Because of the speakers apathetic view of existence he has ignored everything that is important, including that Power who keeps him in existence, that is, God. He does not hope to know the “infirm glory of the positive hour,” that is,...
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