Ash Wednesday: by T.S Eliot - Summary & Analysis

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      T.S Eliot adopted the Anglo-Catholic faith of England in 1917. Ash Wednesday was written after he embraced the new faith. lt is a poem of six parts published in a single volume in 1930. The title Ash Wednesday refers to the first day of the month of Lent the period of prayer, fasting and penance, when, according to tradition, Christ fasted for forty days in the desert, where he was tempted by the Devil but with no result. During this period, a Christian repents for his past actions and makes an effort to walk on the spiritual path. The poet, in this poem, repents for his past sins and resolves to turn away from the world and walk on the path of spirituality. The poem is split up into six parts, each indicating a step on the spiritual plane. The poem begins with a enunciation of blessed face and voice of his beloved and is ultimately followed by vision of spiritual birth presided over by Virgin Mary. In between are the steps of spiritual stair, scene in the garden where the lady in white appears glorified. In short, it is an account of man's spiritual quest with all the struggles of human soul and the over-coming of the hurdles that lie on the way.

Eliot adopted the Anglo-Catholic faith of England in 1917. Ash Wednesday was written after his embracing the new faith. lt is a poem of six parts published in a single volume in 1930.
Ash Wednesday


      Part I - Renunciation: The poet desires to turn away from the sins of this world. He is in love with a blessed face and (his girlfriend) whom he renounces. There is no doubt that the decks must be cleared before the super-structure can start. So, renunciation of worldly love and attachment must come first. The spiritual edifice can be constructed only subsequently. The poet is not sorry for renouncing the lady he loves because spirituality demands some sacrifice. The price has to be paid and with a smile

      Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something Upon which to rejoice. The poet has lost faith in the things of the world. He desires to gain something substantial and ever-lasting. This turning to God means renunciation of worldly comforts and achievements and a commitment to a spiritual discipline of non-attachment. He has to depend on simple and pure faith. Even hope is to be given up because it is a desire and an attachment

      The renunciation of achievement and glory as of the lady whom he loves, is accompanied by the sense of joy because, it means that he is now solely dependent on God. True renunciation implies a willing and honest submission to the will of God. Hence, his prayer to God is that he may purge his mind of self-debate and sloth. He is an old man. His wings have lost their power. He prays to God for strength to meditate quietly in the stillness of his soul. He seeks forgiveness for his sins because the hour of his death is approaching. Renunciation involves the renunciation of individual; will and complete submission to the judgment of God.

      Comment: The first stage on the spiritual path is that of introspection and self-analysis. The poet examines his past. He is now an aged eagle, decaying gradually. He is physically, mentally and emotionally aged. The world has lost its joy for him. The glory of youth has vanished. He has come to the conclusion that pleasures of this world are transient and fleeting. He has decided to give up the woman he loves. He does not regret the renunciation of the worldly joy because he has resolved to build up spiritual life. He has given up the faculty of reasoning and questioning. Instead, he wishes to cultivate detachment, so that he may remain unattached to the things of the world. Now he wishes to devote himself to prayer. Resignation to the will of God is an important condition for selfless devotion. He, therefore, entrusts his life and everything into the hands of God. Self-surrender is the first step to spiritual progress.

      Part II - Death of the physical self: The original title of the second part was salvation, which refers to Dante's meeting with his lady. It is a kind of vision or a dream which results in the renunciation of his own flesh by the devotee. The body carries with it the sin of Adam and it is an obstacle in the progress of the soul. The destruction of the body, according to the old fertility myth, is necessary before its re-birth. The lady mentioned in this section is an embodiment of the grace of God. The three leopards who eat away the body of the devotee are the agents of purgation, and purification. His scattered bones, thereafter are infused with a new life through the blessings and grace of the lady. The renunciation of the flesh brought about a new life in the remains of his mutilated body. The new body is devoted and resolute in its spiritual quest. The lady has the attributes of Virgin Mary and she is called here 'the rose of the garden'. The earlier lady of courtly love is transformed into the lady of the church responsible for the salvation of the Christian community. The Juniper tree stands for God's grace for the repentant soul. The desert mentioned in this part is not a spiritually barren place but rather, a holy spot where saints assemble for godly communion. It represents the wilderness where Christ fasted for forty days in order to overcome the temptation of the Devil.

      The horror of the devouring of the body by the three leopards is symbolic of the detachment of the devotee. However, the revitalization of the scattered bones marks the spiritual re-birth of the devotee's soul. There is a sense of rejoicing which is like the singing of a song. At this movement, the bones sing in praise of the Lady of Silences. The garden mentioned here "where all loves end" has a reference to the lower types of love. In fact, this is the starting point for higher love. This part ends on a note of hope and content.

      Comment: This part of the poem marks a definite progress in the spiritual quest. The destruction of the physical self is necessary, It is secured through the three white leopards who eat the body of the devotee. Various interpretations have been given of the three leopards. The popular and acceptable interpretation is that each leopard represents some good quality. The first leopard stands for the goodness of the lady, the second for her loveliness and the third for her dedication and devotion to God. Dante has also mentioned three leopards but they are ugly and horrible beasts. The destruction of the body is symbolic of the renunciation of the past misdeeds, especially those connected with sensuality. The re-birth of the body from the scattered bones is due to the blessing of the lady. The passion of love is transformed into a divine passion-where all love ends. The desert mentioned in the last line of this part is a noble inheritance of every Christian because it is symbolic of repentance and peace.

       Part III - The struggle with evil: Just as Dante had to climb the steps in Purgatory, in the same way, the poet wishes to ascend the steps of the spiritual mansion. The struggle now is with the forces of evil or what is called the devil of the stairs. Dante's three stairs are sincerity, contrition (repentance or penance) and love. In Eliot, evil takes different forms. Firstly, it is the spirit of doubt. Secondly, it is the spirit of darkness. Thirdly, it is the spirit of sex. He has to struggle with these devils and overcome them, though they offer him the beautiful visions of their joys. The spring time seen particularly with its enchanting maiden and the music of the flute does not distract the mind of the devotee. The steps are climbed in a spirit of humility, the poet seeks God's grace for his spiritual effort - "Speak the word only and thy servant shall be healed". The need of absolute faith in God is reiterated.

      Comment: Steps of the spiritual ascent are a common theme for those who write of the spiritual quest. As the devotee takes hobbling steps, he struggles with the dark forces, especially doubt, superstition, darkness, malice and voluptuous passion. The pleasures of the flesh try again to dissuade the devotee. Though in the heart of hearts, he has a lurking yearning for the joys of the world, which he has renounced, still he needs adequate faith in God and his grace to overcome the forces of evil. The demon of doubt is inseparable from the spirit of belief, just as in life, hope alternates with despair, certainty with uncertainty. This inner struggle creates a great confusion in the heart of the devotee. But for his unflinching faith in God, it would not be possible for him to overcome this demon of doubt. The state of vacillation and hesitation ends when is blessed with God's grace.

      Part IV - The divine vision: In this part the poet has a vision of the divine lady. She is dressed in many colors - the violet of penance, the green of hope, the white of purity and the blue of celestial things. This vision of the lady reminds us of the Divine Pageant in which Dante saw the glorified Beatrice. Like Beatrice, the blessed lady is both a real woman and a heavenly being. When she talks of trivial things, she is a real woman, when she redeems human suffering, she is a divine lady. Under her influence, the desert turns into a garden and fountains throw up sprays of water. The poet forgets the memories of his youthful past and his love now becomes sacred and holy. The movement of the golden coach of the lady is symbolic of the glory of the spiritual past. The poet comes in close contact with the lady. She makes a courtesy to him without speaking a word. She stands between the two Yew trees-between death and immortality. Ather sign, the fountain sprang up and the bird sang a prayer. It has reference to the spirit of God breathing life in dry bones as mentioned in the Bible. In the last line-and after this, our exile is very significant. It implies that the modern man has lost his spiritual treasure and he can recover it through the grace of God.

      Comment: This part has a reference to the divine dream. In place of Beatrice of Dante, the poet has a vision of the lady in Mary's colors. The colors have a spiritual significance. She has both a physical and spiritual aspects. She is the goddess of beatitude. She is covered with layers of light and the pageant is highly suggestive. Her benign influence and heavenly power are seen in her giving life and vigor to things around. This dream scene is really inspiring and makes one wish for death. Life would then appear as in exile. The last line is from Christian prayer: "And after this our exile". This prepares us for the vision of Christ which is to follow in the next section.

      Part V - The need of silence: The fifth part refers to Christ's birth, the divine body lying speechless-an embodiment of Silent Word. The poet plays on the two words - word and world. Unfortunately, this world is almost a babel of tongues where the silent word is not respected. The unspoken word or the Word of God can be heard only in the silence of the mind. The endless chatter and confusion of the world cannot offer any chance of listening to the silent word. It is only through the grace of Virgin Mary that people will be able to listen to the Word of God.

      The poet seeks the grace of veiled sister (Mary) for those who walk in spiritual darkness. He especially seeks her favor for those who have chosen the spiritual way, but have turned against it. Then there are others who hesitate-the doubting. Those masses who do not have the moral courage to affirm their faith. They are the people who lack commitment to Christianity. They are undecided between the two ways of life, the secular and the spiritual. Then there are people in whom the seed of sin is still present though in a subtle form. All such persons need the grace of Virgin Mary so that they may be spiritually reborn. Ultimately, through the grace of the lady, the desert turns into the garden. Those who confess their sins to her, earn her grace and enter the path of spiritual fulfillment.

      Comment: This section refers to the world and its activities. Nobody is keen on listening to the word of God because it requires a state of Silence and peace of mind. Unfortunately, the world offers no peace or silence. It is full of sounds and voices. It did not hear the words of Christ who rebuked them. "O my people, what have I done unto thee". The suffering of Christ is another example of his spirit of peace and silence. As a baby he was silent. At the time of crucification, Christ "opened not his mouth" before his accusers. Silence is one of the essential conditions for spiritual progress. The response to the word of God can come only from those who seek His grace. There are people, who though outwardly Christians, are not totally committed to their faith. They are moral cowards. There is disparity between their outward affirmation of faith and their inner betrayal. Only those who confess their sins and repent sincerely are true Christians. Spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed", will earn the blessings of Christ. The repetition of the lines "O my people what have I done unto thee" is a stern warning to the people of the world to mend their ways. The section ends with the need for confession and repentance which alone can lead to the final achievement.

      Part VI - Resignation to His Will: In the final part, the poet emphasizes the need for commitment to the spiritual quest. Undoubtedly, there are weaknesses in the individual which make him look back to the joys of the world-the profit and loss. The wordly window sometimes bring back scenes of the music and beauty of life. It protests around the rigid discipline of spirituality. The pleasures of the sister and the vision of heaven are in a state of tug-of-war. The inner conflict hardens as the pilgrim renounces completely the worldly ways for the spiritual quest This is the stage of the three dreams which are interpreted as darkness, twilight and light. Others interpret them as the three choices open to men-sex, art and spirit. The poet offers a prayer to the blessed sister (the mother of the Saviour) to end this inner conflict in the heart of his followers. If the holy mother extends her grace to them, the Christians will submit to the Will of God. Man's peace and salvation lies in submission to the divine Will. The final prayer is for spiritual grace and light - "Suffer me not to be separated". This personal prayer merges into the common prayer of the Christians to the blessed sister - "And let my cry come unto thee".

      Comment. It is true that a total commitment to Christ is necessary before any progress can be made on the Christian path. The beauty of the fountain and the beauty of love, beck on again and again to the soul to return to the joys of this world. But, with a firm resolution on following the spiritual path and with the grace of the holy mother, the devotee stands firm in his faith and surrenders himself entirely to the Will of God. This ensures his merger into the blessed sister from whom he cannot be separated. The longing for the sea, is fulfilled in the higher dream which opens upon the sea which is God's Will. The poet faces the sea; he is not afraid of the rocks because he is full of faith. The sea mentioned at the end is the sea of hope, rich with the sense of achievement. Ash Wednesday is a symbolic poem of man's inner struggle and the hurdles that lie in his way as he proceeds on his spiritual quest. At each stage there is some gain, some progress on the spiritual plane. The divine vision opens up the gates of mercy and grace with the result that man reaches the spiritual goal-merges in the holy mother. 


      A personal poem: The poem reflects the feelings and moods of the poet and the struggle he has to go through to rise higher on the spiritual plane. Ash Wednesday is a religious poem. It is not didactic because it does not preach moral lessons; it communicates what he felt in his own person. Nevertheless, the poem can be regarded as wholly impersonal and objective. It represents the struggle of any devotee or spiritual seeker on his way to divinity. 'I' of the poem may well stand for us. These are not the emotions of a particular individual but of the spiritual seeker in general.

      Secondly, the feelings, tensions and struggles of the poet are the very things through which any faithful Christian would go in order to reach the goal Moreover, the words of prayer embodied in the poem like "payer for us now and at the hour of our death, speak the word only", "after this our exile", "suffer me not to be separated", "and let my cry come unto thee", belong to all Christians alike.

      Depth of thought: The theme is no doubt difficult. The drama is enacted within the soul of an individual. The tug of war is between the distraction of the world and his keen desire for spiritual discipline. The poem also contains various Christian concepts like penitence, communion, the passion (suffering) of Christ the lady in white and the rose of the garden. In spite of the difficult theme, the language and the images used are common and simple. In this connection, Matthessien writes: "Of all Eliot's poems Ash Wednesday would have the best chance of appealing to an audience that could neither read nor write. Even though the feelings which he is expressing are extremely complex, and the sequence of his thought is by no means easy to follow, it nevertheless remains true that on its first hearing the poem is capable of making an instantaneous impression purely through the beauty of its sound. For, here Eliot has been able to summon up all the resources of his auditory imagination in such a way that the listener can begin and feel the rare force of what is being communicated and to accept the poem as a kind of ritualistic chant, long before his mind is able to give any statement of its meaning."

      The different moods of the poet-despair, indifference and hope, self-examination, self-exploration, with emphasis on his sin and penitence and above all, the turning away from the materialistic world to the world of spirit give the poem a kind of 'spiral' movement. Repentance itself is a kind of suffering, first, turn towards God and subsequently a turn towards our sins wherein we sinned against God. It is like the turning of the wheel, from the lowest position to the highest position.

      Style: There is a great variety of rhythms on Ash Wednesday. Yeats calls it 'rhythmical animation'. The verse form is used with a sense of variety, declicacy and purity.

The language in the poem has the "easy commerce of the old and the new". i.e. there is a combination of antithetical things both old and modern - for example, when the poet writes of the blessed sister:

"Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,

Talking of trivial things

In ignorance and the knowledge of eternal colour."

      There is an element of both contrast and congruity. The traditional images - the desert, the rose, the bones and the unicorn combine in 'easy commerce' (a phrase used by Eliot in Little Gidding) with the white cells, the lilac and brown hair, the bent golden rod, the wind in the yew trees, the aged eagle. A traditional symbol stands close to the aged shark, an invented symbol and there is no disharmony between the two.

      Religious symbols dominate Ash Wednesday because of the topic - the spiritual way of life. The rose stands for Virgin Mary, the divine grace and the church. The three leopards stand for pleasure, ambition and avarice. The three dreams stands for sexual activity, artistic activity and spiritual effort. The three colors green, white and blue stand respectively for hope, purity and heavenly things. The lady may stand for Virgin Mary and an idealized heroic woman or a saint. The yew tree has two meanings, mortality and immortality. The devotee passes from the yew tree of mortality to the few tree of immortality. The silent sister veiled sister between the yew trees is present in the last three sections. The imagery of the desert and the garden merges into that of the rocks and the sea in Ash Wednesday, the contents merge into a miraculous synthesis which is to be apprehended only with the mystical spiritual sense, a synthesis which makes for joy and calm of the renewed life. The three beasts are both devourers and deliverers: the unicorn draw the gilded hearse of the body; the "desert in the garden and (becomes) the garden in the desert" (L. 182); the earthly lady which the poet renounces in the first section appears like Virgin Mary.

Line by Line Explanation

Part I

L. 1-25.1 no longer desire to turn back to the things of the world. I do not hope to derive any benefit from what the world offers. I have no longer the ambition to acquire this man's gift or the other man's position or power. I have no desire to try for the acquisition of these temporary things. Why should an old man like me put in his effort for worldly glory? Why should I feel sorry for the loss of physical powers, natural in old age?

I no longer wish to acquire the transitory glory of life. I know there is one transitory power called love, but I do not care for it. Love brings in a temporary inspiration when trees, flowers and springs are filled with water, but after a while, love comes to an end. I am quite aware of the limitations of time and the limitation of place and that what is actual will last only for a short while the only at one place. I am happy with the existing state of affairs. I give up my love for the blessed lady and do not wish to hear the voice of my beloved, because I do not wish to return to wordly things. As such, I feel happy because I have to construct something (spiritually) which will give me enough joy.

L. 26-41. I pray to God to extend his mercy to us. I pray that I may forget those matters that have worried me, matters, which I discuss and explain too much to myself. Since I do not want to return to them, let these words be a fit answer for what is done and is not to be done again. Let God's judgement be not too heavy upon us. These wings (power) are no longer strong to fly with. These wings can only beat the air which is 'smaller and dryer than the will. O God! teach us to care for the things of the spirit and not to care for the things of the world. Teach us to sit silently within the soul. Pray for we-the sinners now and at the time of our death.

Part II

L 42-88 In the presence of the Lady (Virgin Mary) three leopards sat under a juniper-tree in the cool time of the day and devoured to their satisfaction, parts of my legs, my heart, my liver, and the brain (matter contained in my skull). God asked, shall these bones live. The marrow that was in these dead and dry bones whispered and answered that the bones shone with brightness because of the kindness of the lady and because of her loveliness and because she honours God in meditation. I am lying here disintegrated offer my deeds for forgetfulness and my love to the people of the desert, and I renounce my sinful deeds. It is this renunciation of the past which re-shapes my guts, my eyes and the other portions of my body which the leopards have not eaten. Virgin Mary has withdrawn in her white gown and has been lost in contemplation. Let the whiteness of the bones be forgotten, for there is no life in them. As I have forgotten my past, so I would forget my misdeeds. I am now devoted to the spiritual path and am firm in my resolution to follow it. God said to the winds to prophesy for only the wind would listen. The bones sang in a low tone the song of the grasshopper-"the lady of silences, peaceful and sad, torn by suffering and made whole again, she is the rose of memory and forgetfulness, she is exhausted and yet lifegiving, worried but yet calm. She is the single rose now in the garden, where all love ends and where all the pains of unsatisfied love terminate. She also terminates the sorrow of satisfied love. She is the garden which is at the end of the endless journey, the terminal point of all that is inconclusive. It is the speech without word and the word of no speech. Let us thank the mother for her grace, for the garden where all loves end.

L. 89-95. Under a juniper tree the bones sang as they lay scattered and shining. They were happy that they lay so scattered for they did little good to one another under a shade in the cool part of the day, with the blessings of sand forgetting themselves and each other. The bones lie scattered under the quiet and stillness of the desert. This is the land which shall be divided by Lord. The unity or division can have no relevance here. This is the land of quiet and peace; this is our heritage.

Part III

L. 96-119. When I reached the first turning of the second stair, I turned and saw below the same old shape, twisted on the railing, under the vapour and foul air. This shape was seen struggling with the devil of the stairs who disguises itself under the treacherous face of hope and despair. (This is an account of a struggle with the spirit of doubt). At the turning of the second stair I left them twisting, turning below. The spirit of darkness was there but faces could not be seen and the stair was dark, damp, broken up and beyond repair, like the dirty mouth of an old man or the toothed gullet of an aged shark (selfish). (This shows his struggle with the darkness).

At the first turning of the third stair, there was a slotted window shaped like a fig. As one looked from it, one could see hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene. One could also see the broad-backed figure of a lovely girl dressed in blue and she whiled away the merry time with, playing on an old fashioned flute. Her sweet hair flew in the air, and covered her face and mouth. Her hair was of lilac and of brown coloiir. The scene is disturbed by the music of the flute. It fades and then it is over. But the memory of it takes time in fading. However, the sex instinct is overcome, and gathering strength of hope I climb the third stair. The poet prays to God: "Lord I am not worthy", and desires to be saved by the world. (This prayer enables him to proceed further on the spiritual path.)

Part IV

L. 120-148. Here is the place, where walked the devotees flanked by violet and green and white. These are the colours associated with Virgin Mary. (The green symbolises hope, the white stands for purity and blue for heavenly things). As they go ahead, they talk of trivial things in ignorance, but they also know the sufferings of Virgin Mary who moved along others as they walked, who gave life and vigour to the fountains and who made the dry air cool and the sand firm, and the blue in the larkspur. This blue is the colour of Virgin Mary. At this place memories of the youthful years of song and dance come and they disturbed the time between sleep and waking. There also comes the vision of Virgin Mary covered in layers of light and glory The new year proceeds restoring through a bright cloud of tears and with a new verse adding to the ancient message of redeeming time and restoring alike the vision in the higher dream of Virgin Mary. She is sitting in a golden coach drawn by jewelled unicorns. The silent sister(Virgin Mary) dressed in white and blue stood between the yew trees. Behind her God of the garden stood. His flute was silent. She bent her head and signalled but spoke no word. With her signal, the fountain sprang up and the bird started echoing the words - "Redeem the time, redeem the time" symbolising the unheard word until the wind took up the echo and shook a thousand whispers from the yew tree. The poet offers a prayer to Christ to bless him with the word.

Part V

L. 149-167. If the word that is spoken is not understood, if the word uttered is lost, if the unspoken, unheard word remains unspoken and unheard, still there is the unspoken word, namely the word of God. This Word does not need the help of any word. This Word is within the world and for the benefit of the world. This world shone like a light in the darkness of the world. The whole world moves around the silent centre of the silent Word (The poet mentions the background of the Word of God given by Clirist. People in their ignorance and corruption crucified Christ for the Word of God). Christ said to his persecutors: "My people, what I have done unto thee."

Where shall the Word be found? Where will the Word be echoed? It shall not be found here in this world because it shall not echo on the sea, on the island, on the mainland or on the rain-land. It shall not echo for people who walk in darkness, both in the day and in the night. The right time and the right place for the Word of God is not here. This is no place for the grace of God for those who avoid the face of truth. This is no time for the salvation of those who walk among noise and reject the voice of God.

L. 168-176. Will the veiled sister (Virgin Mary) pray for those who walk in darkness (of sin) for those who chose Christ and oppose him for those who are torn on the horns of a dilemma (the choice between the wordly way and spiritual way)? Season after season, time after time, hour after hour, people have to select between the word of the world and the Word of God, between wordly power and spiritual power. This is the choice for those who wait in darkness of doubt. Will Virgin Mary pray for the children who have collected at the gate and who do not wish to go away and yet cannot pray? Will she pray for those who choose Christ and oppose him? Christ seems to give answer to the question with his words -"my people, what have I done unto thee."

L. 277-184. Will the veiled sister, who stands between mortality and immortality (one yew tree stands for mortality and other yew tree stands for immortality), pray for those who offend her and are confused and cannot surrender, and both affirm the world and deny the world. Will she pray for those who stand in the last desert between the last blue rocks, for those who feel desert in the garden and the garden in desert of drought, spitting from the mouth, the withered apple-seed of sin? To such people, the lord's reply is: "O my people, what I have done unto theee."

Part VI

L. 185-208. (The poet is now committed to spiritual effort and here he takes certain positive steps on the spiritual path till he reaches his goal.) Although, I do not hope to turn again to the world, although I have no hesitation in choosing between profit and loss during my brief stay in this world, which is a kind of a twilight region where dreams about dying in the world and spiritual birth come to the individual. O father! bless me though I do not wish for these things. The white sails still fly sea-wards and the wide windows is open toward the granite, against spiritual discipline and rejoices in the beauty of Nature, the beauty of the lost lilac and the lost sea-voices.My weak spirit is in revolt against the golden rod of discipline and feels the loss of the sea smell. The weak spirit remembers the cry of the quail and whirling plover. The blind eye (worldly eye) creates the empty form between the ivory gates and the small renews the salt flavour of the steady earth. This is the time of tension between dying and birth, this is the place of solitude where the three dreams cross between blue rocks. The three dreams are the dreams of darkness, twilight and light. But when the voices coming from the yew tree drift away, the voices of the other yew tree (tree of immortality) shakes me and answers back the voice of the first yew tree (tree of mortality).

L. 209-219. Virgin Mary, our blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of fountain, spirit of garden, do not allow us to mock ourselves with falsehood. Teach us to care about the things of the spirit and not to care for the things of the world. Give us the gift of silence (inner peace) among these rocks (of this world),give us the courage to follow the Will of God in a spirit of peace and resignation. Even among these rocks, O Virgin Mary! sister, mother, spirit of the river, spirit of the sea, let me not be separated from you. My prayer is :"Let my cry come unto thee."


Part I

(The opening line has reference to the word in the Bible "turn ye even to me with all your heartgs, and with fasting and with weeping and with mourning." The second interpretation of the first line is that it is translation of a poem entitled Ballata written by Guido, an Italian poet. The poet addresses this line to a lady whom he does not expect to see again because he is on the point of death in exile.)

L. 1. Because I do not hope to turn again: The poet indicates his determination not to turn to the world, as he is fed up with its chaos and evil. He turns back to the real world and wants to exploit the inner world of the spirit for his spiritual progress.

L. 3. To turn: To turn to the world.

L. 4. Desiring this man 's gift and that man's scope: It is a line borrowed from Shakespeare's Sonnets. It means that he no longer wants to immitate great men or to follow' the footsteps of a wordly man.

L. 5. strive: attempt; endeavour such things: worldly things.

L. 6. aged eagle: The poet compares himself to an aged eagle. He is an old man tired and fed up with the world's struggle. It may have reference to the medieval fable according to which the old eagle flies to the sun and is burnt by its heat and then rushes into a well to renew its youth and energy. The aged eagle stands for the need of spiritual rebirth.

L. 7. mourn: lament; cry over.

L. 8. The vanished power: The power or the strength which has disappearaed on account of old age. usual reign: The enjoyment of the normal pleasures of the world.

L. 7 & 8.Why should...usual reign: Why should I feel sorry for the loss of my physical energies which enabled me to enjoy the momentary pleasures of life.

L. 10. The infirm glory: The temporary or transitory glory the positive hour: commitment to the things of the world.

L. 10. The infirm....positive hour: The transitory achievement of a positive commitment to earthly power and joy.

L. 13. veritable: factual; real, transitory: not lasting (power); it refer to the power of love, as for example ihe lady mentioned by Guido or the friend mentioned in Shakespeare's Sonnets.

L. 13. The one....power: Love (the beloved) which at one time was a source of life and inspiration to the poet.

L. 14. drink: The poet wants to give up the drinking of wine which is also an earthly enjoyment.

L. 15. There, where....nothing again: It refers to the natural sequence in the world-birth, and death; nothing is permanent.

L. 16-19 Because I know....for one place: The poet is dissatisfied with the things of the world, with the limitations of time and place which hamper his spiritual aspiration. The limitations of this world can be got over by following the light of the spirit. The burden of the present has to be relieved in order to reach eternity.

L. 20. I rejoice....are and: He feels happy that the pleasures of this world are momentary and fleeting. This gives him an incentive to march on the spiritual plane.

L. 21. blessed face: the beautiful face of the lady whom he loves or the friend in Shakespeare's Sonnets.

L. 22. renouce: give up.

L. 22. the voice: the voice of the beloved tempting the poet.

L. 23. to turn again: to turn the things of the world.

L. 24. Consequently: therefore, to construct something: namely to build up his spiritual life or to follow the way of Christ.

L. 25. upon which to rejoice: which will give him a great and everlasting joy.

L. 26. And pray to God to have mercy upon us: It is the spiritual path which he wishes to follow.

L. 27-29. And I pray....explains: The poet wishes to follow the spiritual way of life which is based on total submission to the Will of God. Hence, he prays to God to have mercy on him and to purge his mind of the habit of discussion and hair-splitting. He sincerely believes that discussion on the real way to God is futile.

L. 31-33. Let these....upon ns: The poet prays to God for His forgiveness for what he has done so far and promises that he will not do such acts (sins) again. He further prays that the punishment for the past sins may not be heavy. The poet is repentant and prays to God to be lenient to him for the errors committed in the past.

L. 33. judgement: the punishment given by God for one's sins.

L. 34. no longer wings to fly: The poet compares himself to an old bird whose wings do not have enough strength to fly. The poet does not believe in his own power to fly to the spiritual heights.

L. 35. Vans: poetic word for wings.

L. 36. The air., and dry: Air in the upper regions contains less of oxygen and therefore, it is difficult to breathe and fly in the higher regions.

L. 37. Smaller....the will: The air is more rarefied than his slightly purified will. Though the inner self of the poet is purer than what it was earlier, even so, he does not have enough strength to fly in the pure atmosphere to the higher regions.

L. 38-39. Teach us...sit still: The poet prays to God, to give him wisdom to care for things of the spirit and to ignore the things of the world.

L. 39. Teach us to sit still: The poet prays to God to give him strength to sit quiet and to meditate on spiritual matters in complete silence.

L. 40-41. Pray for us....our death: The poet desires his friends to pray for 'us' that is all sinners and not for 'him' alone. Let this prayer be both now and at the hour of our death. Prayer is the continuous process and relates the present to eternity. Like a true Roman Catholic, (Eliot was converted to the Roman Catholic faith in 1927) he believes in the power of sincere congregational prayer.

Part II

(The second part refers to the second step on the spiritual plain. The first step was the renunciation of the world by the devotee. The second step mentioned in this part is the renunciation of his own flesh-his body which is an embodiment of sin and a hurdle for spiritual progress. The destruction and dissolution of the body is necessary for the new birth as mentioned in the old fertility rituals).

L. 42. Lady: The lady is symbol of the grace of God necessary for transformation of the individual. She represents purity. Dante refers to Beatrice-his lady who helps him on his way to salvation. Here, the lady refers to Virgin Mary who brings about the union between man and God.

L. 42. three white leopards: Leopards are mentioned by Dante in his epic. His leopards are cruel beasts. But the three leopards mentioned here are good and kind animals. Their white colour indictes that they are the agents of purgation and purification.

L. 42 juniper-tree: a kind of ever green tree of Cypress generally to be found in the hills, similar to pine tree of India.

L, 43, having fed to satiety: having eaten to their full satisfaction. The poet mentions that his body has been eaten by the three leopards.

L. 44. my legs: the eating of the legs means that the strength of his body is now finished, my heart: the eating of his heart means that his feelings and emotions have come to an end. my liver: the eating of the liver indicates that his sex instinct has come to an end.

L. 45. In the hollow round of my skull: The eating of his brain by the leopards shows that his power of perception and reasoning is over.

L. 46. Shall these bones live: God wishes to put a new life into the scattered bones of his devotee. This has a reference to the following lines of the Bible-

"San of man, can these bones live? He said unto me, prophesy on these bones and say unto them, oh! ye dry bones, here the voice of the Lord, I will cause breath to enter into you and ye shall live". It may be noted that these bones are different from theb deadman's bones in the rat's alley (mentioned in The Waste Land. L. 116). Those bones are the symbols of death, while the bones mentioned here are the symbols of spiritual re-birth.

L. 47-48. Bones live....said chirping: This refers to the spirit of God which remained in the scattered bones. They were filled with the breath of the spirit and started uttering the words which follow.

L. 49. Lady: Virgin Mary who is an embodiment of goodness.

L. 50. loveliness: beauty of truth.

L. 51. She honours the Virgin in meditation: because of her devotion to God.

L. 52. We shine with brightness: the bones have got a new and spiritual birth. They shine with a divine light, dissembled: afraid or ignored.

L. 53. deeds: the deeds which he has committed in this world, i.e. acts of passion and evil, oblivion: forgetfulness.

L. 53. Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love: I renounce all my previous evil acts and my love (love of women or physical objects).

L, 54. To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd: The fruit of the gourd refers to Jonah, swallowed by a fish and he became a type of Christ. The poet renounces all the misdeeds of his previous life.

L. 55. This: this renunciation of the past, recovers: reshapes.

L. 56. guts: remaining portions of the body, which were not eaten by the leopards.

L. 56-57. My guts." is withdrawn: His partly devoured body; has assumed the form of a living body. This is a kind of spiritual re-birth. The surviving parts of the old body have been incorporated in the new body.

L. 57. The Lady: Virgin Mary, withdrawn: busy in her meditation.

L. 58. contemplation: meditation.

L, 59. atone: to compensate; to pay for; to suffer for the sins.

L. 60-61 There is....would forget: He has forgotten his past life and is glad of it.

L. 62. Thus devoted: He is now devoted to his spiritual re-birth.

L. 62-63. Thus devoted., for only: Prophet Jeremiah addressed the earth when his people ignored him. All th wind listened to him.

L. 64-65. The wind....grasshopper, saying: The scattered bones after the divine breath blew over them and became alive. They started singing like the grasshopper.

L. 65. burden: song.

L. 66. Lady of silences: A song in praise of Virgin Mary.

L. 67. distressed: unhappy because of the crucification.

L. 68. torn: mentally disturbed, whole: contented and composed.

L. 69. Rose: Virgin Mary is remembered as Rose.

L. 69-70. Rose of....forgetfulness: Rose is a symbol of physical love and spiritual love i.e. earthly and heavenly love. Virgin Mary; as an embodiment of earthly love is forgotten, but as the embodiment of spiritual love, she is remembered.

L. 72. worried: worried about the fate of Christ.

L. 72. Reposeful: contended; calm; blissful.

L. 73. The single Rose: The only Rose, i.e. spiritual love which remains.

L. 75. Where end: Virgin May is the perfect symbol of love. In her, all the anxieties and pangs of love come to an end. The passion of love is transformed and it sublimates all physical desires. The pains of earthly love and the doubts of passionate love are all ended into the vision of Virgin Mary. After this vision the devotees became speechless and full of blessing to the mother for her visions. She is an embodiment of love in its highest and purest form.

L. 90. We did little good to each other: It refers to the lives of the Christians who loved selfish and isolated lives in this world.

L. 93-95. In the quiet....our inheritance: It refers to God's instructions to the prophet Ezekiel to unite the divided tribes of Joseph and Judah. The prayer of the scattered bones refers to the regeneration of the individuals.There is a plea for the prayer of the entire Christian community scattered over the world-the spiritual desert. Eliot wants the regeneration of the entire community and not of a new individuals.

L. 95. This is the land. We have our inheritance: The desert is the inheritance of every Christian because Christ fasted in the desert for forty days. The desert is the symbol of repentance and peace.

Part III

L. 98. Twisted on the banister: resting in a confused manner against the railing, banister: railing.

L. 99. Fetid: stinking; dusty; foul.

L. 100-101. Struggling with....of despair: It refers to the demon of doubt which is inseparable from the spirit of belief. The soul is now in struggle with the demon of doubt who deceives with alternate hope and despair, certainty and uncertainty;

L. 105.Jagged: notched; dented out; unevenly.

L. 105-106. Damp, jagged....aged shark: The step was dark, damp and dented like an old man's mouth which is toothless and shrunken like the throat of an aged shark. This has reference to the spirit of darkness which tries to turn away a dovotee from the spiritual path.

L. 108. Slotted: having holes, bellied: in the form of

L. 109. Hawthorn: a kind of flower.

L. 110. Broad backed figure: of a young beautiful girl.

L. 111. Antique: ancient.

L. 113. Lilac: bluesh.

L. 110-116. The broadbacket....third stair: The devotee has vision through a window with holes of a beautiful spring-time scene in the meadow where a beautiful girl is playing on her flute and inviting others to dance and music. This temptation of the sex-this distraction of music and love confuses the mind. At last the devotee gets over this vision and Proceeds further.

L. 117-119. Lord, l am....word only. It has reference to the words of St. Mathew in the Bible where the Centurian requests for his servant: "Lord, I am not worth that thou shouldst come under my roof, but speak the Word only and my servant shall be healed."

Part IV

L. 120. Who walked: refers to Virgin Mary, violet: stands for penitence and intercession.

L. 122. Green: symbolises hope.

L, 123. White: stands for purity, blue: stands for the sky i.e., heavenly things.

L. 123. Mary's colour: the three colours are associated with Mary.

L. 124. Talking of trivial things. She is a real woman.

L. 125. Dolour: sorrow.

L. 126. Larkspur: A blue-coloured plant.

L. 127-128. Who then....the sand: Lady Mary in her divine aspect has been the source of life and vigour to the fountains, the springs, the rock and the sand.

L. 130. Sovegna vos: Be mindful of my pain. These are the words of Daniel to Dante, requesting him to remember Daniel’s sufferings for his sins, when he returns to the earth.

L. 131. Bearing: Carrying away.

L.131-132. Here are., restoring: The years of youthful merriment and singing and joy and pleasure are over.

L. 133. One who....wearing: In a dreamy state between sleep and walking.

L. 134: White light., folded: It is the light of Virgin Mary which comes and appears to man.

L. 134.Sheathed: placed.

L. 136. Cloud of tears: The weeping love which redeems.

L. 137-138. With a new....Redeem : These words refer to St. Paul’s Epistles "Walk in wisdom towards them that .or without, redeeming the time." This reminds the Christians of their duty towards God and men. Eliot is making a plea for redeeming the time so that faith may be preserved alive to renew and rebuild civilization and save the world from suicide.

L. 139-140. The unread....gided hearse : It has reference to Dante's Purgatorio, where he sees the divine pegeant in which Beatrice is drawn by a unicorn in her triumphal chariot.

L. 140. Unicorn: a mythical horse-like animal with a single horn. hearse: carriage.

L. 141-143. The silent sister...spoke no word: The garden-god refer to preapus, a Greek god of fertility, honoured with statues and gardens. The reference to flute would suggest Pan, the god of Shepherds playing on his pipes.

L. 144. Fountain: fountain of grace.

L. 146. The token of the word unheard unspoken: It has reference to the sermon of Lancelot Andrews on Christmas day 1618 where he mentioned the eternal word, the word unheard.

L. 146 Yew: tree, symbol of mortality.

L. 147. Till the...the yew: Let her word shake the yew trees into a thousand whispers to give new life and energy to humanity.

L. 148. And after this our exile: The exile refers to man's expulsion from Eden and his isolation from God. Present day-humanity has lost its spiritual power which it can gain through the grace of God. It has also reference to the Roman Catholic prayer. "After this our exile show unto us the blessed fruit of thy word, Jesus".

Part V

L. 149-154 If the lost...for the world: If the word that is uttered is not understood, if the word that has been spoken has no significance or life, if the word is unheard, even so the Word of God was unheard by the people. The Word of God is not the ordinary word. It is the life-giving Word, within the world and for the benefit of the world.

L. 155-157. And the....Word. The light of Christ dispelled the darkness of the world. It is surprising that the word was opposed by the disturbed world, though at the centre of the Word of God was the core of silence.

L. 158. O my people, what have I done unto thee: These are lines from the Roman Catholic mass where Christ on the cross speaks to the people thus - "O my people, what I have done unto thee. I grieve for thee, because I brought thee out of the land of Egypt. Thou has prepared the cross for thy Saviour."

L. 160. Resound: echoed.

L. 160. There is not enough silence: the world with its noise and confusion can not provide silence in order to hear the Word in the solitute of one's own soul.

L. 163. Darkenss: darkness of sin. The people who are sinful cannot have inner silence which can enable them to hear the divine word.

L. 166. No place of grace for those who avoid the face: There can be no spiritual light for those who avoid the faith in Christ.

L. 167. Deny the voice: refuse to believe in the word of God.

1.168. Veiled sister: refers to Virgin Mary.

L. 169.Those who wall.....oppose thee: those people who opted for the faith of Christ and yet do not follow the teachings of Christ.

L. 170. Those who....between: Those who are divided between desire for the world and for spiritual light. It consists of wavering people who are unable to decide and thus waste their time unnecessary in their indecision.

L. 171. Hour and hour....who wait: People who are undecided whether to follow the Word of God or follow the ways of the world. There are others who could not decide between the spiritual power and wordly power.

L. 173-174. For children....cannot pray: Innocent people who are neutral, and not committed to Christanity.

L. 178. Yew trees: trees standing for death and immortality.

L. 180. Between the rocks: the two ways of life-wordly way or the spiritual way.

L. 181. In the last desert: the final stage in the spiritual progress, the last blue rocks: Lady of the church wearing blue dress.

L. 182. The desert in the garden the garden in the desert: The desert in the garden refers to the state of detachment when there is no desire in the devotee. He stands in the garden but considers it as garden. The garden in the desert refers to state of spiritual awakening and rebirth i.e. when he finds a garden in the desert of his heart.

L. 183 Of drouth: dryness. Here it refers to the traces of desire left lurking in the mind, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed: The devotee may vomit the apple-seed of the original sin but still the trace of sin may continue to cling to his soul, apple-seed: refers to original sin of Adam.

L. 184. O my people: see the explanation of line 158.


L. 185. Although: This word replaces the word 'because' mentioned in Part I of this poem. This shows his sense of commitment to the spiritual path, to turn again: to adopt the ways of the world. The poet has made up his mind not to adopt the wordly ways but to follow the spiritual path.

L. 188. Profit: the spiritual way.

L. 190. Birth: spiritual birth, dying: physical death.

L. 192. granite: a kind of 'hard stone. Here it refers to eternity.

L. 192-194 From the wide....unbroken wings: The poet desires that he maybe able to see through the window of this world the vision of a fast sailing ship moving on the high seas that lead to eternity.

L. 195. The lost heart: the heart which is torn by conflict, stiffens: protests against discipline, rejoices: takes pleasure in beauty.

L. 195-198 And the lost....golden-rod: The heart of the devotee is tom by conflict and easily rejoices in the beauty of the flowers and the music of the sea. The heart revolts against the golden rod of discipline.

L. 198-200. The lost sea....whirling plover: the beautiful smell of the sea-water brings back to the mind of the poet the cry of the shore bird and the music of the quail (a bird like a partridge).

L. 201-203. And the....sandy earth: The worldly eye which is unaffected by spiritual discipline creates fantastic illusions of the mythological gates of ivory; while the sense of smell recalls the perfumes and odours of the sensuous world.

L. 204. This is the....and birth: the state of conflict which is natural when the human heart renounces w'ordly pleasures to commit itself to the spiritual path.

L. 205-208. The place of....shaken and reply: It is the state of the soul, which is in solitude. It is disturbed by three dreams. According to some critics, the three dreams refer to the visions of darkness, twilight and light. According to others, the three dreams refer to three choices before man-sexual activity; artistic activity and spiritual activity. However, this is the temporary state for the soul when it is affected by the voices of the world (yew tree). After these voices end, the voices of the other yew trees namely the voices of immortality of spirituality come to his ears and inspire him.

L. 209. Blessed sister....of the garden: refer to Virgin Mary.

L. 210. Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood: Bear with us and do not rebuke us or mock at us for our falsehood and hypocrisy. The other interpretation is that Virgin Mary may grant her grace to them so that they may be saved from falsehood.

L. 211. Teach us to care and not to care: Instruct us so that we may be careful about spiritual things and indifferent to wordly things.

L. 212. Teach us to sit still: To sit in the silence of our souls.

L. 213, Even among these rocks: The barren environments of the modern civilization.

L. 214. Our peace in His will: This is borrowed form Dante's Divine Comedy. It means that our happiness lies in submitting to the will of God.

L. 218. Suffer me not to be separated: Grant me your grace so that I remain merged in you.

L. 219. And let my cry come unto Thee: This is the response to the words of the priest: "Hear my prayer O Lord!" Cry: prayer.

      Conclusion: The theme of introspection, solitariness, despair, renewed faith, repentance, commitment and hope reflects the varied feelings of the poet himself. He has gone through an inner experience and his final mood is full of expectation and achievement. Elizabeth Drew remarks in this connection: "In Ash Wednesday which Jung calls 'the dangerous moment' the hovering between the possibility of fertility printing from spiritual renewal of the other, is over. On Ash Wednesday that danger is past

      In view of its containing a number of quotations from Christian prayers, it has acquired what Matthiessen calls "a kind of ritualistic chant; it is capable of making its appeal to a larger number of common people than Eliot's early poetry".

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