Ash Wednesday : by T. S. Eliot || Summary and Analysis

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Introduction :

      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. 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 to 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

Summary :

      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 girl-friend) 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, havind 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 revitalisation 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. Infact, this is the starting point for higher love. This part ends on anote 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 ot 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 too 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 tor 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 vaccilation 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 colours - 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. 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 colours. The colours have a spiritual significance. She has both a physical and spiritual aspect. She is the goddess of beautitude. She is covered with layers of light and the pageant is highly suggestive. Her benign influence and heavenly power is seen in her giving life and vigour 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 froma 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 favour 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 fulfilment.

      Comment : This section refers to the world and its activities. No body 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 th 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 of confession and repentance which alone can lead to the final achievement.

      Part VI - Resignation to His Will : In the final part, the poet emphasises the need of commitment to the spiritual quest. Undoubtedly, there are weaknesses in the individual which make him look back to the ioys 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 wordly 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 too return to the joys of this world. But, 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. 

Analysis :

      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 lesson; 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 we. 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 hour of our death, speak the word only", "after this our exile", "suffer me not to be seperated", "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. Inspite 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 through the feelings which he is expressing are extremely complex, and the sequence of his thought is by no means easy to follow, it nevertheless remain 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 aginst God. It is like the turing of the wheel, from the lowest position to the highest position.

      Style : There is a great variety of rhythm in 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 colours green, white and blue stand respectively for hope, purity and heavenly things. The lady may stand for Virgin Mary and an idealised 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.

      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 trom spiritual renewal of the other, is over. In 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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