An introduction to Eliot’s great religious poem
T. S. Eliot’s 1930 poem Ash-Wednesday needs to be viewed as part of the shift in Eliot’s writing towards a more devotional aspect, a shift that would culminate in Four Quartets (1943). The poem, like The Waste Land and ‘The Hollow Men’ before it, had started life as shorter poems: Part II appeared in 1927, Part I in 1928, and Part III in 1929, with the other three sections being written around these. But the eventual six-part poem is one of the finest modernist religious poems in English, although its content requires some summary and analysis to be approachable and comprehensible.
Ash-Wednesday (note the hyphen) is perhaps, of all Eliot’s poems, the most heavily indebted to Dante. Eliot would write more essays on Dante than on any other poet, and the importance of Dante’s work to Eliot precedes his conversion to Christianity in 1927. The Italian medieval poet is known for his three-part epic poem The Divine Comedy, which describes the poet’s descent into the ‘inferno’ of hell, followed by his trip to purgatory, culminating in his arrival in the ‘paradise’ of heaven. Two of Eliot’s most famous earlier poems directly draw on Dante’s work: the epigraph to ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is from the poet, while the lines about the ‘Unreal City’ of London in The Waste Land (‘I had not thought death had undone so many’) are a loose translation from Dante’s original Italian.
As well as parts of Dante’s Divine Comedy – which we might describe as a meditation on Christianity – Eliot in Ash-Wednesday also draws on another poem by Dante, the Vita Nuova (literally ‘New Life’), a collection of courtly love poems about idealised beauty and its relation to religious faith. This is a key source for any analysis of the importance of the feminine imagery in Ash-Wednesday, because it points up that Ash-Wednesday is not just a religious poem, but also a love poem. However, it is about spiritual love rather than worldly love – the female figures who appear in the poem, the ‘Lady’ and the ‘veiled sister’, are closer to versions of the Virgin Mary than they are to any earthly woman. As well as Dante, there are also allusions to numerous other sources, including Shakespeare’s sonnets (the line ‘Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope’ is an adaptation of Shakespeare’s line ‘Desiring this man’s art and that man’s scope’ from Sonnet 29), the Book of Common Prayer, and the poetry of seventeenth-century Metaphysical (and devotional) poets such as John Donne and George Herbert.
The poem’s subject is suggested obliquely by its title, Ash-Wednesday. Ash Wednesday, the day after Shrove Tuesday in the Christian calendar, is the first day of Lent, which is a period of forty days’ penance and fasting to commemorate the forty days Christ spent fasting in the wilderness, where he was tempted by Satan and triumphed over him. Traditionally, it’s a time for repentance for past sins. The ‘ash’ refers to the blessing of the ashes of palm branches (from the previous Sunday, Palm Sunday), which are then marked on believers’ foreheads in a cross shape by the priest, accompanied by the words ‘Remember that you are dust, and to dust you shall return’.
The theme of Ash-Wednesday, summarised in brief, is the turning away from the world and towards God. Eliot had become increasingly dissatisfied with the ‘real world’ and the sense of sickness and decay which he saw at the root of modern life: think about all of the sterility and loss of spiritual meaning in The Waste Land, and then the hollowness of ‘The Hollow Men’, caught in some in-between world. Modern life has lost its meaning and its ‘edge’. Through religion, Eliot found a way to restore that meaning, and this is what Ash-Wednesday is about. When he begins with talk of ‘turning’ (‘Because I do not hope to turn again’), he is referring to this act of turning from the world and towards God, from the real towards the spiritual – towards the message of Ash Wednesday. The world is the desert, and God is the garden: the modern world is a deserted space, like the space of ‘The Hollow Men’ or The Waste Land, while the garden – a world of growth and life – is the world of God.
There seems to be an invitation to align this world, ‘The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying’, with the ‘twilight kingdom’ in which the hollow men found themselves trapped. This may help us towards a fuller analysis of that earlier poem, then: should we see Eliot’s vision of this life, our life on earth, as one of ‘twilight’, because it does not have the intensity of either night (darkness – hell?) or day (light – heaven?). This is an open question but it may help us to understand better that poem from five years earlier in his career, written before his conversion. But where ‘The Hollow Men’ could offer nothing but despair, Ash-Wednesday – or, to be more precise, the end of Ash-Wednesday – can restore meaning and joy to this ‘twilight’ world in which he find ourselves.