A summary of a major Eliot poem
The following constitutes a very brief summary of the six sections of T. S. Eliot’s long poem Ash-Wednesday (1930), which was the first major poem Eliot wrote after his conversion to Christianity in 1927. (That same year, he wrote ‘Journey of the Magi’, but Ash-Wednesday was a poem on an altogether larger scale – so the following brief summary may help to clarify the ‘narrative’ of the poem and how it charts the religious journey of the poet.
Part I introduces the speaker, who is a person without hope, for whom the world holds few pleasures. Life has lost its meaning and joy because the speaker has lost his faith. There are echoes here of ‘The Hollow Men’: the idea of a person in a sense cast out from the world of life and growth. The speaker renounces all earthly and temporal things, and acknowledges the emptiness of worldly aspirations and ambitions (see the image of his ‘wings’ as merely ‘vans to beat the air’, rather than to soar up into higher things).
Part II opens with the line, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree’ (the ‘Lady’ picking up on the female aspects to the previous section). The leopards might be read as images of death and destruction, but they show the speaker’s desire for, rather than fear of, death. In a surreal image, the leopards feast upon the speaker’s organs and flesh, destroying his sensual desire and leaving only his bones, which have been purified by the ‘Lady’ figure (i.e., by religion, associated here specifically with the Virgin Mary). The bones sing a ‘song’ in praise of their achieved purity.
Part III sees the speaker climbing a series of stairs – ascending to a higher plane, i.e. the world of God – and reviewing his past at each turn of the stair. This section derives from a section of Dante’s Purgatorio (the middle part of The Divine Comedy). At the first turn of the second stair, he meets a shape grappling with the devil: this ‘shape’ is his past self. He has conquered doubt and despair, and can ascend. He passes on to the window, which looks out on a pastoral scene where a Pan-like figure (Pan was the pagan god of the pastoral world) is playing a flute and enchanting the world around him. This seems to suggest worldly pleasures (Pan was half-man, half-goat, with the goat half suggesting sexual lust), which the speaker must reject (just as he had to reject the devil and despair) and move beyond.
Part IV focuses on the Lady, that feminine symbol of spiritual and religious fulfilment. She is described as ‘wearing / White light folded’ (a symbol of her purity) and ‘blue’ (the colour of the Virgin Mary). Now ‘the fiddles and the flutes’ are borne away (that is, the flute being played by the figure at the end of the previous section?), suggesting that the temptation of earthly, temporal delights is being overcome. But death will also be vanquished: the yew tree, mentioned twice in this section, is a symbol of death (the trees are often found in churchyards).
To understand Part V it helps to know about the double meaning of ‘Word’. ‘Word’ can refer both to the Bible (as the word of God) and to Christ himself as God (with a capital, i.e. ‘the Word’). So ‘the Word’ can be used to refer to Christ, who was both the son of God and God himself in human form. This is what St John means when he opens his Gospel: ‘In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.’ That is, ‘the Word’ is both the manifestation of God (Jesus, who was God come down in human form walking amongst the world) and the revelation of God (the Bible, the revealed truth of God).
In other words (as it were), the modern world no longer hears God, or heeds his ‘word’ (that is, Biblical scripture). Will the ‘veiled sister’ (often analysed as a version of the Virgin Mary) pray for those who ‘oppose’ God, who oppose ‘the Word’, those who walk in darkness? The repeated line ‘O my people, what have I done unto thee’, is Biblical, from Micah 6:3: God addresses these words to those who have forgotten him and fallen into idolatry, or worship of worldly things, instead of worshipping him.
Part VI begins by echoing the opening words to the first section, but with one key difference: ‘because’ is now replaced by ‘although’. Although the speaker does not hope to turn to the world (now he has found his faith in God, he doesn’t need to), he can nevertheless enjoy the world around him again (as he couldn’t at the opening of the poem, because he had lost his faith). We then get another window-image (cf. Part III): this window reveals the beauty of the world to him.
For a fuller synopsis of the poem’s contents, see the detailed summary of Ash-Wednesday in George Williamson’s T.S.Eliot (Reader’s Guides).
Image: Ashes imposed on the forehead of a Christian on Ash Wednesday (picture credit: Oxh973), via Wikimedia Commons.