Ash Wednesday’ was the first major poem Eliot wrote after his conversion to Anglicanism. It was published three years after this conversion, in 1930. The title of the poem comes from the Christian fast day that marks the beginning of Lent. It taps into some of the major themes of Eliot’s work and life, these include hope, despair
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Summary of Ash Wednesday
The poem takes the reader through stages in a speaker’s faith. At first, he is hopeless and overly concerned with his own human error and inability to accept God filly into his heart. As the poem progresses he goes through a series of metaphorical transformations in which he’s eaten by white leopards and made to climb up a staircase away from the past. These trials improve him and help him leave behind the sins of the past.
By the time he reaches the sixth section of ‘Ash Wednesday’ he has changed. Human salvation now seems possible and the hopelessness of the first section has left the speaker’s mind.
You can read the full poem here.
Structure of Ash Wednesday
‘Ash Wednesday’ by T. S. Eliot is a six-section poem that is further divided into stanzas of uneven lengths. The stanzas are quite different in the number of lines they contain. Some stretch all the way up to twenty-five while others are only one or two lines long. Eliot did not choose to make use of a specific rhyme scheme within ‘Ash Wednesday’ but there are scattered examples of rhyme throughout the poem.
These appear at the ends of and within the lines. Some are full or perfect rhymes, while others are half-rhymes. Also known as slant or partial rhyme, is seen through the repetition of assonance or consonance. This means that either a vowel or consonant sound is reused within one line or multiple lines of verse.
Poetic Techniques in Ash Wednesday
Eliot Makes use of several poetic techniques in ‘Ash Wednesday’. These include alliteration, enjambment and anaphora. The first, alliteration, occurs when words are used in succession, or at least appear close together, and begin with the same letter. For example, “renounce” and “rejoice” in part I stanza three
Another important technique commonly used in poetry is enjambment. It occurs when a line is cut off before its natural stopping point. Enjambment forces a reader down to the next line, and the next, quickly. One has to move forward to comfortably resolve a phrase or sentence. For example, the transition between stanzas one and two in part II.
Eliot also makes use of anaphora, or the repetition of a word or phrase at the beginning of multiple lines, usually in succession. The first stanza is a great example of this technique. Eliot uses the phrase “Because I do not hope” four times in a row to start the poem off.
Analysis of Ash Wednesday
In the first stanza of ‘Ash Wednesday,’ the speaker begins with a statement of hopelessness. He has no hope that his life is going to change, or that he will again find joy. This is all because he has lost his faith. He states that he no longer strives to “strive towards such things”. The man feels as though his life and fate is out of his control, there is no reason to fly. He’s an “agèd eagle” who will surely not reach its destination before its death. The man is so downtrodden he cannot mourn this change altogether, although these lines do feel very much like mourning.
The repetition of “Because I do not hope” at the beginning of the poem sets the mood for the stanzas to come. Even though there is a return to hope in some sections of ‘Ash Wednesday,’ the majority of the poem is permeated with this feeling of hopelessness.
The second stanza of ‘Ash Wednesday’ also makes use of anaphora with the repetition of “Because I” in four of the lines. In these lines, he expands on what he initiated in the first stanza. He expresses his inability or willingness to hope for any change from the future. There will be no “positive hour” in the future nor will there be anywhere that he can take pleasure.
The fourth and fifth lines allude to his ability to draw close to God. This distance forces him to cut himself off from the “where trees flower, and spring flows”.
The use of anaphora in these lines, and the general repetition of phrases, mimics the stuttering voice of someone struggling to find the right words. These lines are very human and seeking in their tone. It is clear in these stanzas of ‘Ash Wednesday,’ despite the complicated diction and syntax, that Eliot’s speaker is struggling to come to terms with aspects of his faith that trouble him. He believes in God and religion, but there is something about its connection to human life that he is contending with.
He expresses his belief that he can’t change the human condition. His renouncements of the “blessèd face” and “the voice” show that he is trying to reject parts of the world that tempt and control him.
The fourth stanza takes the form of a prayer as he asks God to “have mercy upon us” and help him forget that which he discusses too frequently with himself. These are the human matters of the heart that are coming between him and his faith.
Stanzas Five and Six
The fifth stanza alludes to the eagle reference in the first and the power, or lack thereof, of wings. The symbol of wings represents the speaker’s ability to navigate the world, and his faith, successfully. They are “merely vans to beat the air” now. They cannot help him fly.
He asks God to help “us,” the human race and “Teach us” what we need to know to move faithfully through life. The last two lines of this section are taken from the Ave Maria.
The second section of ‘Ash Wednesday’ begins with a very evocative image. The poet creates a scene of “three white leopards” that sit underneath a “juniper-tree”. He appeals to a “Lady,” a Mary-like figure while crafting an extended metaphor depicting the leopards eating his speaker’s body.
He states very clearly, unusual for Eliot, that they ate the speaker’s legs, heart and liver and all of that which had been contained “In the hollow round of my skull”. They consumed his whole body, brain included. He asks God what comes next, will “these bones live?”
In answer, his bones speak. Through this very unusual use of personification Eliot allows Mary’s voice to emerge from the bones, shining a “brightness”. They are still alive with power. The speaker devotes himself to the future “of the desert” and the “fruit of the gourd”. Religious symbolism fills these lines.
The next section of this stanza makes use of repetition as he describes the state of his eaten body, the movements of the lady, and his contemplations. The “whiteness” of the lady is emphasized, a representative of her purity and chastity. It is connected with the bones the speaker which has been laid bare, devoid of their sin.
He is now “concentrated in purpose,” after having been eaten alive. The last lines contain a prophecy about the wind, and the response from his “bones,” which are really at this point a symbol for his soul. The last line of this stanza is enjambed, encouraging a reader to move quickly into the second stanza of part II.
The second stanza contains the words of the speaker’s bones/soul. The bones “sang chirping” about the Lady. He uses the rose as a symbol of where “all loves end” and the end of “love unsatisfied”. This is contrasted with “love satisfied” and a series of other phrases associated with endings and new beginnings. The speaker is celebrating and commenting on the new life he has been given after being eaten by the metaphorical leopards in the first stanza.
The third stanza of this part of ‘Ash Wednesday’ returns the reader to the juniper=tree where the “bones snag”. The imagery in these lines is very evocative. He describes the way they’re scattered and shining and doing “little good to each other”. There is a peace to these lines that certainly was not present in the first part of ‘Ash Wednesday’. Here, the speaker uses th desert as a place of silence and contemplation. “This,” he says, “is the and which yes / Shall divide by lot”. But, that division in the and does not matter.
The third part of ‘Ash Wednesday’ is the shortest. The first stanza introduces the staircase. It is up its levels that the speaker will climb, along the way leading his past behind. When he turned to look behind him he saw “The same shape twisted on the banister / Under the vapour in the fetid air”. Below him it is dark, his past self is there struggling “With the devil of the stairs”. It is the deceit of this devil that he’s trying to leave behind. Fake hope and despair are going to be in the past.
He makes progress in the next stanza but again looks behind him. There, he can no longer see the “twisting, turning below”. It was all dark. Eliot uses the powerful simile of an old man’s mouth to depict the sight of the staircase below his speaker. It is “Damp, jaggèd, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond / repair”.
This section of the poem is taken very much from Dante’s Purgatorio, the section of The Divine Comedy in which Dante is led up the stairs out of Hell and into the realm of God.
Stanzas Three, Four, and Five
At the third “turning of the…stair” he looks out the window. From that location, he can see “The broad backed figure” who is wearing “blue and green”. This is a Pan-like creature who is playing an antique flute. He is enchanting everything around him with his sweet hair and mouth. The “brown” colours emphasized within the stanza. Pan has always been a symbol of unrestrained lust and as the speaker climbs past the window he is leaving that part of himself behind as well.
The section ends with the speaker ding his best to continue resisting sin while praying to God for strength and the ability to “speak the word only,” or know only Christ and his revelations.
The first stanza of part IV of ‘Ash Wednesday’ begins with the speaker designing the “Lady” to whom many of the previous lines and stanzas were dedicated. Like Mary, she goes in blue and white. They are “Mary’s colours”. She speaks about “trivial things” because she is “ignorant” of “eternal dolour” or sorrow.
The Lady has a power the speaker is in aw of. She guides him just as Beatrice guided Dante in The Divine Comedy.
Stanzas Two and Three
The Lady’s powers allow her to transform the world. Eliot uses the phrase “Sovegna von” in the third line of the second stanza. Eliot took this phrase from The Divine Comedy. It loosely translates to “you should remember”. The importance of this woman for the speaker and for the world at large is very clear.
The Lady moves through the world and the “fiddles and flutes,” symbols of lust and frivolity, are taken away. She is also described as existing in a liminal space between “sleeping and waking”. This is similar to the purgatory the speaker as been rising out of.
The Lady carries with her a restorative power that works all over the world. It is “sheathing her” and the years are restored around her. The “new verse” brings back the “ancient rhyme” and time is redeemed. The theme of rebirth is very present in these lines as the speaker marvels in the woman’s powers. The way she moves through the world is itself an embodiment of the world the speaker is trying to reach. As he’s on his way out of hell, through purgatory, and ridding himself of lustful sin, she is there as a guide.
Stanzas Five through Eight
The last lines of this section allude to death and speak about the “yew” tree. It is there as a symbol for the end and brings with it a higher plane. There will the Lady is the heavenly world the speaker is seeking out. She is “veiled in white and blue” as mentioned previously and did not have to speak to be a representative of “the word”.
Stanzas One and Two
Part V begins with a reference to the “word”. This refers to the words of Christ as well as Christ himself. It embodies all that Christ brought to earth and all that God intended. The speaker meditates on “the word” and what it means for it to remain unspoken or unheard.
He comes to the conclusion that even if the word is silent in a faithless world that does not mean it doesn’t exist.
The second stanza is only one line long and is connected to the Catholic liturgy, The Improperia, of the Good Friday service.
The speaker considers the state of the world and wonders aloud where it will “sound”. The answer is “Not here.” There is not enough “silence” in this world for it to sound out. He moves through the possibilities of the sea and islands, as well as the mainland, “in the desert or the rain land”. All of these places will not work because those who live in them and walk on their lands are in darkness.
They will not hear the word of God. There will be no “place of grace for those who avoid the face”. Nor will there be time to “rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny / the voice”. These lines are clearer than most within this poem and speak very clearly to the problem the speaker is having.
He asks if the “veiled sister,” the Lady about whom he has been so excited, “pray for / Those who walk in darkness” without the sound or light of the world. This connects back to the light that emanated from the speaker’s bones in the second section. Repetition is very important in these lines as well as the speaker considers what is going to happen to “those who wait / In darkness”. He doesn’t know if she will pray for them or not. The children at the gate “who will not go away and cannot pray” need her.
It is easy to relate these lines back to the beginning of the poem where the speaker seemed to be having so much trouble himself with prayer and dedication.
Stanza Five, Six, and Seven
The same phrase “O my people, what have I done unto thee” is repeated again. It comes from Micah 6:3 as God addresses those who have fallen from him. The questions about the “veiled sister” are also repeated. There are many out there, those who are scared, unable to surrender to faith, and even those who have actively offended the sister.
Stanzas One and Two
The sixth section of ‘Ash Wednesday’ begins with another use of anaphora, relating back to the beginning of the poem when the speaker’s words were stunted. The word “because” has been replaced with the word “although” in this section though. This opens up the possibility that things are actually going to change for him. He does not “hope to turn” to the world he can enjoy the world as he used to. The hopelessness of the first stanza is gone. The image of the wings is also reintroduced. The wings are depicted as sails that fly seaward and they are no longer broken.
Stanzas Three and Four
The next two stanzas represent the major themes found in the rest of the poem. The speaker meditates on everything that has thus been spoken about, freedom, hope, faith, and the stalking nature of sin. He is changed, that is clear but still cautions the reader to remember the sin and keep from falling back into old patterns. It is a “time of tension” he states, between “dying and birth”.
Stanzas Five and Six
In the last two stanzas of ‘Ash Wednesday’ are prayer-like. He addresses the “Blessèd sister, holy mother” again. He refers to her as the “spirit / of the garden” and asks for help avoiding falsehoods of the past. The speaker also seeks out the ability to be at peace in “His will” among the rocks.
In the final lines, he asks to never be parted from “Sister, mother / And spirit of the river”. His cry, he hopes, will “come unto Thee” and allow his soul to be revived. He is coming reconciled to his humanity and the strife it caused him at the beginning of the poem is no longer present.