T.S. Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday,” a monumental work—the Purgatorio between the Inferno of “The Waste-land” and the Paradiso of the “Four Quartets”—has always been, as long as I can remember in my adult life, a comfort and a mystery to me.
I assume it remained as such even to the Great Bard of the Twentieth Century himself.
Stephen Spender, one of Eliot’s friends, remembers a student asking Eliot, after a group of Roman Catholics had studied the poem with Father Martin D’Arcy, “please, sir, what do you mean by the line; ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’”? To which Eliot somewhat frustratingly replied, “I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopard sat under a juniper tree.’”
Is it enough to know that the Lady, surrounded by the white leopards, “honours the Virgin in meditation,” allowing those around her to “shine with brightness”?
Perhaps, and perhaps not. A mystery it remains. Oh, Thomas, what were you thinking?
Regardless, it would be difficult to dismiss the penetrating intelligence and Imagist brilliance of Eliot’s 1930 poem, “Ash Wednesday.”
I will be the first—and perhaps the last, one never knows the future, as my sagacious grandmother reminded me frequently—to admit that I have allowed the more mysterious parts of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” to distract me from the essence, purpose, and meaning of the poem.
But, a close read reveals much about Eliot’s intentions with the purgatorial poem, a turn toward all that is Good, True, and Beautiful. As with all modernists, even (and, perhaps, especially) the Imagists, Eliot offered a sacramental vision of time and place.
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place. . . .
But, place and time are not enough, as even the pagans understood. If we are to follow the teaching of the man who ran the race, St. Paul understood, we must “Redeem/The Time. Redeem/The unread vision in the higher dream.”
We must redeem the time through Grace and Grace alone. Indeed, we must ask Grace to call upon Grace.
And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgement [sic]not be heavy upon us . . . .
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death . . . .
As Eliot wrote to his close friend, the Princeton classicist and Christian Humanist, Paul Elmer More, on June 2, 1930: “My only original contribution is possibly a few hints about the Vita Nuova, which seems to me a work of capital importance for the discipline of the emotions; my last short poem ‘Ash Wednesday’ is really a first attempt at a sketchy application of the philosophy of [Dante’s] Vita Nuova to modern life.” [Princeton University Archives]
Clearly, Eliot offered his friend and fellow St. Louisian, Paul E. More, far more understanding than he did the anonymous and confused English Roman Catholic college student.
As Eliot viewed it, his poem offered a “turning point,” a new life, a baptism and sanctification of the old and of time and of life and of love and of sacrifice and of all things that matter. This new life, with the Blessed Mary Virgin pointing the way, began and ended with Jesus Christ, King of all things, life and death.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme. Redeem
The Time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream . . . .
Only through the Grace of the Word Incarnate, sacrificed on the Hill of Skulls on a Friday afternoon, three hours past noon, to be precise. . . .
Oh, Thomas, what would the world of modern and post-modern slime be without you? Impoverished, to be sure, to be sure, to be sure.
May you bring comfort to as many in the twenty-first century as you did in the twentieth century. May your white leopards continue to confound us and your words turn us—convert us—to Truth, Beauty, and Goodness and especially to the One through whom all good things come.
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.
[All quotes from: T.S. Eliot, “Ash-Wednesday,” in Eliot, The Complete Poems and Plays, 1909-1950 (New York: Harcourt Brace, 1980); Allen Tate, ed., T.S. Eliot: The Man and His Work (New York: Delacourt Press, 1966); and the Paul Elmer More/T.S. Eliot Correspondence, Princeton University Archives, Princeton, N.J.]
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