three white leopardsIn re-reading T.S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday on Ash Wednesday, a friend asks what many have wondered: “Excuse me, but what on earth does ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree’ mean?”

Is it such a mystery? With a little bit of detective work we can see through the illusion, connect the allusion, pick up a hint here, and a symbol there to deduce the meaning. I discovered one part of the riddle’s answer in reading Dorothy Sayers’ translation of Dante’s Divine Comedy. In the first canto the poet, lost in the midst of the wood and at a turning point in life, encounters three beasts: a wolf, a lion and… aha! a leopard. Might the mysterious Mr. Eliot, much influenced by Dante and writing a poem in mid-life about repentance and turning, be pointing us to the Divine Comedy? I think so.

In her excellent notes, Dorothy Sayers suggests that the three beasts represent the three categories of sin stratified in hell. The fierce wolf stands for the malicious sins of fraud and betrayal. The ravenous lion represents the sins of violence, while the leopard symbolizes lust and incontinence. If the leopard is lust, might three leopards represent the “lust of the flesh, the lust of the eyes and the pride of life?” The leopards have “fed to satiety” on the poet’s legs, liver, heart, and brain. These are the sources of his energy, his anger, his passion and his intellect. The poet tells us he is wasted and consumed. He has no ambition or desire. Poor man. Lust has eaten him up. Jezebel the wicked harlot queen has destroyed him.

Which brings us to the juniper tree. Did you not remember this story from Sunday School? Immediately one hears of a juniper tree, and Elijah the prophet comes to mind. Don’t you remember? After defeating the prophets of Baal, the Lord’s prophet, fleeing for his life and pursued by Jezebel, shelters in the desert in a state of depression and fear under… that’s right: a juniper tree. Here is the passage in question from I Kings 19:

But he himself went a day’s journey into the wilderness, and came and sat down under a juniper tree; and he requested for himself that he might die, and said, “It is enough; now, O LORD, take my life, for I am not better than my fathers.” He lay down and slept under a juniper tree; and behold, there was an angel touching him, and he said to him, “Arise, eat.” Then he looked and behold, there was at his head a bread cake baked on hot stones, and a jar of water. So he ate and drank and lay down again.…

Like the poet lost in the woods, the prophet is alone and depressed in the wilderness, and it is under the shade of the juniper that he is nourished by the angel and renewed. It is there that he confesses he has had enough, yet turns and in turning finds the inspiration to go on. The juniper, we learn, is an evergreen that is able to survive in the Sinai desert and thus represents a constant source of nurture and nourishment in the harsh waste land. Indeed, a bit later “dem bones, dem bones, dem dry bones” left behind by the leopards (like the dry bones of Ezekiel’s vision) tremble and rumble back to life.

“Intriguing!” you say. “But who is the lady and why are the leopards white?”

The Lady is the feminine ideal, the beautiful contemplative in the white dress who counters the wicked harlot queen, and thus she stands for Beatrice-like beauty and contemplation itself which is the only force that can tame the leopards of lust. And why are the leopards white? We might ask with the prophet Jeremiah, “Can the Ethiopian change his skin or the leopard change his spots?” Yes. “Out, out damned spot!” Blotted and spotted with sin, the leopards have eaten to satiety and are now tamed by the calm of contemplation so they have changed their spots. They have swapped their spots for an immaculate sheen. They have had their robes washed clean in the blood of the lamb.

These allusions and symbols may point the way to an answer, but Eliot himself would not be happy with such an explication. The poetical prophet from Missouri designed his poetry to have a subconscious, even visceral, effect. In the theory of the symbolist poets who also influenced him, the goal was to avoid “plain meanings, declamations, false sentimentality and matter-of-fact description.” Instead, the objects described suggested a deeper and more elemental meaning. To put it simply, the poetry was to “to depict not the thing but the effect it produces.” The words themselves point to meanings and moods beyond explanation, which are both above and below explicit articulation. Thus, like music, the poetry of words takes the reader beyond words to the wordless.

Therefore, the better reply to the inquisitive friend asking about the meaning of the line is to say what Eliot himself said to a group of students who asked for the meaning of “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.”

The poet replied, “It means, Three white leopards sat under a juniper tree.”

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