C.E. Chaffin


T. S. Eliot: "Ash Wednesday"


The genesis of "Ash Wednesday" (AW) is not clear from what little research I was able to uncover on the net, to which my reference library is presently limited. It was published roughly three years after Eliot’s conversion in 1927 and appears in his Selected Poems before the "Ariel Poems," his other first Christian works. "Choruses from the Rock," which I find closer to his plays than his verse, or at least suspended midway between them, was published later in 1934. AW shares some concerns of the "Ariel Poems," especially with "The Journey of the Magi," where the Babylonian wise men must return to their civilization knowing their time is past. (Milton’s "Hymn to Christ’s Nativity" sounds a similar dirge for the old gods.) Indeed, given Eliot’s method it is not far-fetched to consider that some of the material in the "Ariel Poems" first constituted fragments of AW. But AW is a poem more concerned with personal salvation in an age of uncertainty, where the weariness of giving up to a creed weighs heavily on the speaker: "Why should I mourn the vanished power of the usual reign? (Why should the agéd eagle stretch its wings?)"

Although Dante, Shakespeare, the Bible and the Anglican Liturgy make appearances, AW is hardly an allusive poem when compared with Eliot’s earlier efforts. To repeat myself, it is an intensely personal poem by an intensely private man, a man who navigated the seas of Western Literature for over three decades in search of an "answer," or at least some sense of peace. And after all he’s read, written and experienced, he is faced with the same inevitable submission he sought to avoid throughout his exploration of culture—although the path was always there.

Lastly in this introduction, I ask the reader to consider what a conversion to the Anglican Church might have meant socially in 1927. What were the reactions of Pound, Joyce, Hemingway, Gertrude Stein, Virginia Woolf, and others? I found no record of such, but surely Eliot’s stand, or rather kneeling, was truly shocking for his time, revolutionary or at least counter-revolutionary, though not as revolutionary as the poetic technique Eliot first employed in "Prufrock."

Spiritual Considerations

Eliot composed AW after proving himself an accomplished poet, but the journey of Christianity, by example of the saints, is a long and winding path and one cannot expect a relatively new convert to exhibit great spiritual maturity. Certainly the poem makes no claim to it. AW is more an approach to faith than a record of conversion or a revelation of wisdom. As J. Bottum remarks "A poem not so much about God as a prayer for God, and not so much about prayer as about the effort of the poet to put himself in the attitude of prayer." (First Things 55, 1995, 25-30)

Yet, though a tentative approach to faith, AW makes a genuine effort at making contact with God. Although it lacks the joy that made the disciples appear drunk on Pentecost, and in which Paul, Luther and Wesley exulted, it is an earnest poem—perhaps too earnest. It lacks the robust assertions of "Four Quartets" (4Q) while eschewing the dark irony rarely absent from Eliot’s poetry prior to the THM.

AW not only struggles with an approach to faith but with an approach to a language capable of expressing it. Its most poetic passages are set up as a "bait-and switch," where Eliot’s best lines are treated as temptations to be renounced, undermining the very process of renunciation. The speaker who fled from himself in earlier poems here seems to flee from his art as well. Must an accomplished poet renounce poetry to be truly converted? Because in AW Eliot asks us to turn away from poetry even as he demonstrates it. This naturally generates in poetry lovers a cognitive dissonance, as if some choice must be made between truth and beauty.

The biblical record certainly supports the idea that the Spirit of God enhances creativity (just look at what Samson did with the jawbone of an ass!) Since Eliot, as an unbeliever, had been so enamored of literature and language, he may have initially misapprehended what sacrifices God requires of the new believer, fearing any disqualifying attachments. As C. S. Lewis wrote, "whatever becomes a god becomes a demon." In true conversion it is easy to mistake harmless attachment for dangerous disregard, and when salvation is on the line one is not inclined to take chances.

In saying this I am reminded of my own conversion at the tender (and completely unprepared) age of 16. I had a pair of sandals I’d made for myself and was quite proud of them—not to mention the fact that they fit my big feet perfectly. Shortly after conversion I tossed them out for fear my attachment to them lay too near idolatry. My best friend did a similar thing. He heaved his old, beloved Silvertone acoustic off his balcony for fear of too much loving it. Thanks to Sears’ truck-like construction the dive to the cement driveway barely dented the guitar, so he was forced to bash it repeatedly against a eucalyptus trunk in an approach to destroying it.

Here’s a passage that supports one of my contentions about AW, that Eliot, fearing an unhealthy attachment to poetry, dismisses it as a temptation:

"though I do no wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

"And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth." (VI: 7-19)

Here the speaker wishes not to wish for the very things he poetically envisions, since "the weak spirit quickens to rebel / For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell." As a new convert it is easy to forget that God created the world "good." One is too busy separating the past from the future, sin from righteousness, salvation from damnation. Eventually one realizes that a love for the reminders of Eden in its fallen version, still visible in nature, is more a sign of blessedness than misdirected love. But in AW Eliot is determined to take no chances. There is no going back: "Although I do not hope to turn again" (VI: 1).

A Long Day’s Journey Out of Night

If Eliot had not been converted after writing THM, what more could he have written? It is hard to imagine him re-working the theme of worldly despair more vividly. Without some tangible hope to follow that dark poem it seems to me his only options were either suicide or to stop writing poetry altogether.

Happily, Eliot’s body of work chronicles a spiritual and artistic journey that rebounds from such things. Thus we might call THM his artistic "dark night of the soul," although biographically we know his hospitalization for depression occurred during the composition of "The Waste Land" (TWL) (1922).

It is true that Eliot achieved a partial contentment in TWL, when near the end the Fisher King sits by the sea after thunder has finally brought rain to the waste land. This transitory affirmation, however, is oblated by the despair of THM, published three years later (1925), whose chorus of desiccated souls is paralyzed by inaction and hopelessness. AW follows THM almost seamlessly, since if THM admits powerlessness over damnation, AW admits powerlessness as a prelude to, or a requirement of, salvation. But the divide between these two poems, both in time and sensibility, is vast.

Published five years after THM (1930), as already noted, AW constitutes the greatest leap in Eliot’s verse and life and the greatest pause in his poetic output prior to the hiatus between his plays and 4Q. In AW Eliot’s poetic persona has somehow found the courage, through spiritual exhaustion, to seek faith. That faith requires of him complete submission, including the admission that faith must ultimately come from without because the "within" is exhausted. There is no room for negotiation, ratiocination, speculation or excuse, although the poem does include the dilemma of temptations, as well as backward glances at the past. But the penitent’s mind has been made up from Part I: the pilgrim must come empty-handed, indeed continually empties his hands of everything in this world, including the love of language itself. In AW the repentant, slightly confused, certainly enervated pilgrim seeks the garden within the desert— a salvation embodied in the female principle of God—as if he could not even approach the bleeding Christ or the Father, Jehovah, who is "an all-consuming fire." The seeker comes by the most merciful way, the most unassuming way, not by Mary directly but through Beatrice to Mary, and only in the poem’s conclusion is the feminine archetype identified with the Holy Spirit.

AW is no revelation, more a negotiation by a timid penitent. Yet the poem is not about penitence, which involves paying for one’s sins in a sort of divine installment plan, but repentance. The difference is an important one. Its opening lines, already quoted, taken from Shakespeare’s Sonnet XXIX, employ the verb "turn" three times. "Turn" echoes the Greek word for repentance, metanoia, literally "change of mind"—much as the prophets enjoined Israel to "turn back, turn from your wicked ways." And what is the essence of repentance for a middle-aged literary aesthete whose early work was lauded as experimental, revolutionary, even genius? In short, the abnegation of self, renunciation of accomplishment, admission of powerlessness and a need for mercy: the sacrifice of everything valued before, even the glories of language.

AW forms a personal liturgy. Eliot couldn’t vomit on the page like a Bukowski; all must be processed, dignified, philosophically autopsied. The poem is a song of death and hoped-for rebirth, a song of hope while doubting hope, of faith while seeking faith, of love for one who has known little love, a prayer for mercy that acknowledges mercy as undeserved. It is the stuttering poem of one first learning to pray, a poem that gropes the ether not just for a way out of this world but for a genuine path to heaven. Read quietly with an open heart, it is a moving poem, a simple poem, perhaps even a good place for the uninitiated to begin reading Eliot.

Continuity of Persona: Eliot the Pilgrim

In Eliot’s work one sees an inescapable progression of recurrent themes and images, one of the great pleasures in reading him. Each major poem builds on the last and 4Q sums it all up. One might say Eliot was always and only working on one poem, the record of his spiritual journey—from the timid neurosis of "Prufrock" through the superannuated persona of "Gerontion" to the psychotic pilgrimage of TWL, on to the hopeless limbo of THM, through the delicate negotiation of faith in AW, finally arriving at the triumphant resolution of 4Q.

In considering this insistent progression in AW, note how Eliot borrows from his earlier work and transforms it:

(from TWL V: 331-334)

"Here is no water but only rock
Rock and no water and the sandy road
The road winding above among the mountains
Which are mountains of rock without water"

(from THM III: 12,13)

"Lips that would kiss
Form prayers to broken stone."

(now from AW IV: 9,10)

"Who made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs
. . .
Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand"

Or take the figure of the stairs Eliot uses in AW III. Stairs recall earlier passages from "Prufrock": "And indeed there will be time / To wonder, ‘Do I dare?’ and, ‘Do I dare?’ / Time to turn back and descend the stair." Also, from "Portrait of a Lady": "I mount the stairs and turn the handle of the door / And feel as if I had mounted on my hands and knees." Such references also naturally remind us of Eliot’s lifelong preoccupation with Dante, in whose Purgatorio are seven ascending stairs that circle Mount Purgatory.

AW also prefigures 4Q. Remark this passage from AW IV: 18-20

the time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream."

Then note this passage from "Burnt Norton" from the very first movement of 4Q, at least 15 years away from Eliot’s composition of AW:

"If all time is eternally present
All time is unredeemable." (4Q BN I: 4,5)

And the final movement of 4Q, in "Little Gidding," contains this passage:

"A people without history
Is not redeemed from time, for history is a pattern
Of timeless moments." (4Q LG V: 20-22)

In the same way, within a given poem, Eliot builds on previous passages. The entire spiritual progression of AW, in fact, might be summed up by a change in conjunctions. Note the opening lines:

"Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn"

Now the lines that begin the last movement:

"Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn again"

"Because" implies a decision propelled by a consideration of the past, while "although" implies a decision already made, though temptations may continue, as demonstrated by the passage quoted above, also from the last movement, where "the weak spirit quickens to rebel / For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell."

Further, the main images of AW are reworked throughout the poem: wings, the garden with its fountains and springs, the desert with its gourds and bones, the dominant, recurring archetype of the "Lady" or Mary/Beatrice figure, the stones she turns blue, the white light of transfiguration, the Word and the word, and the yew-tree—to mention a few.

If the medium is the message, Eliot’s recurring themes and images in AW form both an act of poetry and an act of redemption. And given their continuity with both his past and future work, I can think of no poet in the language who so carefully builds on his own artistic past, just as his philosophy concludes, especially in 4Q, that we can neither escape the past nor the future, that both are contained in the present—so make the most of this moment or "redeem the time." Better yet, try to stay at the still point of the timeless moment.

Eliot on the Couch (Again)

In my first essay on Eliot I took the liberty of examining some of his psychological peculiarities, mainly an aversion to the flesh, or as C. S. Lewis termed it in another context, "delicacy." In AW we witness a staggering change in this attitude, particularly with regard to women.

Recall that in "Prufrock" we encounter a lady the protagonist seeks to avoid, comforting himself with imaginary mermaids at the poem’s end. In "Portrait of a Lady" we meet an older woman with whom the speaker toys, or is alternately toyed with, in a rather stilted aristocratic friendship. In "Preludes" appears a woman whose soul was constituted of "a thousand sordid images," who "clasped the yellow soles of feet / In the palms of both soiled hands." From "Rhapsody on a Windy Night" we read "The moon has lost her memory. / A washed-out smallpox cracks her face, / Her hand twists a paper rose, / That smells of dust and eau de Cologne." "Gerontion" records "The woman keeps the kitchen, makes tea, / Sneezes at evening, poking the peevish gutter." And one might say that TWL’s "Game of Chess" and "Fire Sermon" are preoccupied with a sort of inhuman cardboard dominatrix whom the speaker only escapes through death by drowning. I am, of course, skipping the minor poems with Sweeney’s shenanigans, among other misogynistic, two-dimensional cameos.

If ever a poet tried to work through the famous "Madonna-whore complex," Eliot’s the one. His portrait of the female redemptive figure in AW II and IV is the closest he has yet come to admiration of, much less love for, a real woman in his verse. Although the Lady is essentially unapproachable, this is progress. Still, note that they never speak to each other as Dante and Beatrice did. Yet the brief portrait of the garden of earthly delights seen from the third stair in AW III indicates a new acceptance of sexuality in his verse: "Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown, / Lilac and brown hair." Thus, while out on a bit of a Freudian limb, in AW Eliot begins to bring the Madonna and the whore together into something that more resembles a real woman. Yes, he is still triangulating the human connection through archetypal symbols, and beholds the female principle with extreme veneration, but this is a palpable advance. And from the point of view of Christian paradox it makes sense. One cannot accept the flesh without the grace of God. For as Paul writes, "We have this treasure in earthen vessels." The answer is not mysticism but incarnation.


In my earlier essays I sought not to explicate Eliot’s poems in detail, though I did a prose rendering of TWL and felt obligated to do more explication than usual in "The Hollow Men," because of its brevity and the importance of its main allusions.

With regard to AW, I don’t know how obvious Eliot’s Christian references are to a modern audience, so below is an explication more thorough than I would like, though certainly by no means exhaustive. (The informed reader may be excused until my concluding thoughts.) If I err in too much explication, it is to benefit those who may not be as conversant with the Christian tradition as would have an audience from 1930.

As for the title, it refers to the first day of Lent, when many Christians receive a cross of ashes on their foreheads as they begin 40 days of self-examination and renunciation prior to the celebration of the Passion. In the Western Church Ash Wednesday is always the seventh Wednesday before Easter, not counting Sundays. Often something is given up; my wife and I have given up cigarettes for the last two years (unfortunately, we fell back into our bad habits after Easter). The tradition of Lent comes from apostolic times and was derived from Christ’s 40 days of fasting and temptation by the devil in the wilderness. The theme of Lent is thus a retreat into the wilderness with Jesus. Despite the title of the poem, Jesus is never mentioned. The devil is mentioned once, though limited to "the devil of the stairs"—some personal demon, not the fallen archangel of evil. Although the poem has the feeling of Lent, and the wilderness of the desert is prominent, no mention of ashes occurs either.



Part I of AW is composed of five stanzas with a couplet from the Anglican liturgy at the end. Each stanza calls for a different renunciation. The first is renunciation of hope, hope in this world for past diversions that might threaten a new-found faith. A brief interlinear explication of the first three lines might help clarify the sense:

"Because I do not hope to turn again"
—to turn away from this path or change my mind
"Because I do not hope"
—because I have no hope left in myself
"Because I do not hope to turn"
—to turn back, to stray

Stanza two renounces the hope of fulfillment in this world, acknowledging that the "positive hour" of the "one veritable transitory power" is evanescent, thus the seemingly timeless moment of bliss or power in this existence is no longer a hope.

Stanza three presents more difficulties. By affirming the unavoidable strictures of space and time in this world, realizing that what is actual is also ephemeral, the speaker rejoices in his own helplessness to change man’s condition, thus renounces the blessed face of this world and the voice of temptation within it. Repeating that he cannot "hope to turn again," or return from the path he has begun, he posits a faith: "having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice."

One might argue that a believer bent on constructing something upon which to rejoice is being a bit egotistical, but stanza four defines what this entails: "And pray to God to have mercy upon us." Thus the first construct "upon which to rejoice" is an acknowledgment of God’s mercy, a gift—though all faith is, in a sense, a construct from the human perspective. The second construct expands the definition of forgiveness, which means also to forget: "And I pray that I may forget / These matters that with myself I too much discuss / Too much explain." The third construct appears in these lines as well, namely deliverance from self-consciousness, the constant nagging of the mind that opposes true selflessness.

Stanza four, echoing stanza three, asks: "Let these words answer / For what is done, not to be done again." There is no going back. Thus, "May the judgment not be too heavy upon us."

Stanza five recalls the imagery of the first, of wings that are "no longer wings to fly / But merely vans to beat the air." Then comes a direct appeal to the divine, perhaps the poem’s most memorable lines: "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still." This provocative Zen couplet could be explicated ad nauseum. Oversimplified, of course, I might paraphrase it as: "Teach us to care about others and the kingdom and not to care about ourselves or the result; teach us to wait for your hand, O God." The essence of faith, according to Paul’s treatment of Abraham in Romans and the author of Hebrew’s famous chapter 11 is waiting.

The concluding couplet appended separately is taken directly from the Anglican liturgy, reminding us that now and the hour of our death are really the same, and the pilgrim again asks for mercy.

Notice, incidentally, how masterfully Eliot weaves the first person singular with the first person plural in this section; his method does not distract. He flows from ‘I’ to ‘We’ quite naturally, just as in the liturgy there are personal utterances and corporate utterances.



The three stanzas of Part II form a rather lovely glimpse of paradise that the hollow men could never achieve. Stanza one begins with an appeal to the Lady, the Beatrice/Mary figure, and immediately introduces three white leopards that have feasted on the pilgrim’s body and thus released his bones to sing. Eliot makes his leopards white, in contrast to the spotted leopard of Dante which represents fraud in The Inferno, and three leopards may act as a counterpoint to the three beasts Dante meets in Canto I. Yet Eliot’s leopards are divine agents meant to help in the purification of the pilgrim, friends of the Lady. Note incidentally that the leopards "sat under a juniper tree," which produces blue berries. White and blue, Mary’s colors, are thus introduced in the first line, and we shall see more of them. The reference to Ezekiel’s vision in this passage is obvious: "And God said / Shall these bones live? shall these / Bones live?" Of course they shall live, for this is a poem about faith. And the speaker credits the Lady’s goodness that his bones now "shine with brightness."

Still plodding through stanza one, after the "we" of the surviving bones, the speaker returns to the first person singular:

". . . And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions Which the leopards reject." (II: 11-16)

Christ said, "Flesh and blood will not inherit the Kingdom of God." Paul adds, "We shall not die, but we shall all be changed." Here we may see Eliot affirming the nature of Christian resurrection, that our uniqueness as humans cannot be preserved by the anonymity of bones, that there are "indigestible portions" in each of us which are to be restored in a different form. The secret of this transformation is (once again) renunciation, deeds proffered to oblivion and love to the posterity of the desert.

Finally the pilgrim asks "Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness," recalling the second construct of Part I, above, about forgetting as a means to hope:

". . . As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose."

Eliot’s paradoxes can be wearying at times, but here the meaning is clear: only by forgetting, as symbolized by the Lady in white and the white bones, like white noise swallowing up the past and the present (or Moses’ inability to gaze on the glory of God, or Dante’s inability to gaze on Beatrice at first meeting in the Paradisio) can one concentrate on the purpose of one’s individual salvation. Stanza one ends with an admonishment by God to prophesy to the wind, a fitting assignment for a pilgrim too timid as yet to prophesy to men. Lastly the bones begin to sing, yielding the song that makes up stanza two.

In this song to the Lady, written in dimeter and trimeter, lacking any true rhymes, the paradoxes Eliot incorporates, as in hypnosis, truly paralyze a mind bent on understanding by rational means. Such an undertaking would interrupt the enjoyment of the poetry, aimed not at the intellect but at disarming it. Here are the opening six lines of the passage:

"Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving"

Repentance requires both "The rose of memory" and "The rose of forgetfulness." Later, "The conclusion to all that is inconclusible" is of course the nature of God and the afterlife, just as a "journey to no end" is a journey to infinity. Still, the magic of this incantation suspends thought, and though the spiritual logic behind these lines does make sense, the effect of the song is not rational but meant to spur us on into the pilgrim’s transcendental experience.

Stanza three echoes the first stanza, as the bones sing again: "We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other." Only the last three lines introduce a new, somewhat jarring, pronouncement:

"This is the land which ye

Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity

Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance."

Recalling the Israelites’ possession of Canaan, these lines nevertheless take us by surprise, as if paradise has been reached: "We have our inheritance." But in Eliot’s world the timeless can always invade the present or past, and we shall turn back in Part III to a purgatorial experience from this temporary mountaintop. What is the mountaintop? The visualization of the eternally suffering and compassionate Mother of God as a window to the unseeable and unnamable God.


Part III used to puzzle me a bit, not only because it retreats from a vision of Paradise to one of Purgatory, but because the imagery seems arbitrary. Yet it is not the first time Eliot has used "stairs," as noted above.

Stanza one begins with the pilgrim "At the first turning of the second stair." He looks back and sees "the same shape / Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears / The deceitful face of hope and despair." Who is the same shape? Perhaps the shadow, even the Jungian shadow of the speaker, but more likely his unconverted nature—something different altogether. This reminds us of the struggle in Part I, where the speaker declares: "I renounce the blessed face / And renounce the voice." The blessed face, seen as the deception of the world, is really a deceitful face.

In the second stanza the pilgrim jumps another half-flight, poised at the "second turning of the second stair," where he leaves the devil and the shape "twisting, turning below," then enters darkness, "Damp, jagged, like an old man’s mouth drivelling, beyond repair, / Or the toothéd gullet of an agéd shark." If the experience of the first stair re-enacts the struggle of renunciation, the second stair reminds us of old age and death, as in "(Why should the agéd eagle stretch its wings?)," or, "We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other." Eliot here reworks Parts I and II through different allegories, a technique he often uses.

For those interested, there is a nearly inexhaustible number of trinities which can be symbolically applied to these three stanzas about the stairs: the world, the flesh, and the devil; Dante’s spotted leopard (fraud, deceit), lion (violence), and she-wolf (lust, hunger); past, present and future; and life, death and eternity. No three levels of Dante’s Purgatory correspond well to this trope in my reading. I think it better to draw meaning from the poem itself rather than make connections which the text may not support, though when speaking theologically, myself being a Christian, I may no doubt overreach.

Stanza three I think the sexiest thing Eliot ever wrote. Prior to AW his sexiest lines were probably the cameo about "the Hyacinth girl" in TWL I. Though briefly quoted above, I’d like to include this stanza whole, as I think the reader will better appreciate my point with the text at hand:

"At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the fig’s fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

"Lord I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
but speak the word only."

No reader should need an explication of antique flutes, "a slotted window bellied like a fig’s fruit," or the goat-footed Pan figure implied by the "broadbacked figure drest in blue and green." Despite the obvious symbolism of sexual temptation, one can’t help but admire the lyrical beauty of this passage, or that Eliot first managed to write something truly sexy at about age 40.

Stanza three concludes with the words a priest utters before first breaking and consuming the host, which neatly transforms the temptations of the flesh, described so beautifully above, into the ultimate Christian solution: the incarnation of Christ as remembered in the Eucharist.


Part IV moves smoothly and lyrically, forming another homage to the Mary/Beatrice figure, who is not strictly Mary but dresses in her colors. It is more than a paean as it describes her activity. In stanzas one and two she is a figure of redemption beyond time, "In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour," "One who moves in the time between sleep and waking," "The Silent sister veiled in white and blue." She also represents, if I can indulge in a little critical license, neither the church triumphant nor decadent but the spirit behind it in a kind of holding pattern. Her purpose is meditative and redemptive; she wakes the fountains, turns the sand and rock blue— here a color for redemption (though in the Bible redemption is most often associated with silver).

Stanza three recalls the temptation of the third stanza of III and dispenses with it (I append the fourth stanza for continuity):

"Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

"White light folded, sheathed about her, folded.
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
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse."

(Later in IV he remarks of the Lady: "Whose flute is breathless" to distinguish fleshly temptation from spiritual transformation.)

It is just like Eliot to throw in a magical image at the end of less conventionally poetic language. Unicorns are a symbol of purity associated with virgins, they need no jewels; a hearse should be black, not gilded. These mixed images of redemption work at an unconscious level to affirm redemption.

Now some New-Agers into Near Death Experiences may think the white light of which Eliot speaks is for them, but it of course refers to the traditional, dazzling appearance of angels in the Bible while recalling the veiling of Moses’ face, the Mount of Transfiguration, and Dante’s vision of Beatrice in the Paradisio:

"I saw Beatrice turned round, facing left,
her eyes raised to the sun—no eagle ever
could stare so fixed and straight into such light!

"So, like a ray, her act poured through my eyes
Into my mind and gave rise to my own:
I stared straight at the sun as no man could."

(Paradisio Canto I, 46-48, 52-54, The Portable Dante, Mark Musa, Penguin Books, New York, NY 1995)

What’s amazing about this passage is that the speaker can look on the Lady, glimpsing paradise, just as he states in II: "We have our inheritance." (Contrast this with the dilemma of THM: "The eyes are not here / There are no eyes here/ In this valley of dying stars.") .

Embedded in stanza four, above, is another recurring theme of the poem, trying to restore "with a new verse the ancient rhyme." And here, in the middle of the poem, the speaker seems to have gotten over his initial stuttering and is in fact creating a new verse and restoring poetry as he restores himself, with the help of the Lady.

Stanzas four through eight of IV, two of which consist of only single lines, reiterate the renewal brought by the Lady while introducing Part V: "redeem the dream / The token of the word, unheard, unspoken / Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew / And after this our exile." Notice the spiritual retreat from "We have our inheritance" in Part II. Eliot is still negotiating, approaching and retreating from the infinite, as we enter Part V—which unfortunately we must.


What can I say about V? I wish Eliot had left the whole section out. If one proceeds from IV to VI, I submit it is a better poem. I think V is self-indulgent, affected and unnecessary. Its opening doggerel about "the Word" changes the voice to one of intellectual self-absorption, or at least a Platonic set of Chinese boxes. The last two main stanzas almost redeem the effort, but not quite. In fact, the penultimate stanza before the tag line, "O my people," ends with a cliché, "The desert in the garden the garden in the desert / Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed."

Ignoring the opening stanza’s rhetoric, mainly derived from the prologue to the Gospel of John (worthy of Edward Lear imitating Plotinus), even the second stanza uses comic rhyme, which to my ear has always undermined the seriousness of the poem. (I am not calling the single line that separates stanzas in V a stanza.) It reminds me of Gilbert and Sullivan. Listen:

"Where will the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land."

The third stanza is tolerable, the internal rhyme works better ("those who chose thee and oppose thee"), but as I already said, it’s not good enough to redeem the section. The only new substance in V consists of 1) the presence of the Word in this world, however disguised and veiled, though ignored by many, "those who walk in darkness"; and 2) a question, actually a rhetorical plea, as to whether the Lady will pray for the lost. Of course she will.

It is not pleasant to deride one’s literary heroes for occasional missteps, but it must be done, though I will not belabor Eliot’s failure here as I think it self-evident. Earlier I wrote that Parts II and III of TWL should have been greatly shortened, nor am I very fond of the dry metaphysical poems of Eliot’s Poems, lest any mistake me for a sycophant.

To be fair, I have read criticism of AW V that tries to make a case for Eliot playing with language to confound reason, attempting to fulfill the promise of IV, "restoring with a new verse the ancient rhyme." I contend it just doesn’t work. So on to the poem’s conclusion.


Stanza one repeats the opening of AW, changing only "Because" to "Although":

"Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn"

I remarked about this change above but it serves to remind us of Eliot’s subtleties.

Stanza two briefly reworks themes from TWL and THM, recalling the death of Phlebas the Phoenician, "Wavering between the profit and the loss" (AW VI: 4, cf. TWL IV). A reference to the dream kingdom of THM follows: "In this brief transit where the dreams cross / The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying" (AW VI: 5-6, cf. THM II: 19-20): "Not that final meeting / In the twilight kingdom." After another equivocation, "though I do not wish to wish these things," Eliot launches into one of the best passages of the poem, using the sea he knew in Massachusetts and later, England, about which he always writes so well. I treated this above in "Spiritual Considerations." Still, notice how the wings that were "merely vans to beat the air" in Part I have now become empowered, if only briefly, in this world:

"From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings" (VI: 8-10)

Stanza four cautions us again not to be distracted by this world or its poetry:

"This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply."

Voices shaken from the "yew-tree," that conventional symbol of death in English poetry, suggest the departing spirits of this world, while the second yew-tree answering may indicate those waiting to depart as well, meanwhile continuing in faith in this world—as in praying for the departed in the Anglican liturgy.

Curiously, after these lines, without a stanza break, Eliot continues with a supplication to the Lady, who is now revealed as a poetic incarnation of the Holy Spirit:

"Blessed sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit of the garden,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks
Our peace in His will
And even among these rocks
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee." (VI: 25-36)

The repeated symbolism brings us to a climax. Among the rocks of this world which the Lady, in her world, has changed to blue as a symbol of redemption (which remind us of the crystal sea of sapphire beneath the throne of God in Revelation and Ezekiel), the petitioner finally acknowledges that he is, in fact, united with the Spirit through his repentance. Yet in the typical spiritual understatement Eliot employs, the language chosen by the penitent is couched in a negative: "Suffer me not to be separated." The poem ends with a prayer for continued communication: "And let my cry come unto thee," but falls short of any mystical union. Parts I and VI, like bookends, thus form a lovely symmetry, and help the reader, perhaps, forgive Eliot’s lapse in V—which I won’t.

Last Words

For those who haven’t walked in Eliot’s shoes, whether raised in the Faith, agnostic, atheist, or unconcerned, the difficult negotiation of a commitment to Christianity which AW belabors may seem anchorite overkill to some, artistic and spiritual self-flagellation. But when we think of the person behind the persona, the "politic, cautious and meticulous" Eliot of "Prufrock," and compare him to the pilgrim of AW, I am tempted to cliché: "You’ve come a long way, baby."

In AW Eliot achieves a Christian commitment to God painfully, incrementally, achieving communication if not quite union or the joy of grace. One unexpected benefit of this experience is a greater degree of acceptance of the flesh in his verse, and one presumes, his life—a problem that dogged him for decades. In AW the speaker realizes it is possible to live the spiritual life in this world despite our animal defects, not an easy admission for a perfectionist aesthete. Looking back at "Prufrock," one might predict that Eliot would sooner have embraced monasticism than the Christian life in this world, perhaps the most surprising thing about this poem. The tentative solution AW proffers is not a mystical escape from this world, but incarnation, more fully treated in 4Q.


C. E. Chaffin