One of Eliot’s greatest poems provides an appropriate way to savor the strange beauty of this day. His “Ash-Wednesday” (1930) is about the purgation of exile that, we hope against hope, precedes a new life (vita nuova).
It describes, in six sections, the journey from the desert of suicidal despair into a tentative, and simultaneous, embrace of the world, on the one hand, and of faith in God, on the other. A fragile turning again to life.
That’s what the Lenten discipline is supposed to work in us: a detachment from the wonderful things of this world to find those things again in God. For these wonders are obscured by our grasping and our pretense. Only when the veil of self is ripped away can the divine glory in the world finally shine out.
The poem opens:
“Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man’s gift and that man’s scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?”
Who had sailed high, has been broken. This has a double value: on the one hand, it is good to be humbled, to be withdrawn from the cutting games of the world, to be forced to be quiet before God (“Teach us to care and not to care/Teach us to sit still”); on the other hand, the risk is losing all taste for life, losing all hope of a turning of the self into something better and a turning of the world into something worth operating in.
The second section of the poem addresses the poet’s Beatrice, without whom the fallen man cannot rise again.
For a man, the glorious unveiling of the world must always somehow involve a woman. The masculine death and desert is most intense when marked by the privation of the feminine. Following Dante, Eliot shows that the way into new life, for a man, is through the inamorata, who mediates Our Lady’s presence, who brings heaven to earth.
The central polarity of the world, that of man and woman, is the source of every newness.
The second section opens:
“Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? Shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. 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.”
If there is an apparition of woman in the slaughter, there is hope, even in resignation.
The third section emphatically brings Dante’s Purgatorio into play, as the poetic persona climbs out of the terrors of a life lived in the night. The dark night is this rising out of the world’s night.
“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…”
This is the “summit of the staircase” (which was at one point, in Dante’s Italian, the title of this section), a brilliant and daring synthesis of Marian purity and full-on sensuality, under the genius of the beloved. This is where heaven touches earth, and getting this synthesis right is essential to authentic being-in-the-world, certainly for followers of the Word made flesh.
The fourth section shows us something like the top of the Mount of Purgatory withthe earthly paradise and the revelation of Beatrice in the divine pageant, who calls Dante to account for his faithlessness in love.
“Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary’s colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and in knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs”
Violet is the penitential color, of course, and that is being combined here with the green of hope and the colors of Mary. The Beatrice-figure, the beloved, contains the new age, but the night does not end for the poet-pilgrim of “Ash-Wednesday.” All the lady’s glory is right there, the glory of a promised world of love lived out in time and in eternity, but the poet must return to the night alone, though trailing some wisps of hope:
“The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word
But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, 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”
The revelation of the beloved does not end the purgation, but perhaps the consummation comes. That last line is a quotation from the Salve Regina, so it’s both a plea and a hope.
The poet-pilgrim is thrust back into the darkness of the world, but something is different this time: now he is the commissioned agent of a love he does not fully understand, a love present but out of his reach, that changes everything. An obscure light works in him. And he is no longer simply suffering his own purgation; his darkness now is solidary union with the eternal dolour of the world. He seeks that the Word become flesh. His heart obliquely yearns for the salvation of the world. He is being united to the One Who cries the Good Friday lamentation, Who bears the Atlas-burden of every sin, out of burning love.
The poet is being united to Jesus, through the beloved mediatrix of Mary:
“Where shall 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,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice
Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose
O my people, what have I done unto thee.
Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert between the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.
O my people.”
The poet begins to love. He fears that his beloved will not continue to love him (and the world with him) because of his faithlessness, our faithlessness. His desire is simultaneously for the intensity of personal love and for the universalization of love: for romance and solidarity. The poet knows how we fail to love, and he pleads for himself and for the world to be loved anyway.
The withered apple-seed, of course, refers to the bitterness of our entire race’s primal choice to reject the disciplines of love.
[A side observation: might Leonard Cohen have gotten one of his most affecting lines, in “Bird on a Wire,” from Eliot’s “torn on the horn”?]
The final section begins with an important modulation:
“Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn”
The journey from “because” to “although” is the journey through the desert. The exile isn’t over, but that day is coming. “Although” is a definitive pivot towards hope, an adversative to rein in the negative.
“Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
I think those last few lines some of the most beautiful in all of poetry. For those of you who know and love Cape Ann, it would be edifying to learn that Eliot is drawing on childhood memories of the family vacation house in Gloucester, Massachusetts.
The lines recall the window scene from the third section and combined with “bellied like the fig’s fruit” recalls Titania from Shakespeare’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream: “When we have laughed to see the sails conceive/And grow big-bellied with the wanton wind…”
Less directly sensual than in third section, the words themselves are so exquisite, we feel the sensuality, the joy of embodied life, even more forcefully.
The poem closes by invoking both the beloved Beatrice-figure, as well as Mary, that they mediate the Spirit of God and His good will:
“Blessèd 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
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated
And let my cry come unto Thee.”
Before ending with lines from the Psalms and from the Anima Christi, Eliot quotes Dante: “our peace in His will” is a translation of a line from the Paradiso, “la sua è volontate nostra pace.”
And that is the point of Ash Wednesday and of Lent, of our communal journey through the desert: to find our peace in the Father’s plan of loving goodness. To love in the dark.