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Reading Poetry in Faith: “Ash Wednesday”

The age of science, although giving us many good things, has left us with a legacy that I would call the curse of completion. Bank accounts must balance. All data must be explained. Equations must be kept balanced. And every word in a text must be explained. While such careful accounting might lead to better mathematics and precise electronics, it does violence to the world of poetry. I mention this since many people will wade through the six sections of T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” and find it inexplicable, not on account of what they understand but due to those lines and images they do not understand.

The cadences of this poem stand as inimitable Eliot, evoking not only the rhythms but the imagery of The Waste Land and other, earlier works.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert.

These lines recollect The Waste Land with garden images (although surprisingly there is only one mention of a tree in the 1922 work), echoes of Ezekiel and the valley of dry bones, and the use of first person plural.

Those who try to assemble a coherent whole from the disparate parts of The Waste Land engage in a fool’s errand. “Ash Wednesday” is similarly difficult. Certain passages seem utterly clear, drawing very clearly on the liturgy or the scripture. Others defy explanation. Why are those bones singing under a juniper tree? Why a tree at all? Why are they singing? I can’t be sure, and those lines are among the more understandable in the work.

To understand Eliot’s intention in this piece, one needs to start with an understanding of the title. Ash Wednesday stands at the beginning of the season of Lent, a time for introspection, self-denial, and renewed repentance. Given the importance of penitence in the title, is it unexpected for Eliot to lead off with an image of turning.

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

Traditional Christianity teaches the powerlessness of man to turn on his own initiative, an idea perhaps most clearly stated in John 6:44. The very human poet has no hope to turn of his own volition. He cannot hope to turn from the “gift” and “scope” of others. Instead, he must simply surrender himself.

For an educated man, like Eliot, surrender does not come naturally. By the same token, incomplete knowledge cannot be suffered easily, yet this is exactly what Eliot embraces in these lines.

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power

How can the Harvard alumnus, who had studied at philosophy at Marburg and now bestrode the world of letters like a colossus, confess to not only not knowing but not hoping to know? How can he manage to pen the line, “Because I do not think”? This knowledge of not knowing, of insufficiency and human inadequacy is, I would argue, the key to understanding what Eliot says in this poem.

As a patient reader will notice, “Ash Wednesday” contains echoes of John’s gospel, Ezekiel, and other biblical texts. Some of his references–like those to Mary–are straightforward, while others leave us perplexed. The general drift of the poem is toward a spirit of confession and a realization that God is God and Eliot is not. That an image here or there cannot be neatly explained and tucked into its human-constructed compartment, should neither surprise nor trouble us any more than the occasional perplexing image in Isaiah or Matthew should trouble the reader.

For any reader who marks Ash Wednesday with a reading of “Ash Wednesday,” the focus should go not to the brilliance of Eliot the poem or the excellence of this work but to the redemptive work of Jesus Christ that the day emphasizes.

Posted in American Literature, English Literature, Modernism.

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