In his work, Ash Wednesday, T. S. Eliot marks a change in both his style and personal journey, both literarily and spiritually. Many explanations have been given to the poem’s meaning over the years that agree on major elements. In this short essay, the dominate imagery, symbols, and innovations of Ash Wednesday will be touched on with the aim to wet the reader’s appetite, asking him or her to delve more deeply into the meaning of this poem.
First of all, the reception of this poem has been very strong, with fellow poet Edwin Muir calling it “one of the most moving poems [Eliot] has written, and perhaps the most perfect.” But, while many critics have praised Ash Wednesday, many have been unsettled by it, perhaps for its religious sentiments (Genius).
Structurally, Ash Wednesday, is composed of six parts written between the years 1927 and 1930. It has been called Eliot’s ‘conversion poem’, with Eliot entering into the Anglican Church through baptism and confirmation in 1928 (Genius). The significance of the poem’s title is extremely relevant to understand much of its meaning. For any unfamiliar readers, Ash Wednesday is a liturgical day in many Christian rites that marks the start of the Lenten season, which is the season before Easter. It is called Ash Wednesday because ashes are placed on the foreheads of the faithful in the sign of the cross, reminding everyone that we are dust, and to dust we shall return. This season is a special time for conversion and penance for all, as Jesus Christ went into the desert and fasted and prayed for 40 days and was tempted by the devil.
Additionally, Dante Alighieri, the famous Italian poet from the late Middle Ages was a major influence on Eliot. “Despite its religious leanings, Ash Wednesday—as Eliot says of Dante’s Paradiso—is not didactic. The religious, Dantean themes in Ash Wednesday have been thoroughly excavated by scholars, as the allusions are relatively more palpable than they are in his other poetry” (Dekeersgieter).
The first few lines of the poem talk about not hoping to turn, and as Dekeersgieter points out, “the ‘turn’ in the opening line of Ash Wednesday denotes the linchpin around which the whole poem rotates: ambiguity” (Dekeersgieter). While many commentators have agreed on references from Dante, Shakespeare, and other writings, it appears difficult or impossible to know exactly what Eliot is trying to say.
Notable symbols are the Lady and the three white leopards. The Lady may refer to the Virgin Mary, but there may be another lady that could refer to Eliot’s estranged wife or the new love of his life. The three white leopards may refer to Dante’s Inferno, as the leopard of lust” (Dekeersgieter). “As literary legend has it, a Catholic student questioned Eliot and asked, “please, sir, what do you mean by the line, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’?” To which Eliot dogmatically answered, “I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’” (Charette). It may be safe to see almost all the symbols coming from Dante’s works. Additionally, there are many biblical and traditional prayers from the Christian Tradition present, both to God and to the Virgin Mary.
Overall, the general theme that one can feel when reading this poem is a turning from living only in the material world to experiencing conversion and knowing that there is something better and of growing in maturity. However, this takes repeated acts of the will and through much struggling, which is seen in the deliberate prayers scattered throughout the poem.
Charette, Danielle. Grasping for Grace: The Strangeness and Difficulty of Faith in T.S. Eliot’s
“Ash Wednesday”. Augustine Collective. http://augustinecollective.org/augustine/grasping-for-grace-the-strangeness-and-difficulty-of-faith-in-t-s-eliots-ash-wednesday
Dekeersgieter, Colin. T.S. Eliot: Ash Wednesday. The Broken Tower.
Genius, Ash Wednesday – T. S. Eliot. http://genius.com/Ts-eliot-ash-wednesday-annotated/