T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday: Summary & Analysis

T.S. Eliot's Ash Wednesday: Summary & Analysis
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  • 0:02 Summary of 'Ash Wednesday'
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Lesson Transcript
Instructor: Patricia Vineski
In this lesson, you will learn what T.S. Eliot's poem 'Ash Wednesday' is about and what it means within the context of the speaker's struggles as he moves toward God and his own redemption. A brief quiz follows the lesson.

Summary of 'Ash Wednesday'

Written by the famous poet, T.S. Eliot, 'Ash Wednesday' is often referred to as his conversion poem because it's one of the first long poems he wrote after converting to Anglicanism, the officially established Christian Church of England. The title refers to 'Ash Wednesday,' the first of the forty days of Lent, which is a time for self reflection, sacrifice, and repentance in many denominations of Christianity.

The poem is divided into six sections, and it deals with the speaker's aspiration to move from a sense of spiritual despair to spiritual salvation.

In section I, the speaker is set to reject all worldly things. In the first two stanzas, he rejects the hope of any fulfillment in worldly diversions, any potential for joy in existence, and acknowledges that the 'one veritable transitory power' is insubstantial, prone to fading away into thin air.

In stanzas three and four, the speaker rejoices in his own helplessness to change the human condition, rejects the beauty of the world and its temptations, and calls upon humanity to 'pray to God to have mercy upon us.' In the final stanza of section I, the speaker rejects all worldly dreams and aspirations 'Because these wings are no longer wings to fly / But merely vans to beat the air.'

In section II, the stanzas appeal to the Lady, the Mary figure, and introduce three white leopards that have eaten the speaker's flesh and released his bones to sing, crediting the Lady's goodness that his bones now 'shine with brightness.' The section ends with God telling the speaker to prophecy to the empty wind.

In section III, the speaker climbs the stairs and looks back on his past temptations of self-deceit, despair, and lust. 'At the first turning of the second stair,' he leaves the devil and the past 'twisting, turning below,' and enters darkness. Then he makes a direct appeal to God to 'Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.' The section ends with a couplet taken directly from 'Ave Maria' in the Anglo-Catholic version of the Rosary; 'Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death/ Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.'

In section IV, the speaker pays homage to a vision of the Lady, 'in white and blue, in Mary's colour' that stresses both her ignorance and her knowledge, as well as her ability to make things firm. She walks in a realm 'between sleep and waking' as a vision of light, veiled and silent among the yews, where birds reveal the vision of transcendence, of 'the higher dream.'

In section V, the speaker questions if the Lady will pray for 'those who walk in darkness' in the world with all its terror and denial.

In section VI, the speaker moves from Ash Wednesday to Good Friday, the day commemorating the crucifixion of Jesus and the final day of Lent. The first stanza repeats the opening stanza of the poem, changing the word 'Because' to 'Although,' while the fourth stanza cautions us, once again, not to be distracted by worldly things.

Then, the speaker reveals the Lady, the Mary figure, as a reincarnation of the Holy Spirit and directs to her his earlier plea to God to 'Teach us to care and not to care/ Teach us to sit still.'

The poem ends with a prayer from the Psalms: 'And let my cry come into thee.' (Psalms 102:1)

Analysis

In section I, although the speaker is set to reject all worldly things; it is an act of despair. He 'rejoices' only because he rejects the beauty in a 'blessèd face' and 'voice,' in the sensuality of the world. He believes that the world as he knows it is all that exists. But this belief and the despair it brings is what prepares him for salvation because only from his weakness can his 'wings (that) are no longer wings to fly' be made whole and only from his spiritual death will come something 'Upon which to rejoice.'

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