Grasping for Grace: The Strangeness and Difficulty of Faith in T.S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”
One of the greatest joys of intellectual life are those eureka moments when an academic idea—be it Walt Whitman’s free verse, a Mandelbrot set, or particular theory of political economy—suddenly makes total and inspiring sense. Not only does the idea illuminate itself, it also illuminates some broad, empowering explanation of the world as it is or ought to be. But these passing revelations are also paradoxes. I find I ask myself, are these moments examples of sheer cerebral will? Or something more mystical and Godly—as if that page, that seminar, that seat in that lecture was Divinely ordained? Instants of intellectual ecstasy are close to what the Romantics meant when they contemplated the Sublime, which Edmund Burke classified as the “strongest emotion which the mind is capable of feeling.”
In this vein, I have recently turned to T.S. Eliot’s poem “Ash Wednesday” as a deeply cerebral but also deeply Christian exploration of this question about the modern academic mind. “Ash Wednesday,” T.S. Eliot’s first long poem after his conversion to Anglicanism in 1927, proved meaningful to me in thinking about this past Lenten season from a literary angle. Lent is a moment of dark transition preceding Christ’s crucifixion, Easter, and man’s salvation. We trust that spring is coming, but seasons and time are a human challenge—in Christianity, life, and literature. Eliot explores this feeling of flux, “wavering between the profit and the loss.”
Positioning the poem on a spiral staircase, Eliot’s speaker begins by radically doubting his own redemption. The staircase symbolizes that dizzying feeling of meaningless and unproductive repetition. As students, this fear of endless rhythms and obligations is certainly familiar. From an academic standpoint, we can sense what Eliot’s speaker means when he famously and repeatedly insists this is “because I do not hope to turn again.” A turn would mark a change in perspective and a progressive orientation toward hope. Instead, the speaker opts for a materialist orientation here on earth:
Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed face (I, 16-21)
Of course, the speaker is not actually rejoicing but despairing. Situating himself in one time and place entails renouncing all that is blessed. Now “these wings are no longer wings to fly / But merely vans to beat the air.” Without wings, there is no transcendence, no salvation. With this in mind, I read Part I of the poem as depicting the radical loss of hope that comes when we rely only on what is earthly and human. Renouncing the “blessed face” is the equivalent of clipping our wings and accepting defeat.
As a Christian, particularly during Lent, I came to Eliot in a frame of mind that is fairly receptive to his message. And yet Eliot is a modernist poet—perhaps the modernist poet—not a Christian theologian. He is not a priest or pastor, but a poet. Religion is complicated enough, but now it is confounded by language and symbolism—not to mention Eliot’s own controversial legacy and anti-Semitism. Furthermore, Eliot is a twentieth-century Anglo-Catholic, while I am a contemporary “Mainline” American Protestant. Insofar as Eliot’s poetic message is Christian, what is the message? How can Christianity illuminate our reading of Eliot?
Actually, I would like to invert that question. Eliot illuminates our reading of Christianity precisely because he insists on the faith’s strangeness and difficulty. For instance, one of the central images of “Ash Wednesday” is the utterly bizarre “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree,” who emerges in Part II. 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.’” Eliot does not want us to easily translate one symbol for another. There is no easy interpretation of “Ash Wednesday.” Like the faithful Christian, the reader must commit herself to the poem’s inexplicable beauty.
Indeed, Eliot’s work is infused with Christian meanings, allusions, and graspings for grace. He is also deeply indebted to the Romantics, with “Ash Wednesday” emulating the elegaic tone of poems like Wordsworth’s “Intimations of Immortality.” Eliot’s work is a reminder that the desire to be Christian can be frustrating, sad, and poetic. Everyday life can distract us from our faith to the point that wanting to be Christian replaces actually being Christian. Doubt and distraction creep in, and we tell ourselves we will not “turn again.” And yet, somehow, we do “fly seaward, seaward flying” with our “unbroken wings.”
After a great deal of twisting and turning, “Ash Wednesday” doesn’t necessarily end with any earth-shattering revelations, but the speaker reaches a calm resolution:
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. (VI, 29-35)
Alluding to Christ’s suffering on the cross, we are reminded, at the very least, not to pursue what is false. As students, we are bound to be forgetful, mistaken, and unavoidably sinful. But to “care and not to care” is also something that God prescribes, so long as we are, ultimately “not to be separated.” We cling to the rocks, even as the water moves us. We situate ourselves in this campus even though we understand that our four years are fleeting. We must live in the world even as we progress and change and look to a world beyond.
Eliot ends in mystery, yet, at the same time, exudes a level of confidence. Confidence in mystery is certainly necessary for Christianity, but it is also needed in education, as we open ourselves to that sublime feeling that comes when we strive to comprehend.
Danielle Charette ’14, from Durham, CT, is an Honors English major with minors in Political Science and Philosophy, where she is involved in various journalism and literary gigs. She may soon make the leap of faith from Congregationalism to Presbyterianism.
Image credit: Looking Down the Spiral Staircase in the St. Augustine Lighthouse. Photo by S. Clyde, courtesy of National Scenic Byways Online (www.byways.org).Tags: academia, Christian, despair, Easter, Edmund Burke, God, hope, Lent, literature, materialismd, modernism, paradox, poetry, Romanticism, sublime, theology, TS Eliot