Misreadings of over- and under-statements.
The general point of view may be described as classicist in literature, royalist in politics, and AngloCatholic in religion.
If he himself had made it that clear, why should anyone have taken the trouble of questioning the assertion? Together with the man's religious sensibility, the religiosity of his poetry was also taken for granted. Some decades later, in To Criticize the Critic (1965), Eliot somehow discredited his statement of 1928 as being too final, too self-assured. The words seemed to him to be no longer a felicitous description of his state of mind, either at the time when they had actually been written, or at the time of their later reappraisal.
There is no denying that Eliot really felt attracted by something in the religious ritual. Was it because of the religious mood proper, or just because of the dramatization of that state of mind in a way both acutely physical and yet essentially metaphysical? Or was it because of the never exhausted ability to produce a rapid, vivid and shattering impression, which the picturesque words of the Bible excel in? Some biographer recalls that once, towards the end of Eliot's life, the writer was appointed on a committee that was supposed to revise the text of the Bible and make it more understandable to younger (and less cultivated) audiences. Eliot was the only person there who indomitably opposed any change whatever. He behaved as if each word of the Bible were sacred to him. There is no denying that his poetry abounds in echoes. Yet, we shall never know the real meaning of Eliot's (once) professed religiosity. The only thing left of it are his words: his poems, his essays and some of his plays.
It is no secret that practically all the critical works on Eliot, written over a long span of years, some older, some quite recent, have treated Eliot's religiosity with at least religious (if not fervently religious) respect. The man says he believes in God. How can the critic ignore the statement? If a critic tried to be more imaginative, would he not be frightened out of it by the scrutinizing frown of Eliot's ghost at spotting an imaginative critic--imagine!--busy at fumbling his way through his own (Eliot's) work? It might be reminded here, with due irony of course, that Eliot's own name, Thomas, had a hint at irreverent questioning in it. It sends our thoughts directly to the doubting Thomas of the New Testament, who used to say he would never believe in Christ's resurrection until he could hold some palpable proof of it in his hand. The sacred text says that God's son showed himself to doubting Thomas and asked: 'Look, here are my wounds, can you deny feeling them?' Doubting Thomas is afterwards said to have abandoned his doubting mood and become an apostle: a man who preached to the world what he had previously doubted. I am afraid this happy end is not the case of Eliot at all. His words speak for themselves. What made me start in pursuit
of Eliot's disbelieving mood was that Eliot's is a highly ambiguous poetry, whose main weapon is the understatement.
The question is, therefore, when one finds over-statements in an avaricious, elliptical poet's work, should one take them for granted? Is his clarity our own? Do we mean the same things when we use the same words? With this question in mind (a question indeed: no intention of producing out of a cap the unexpected image of Eliot the atheist), I have attempted here some willful mis-readings of Eliot's religious overstatements. I have been trying to decide whether, after years of reading and re-reading Eliot's poems, instead of merely darting out 'here is a religious poet', it would be more accurate to say, here is a poet and a man faltering between belief and the need to believe, between belief and wishful thinking.
Gerontion (1920) is the first of the poems I have chosen to mis-read, so to say. Or rather, to read in a different way from the bulk of criticism known to me so far, which never fails to see in this poem an indictment of man's wickedness, coming from an irritable (but mainly in the right) God. The whole poem is the monologue of a 'little old man' (Gerontion), interspersed (Eliot's favourite resource) with the most unexpected quotations. To native English speakers, most of these echoes are fairly recognizable.
The motto comes from Shakespeare's Measure for Measure (act III, scene 1). Someone who knows Shakespeare's play (and knows it well, as a result of repeated readings, with deeply imprinted memories of some felicitous phrases) may recognize in it the moment when a condemned man is told that life is not really worth living and that, besides, it is never actually ours to handle as we wish. Life just flits away as insubstantially as a dream. From this very motto, therefore, the downward, descending mood that reigns over Eliot's sensibility is introduced. That life is a trap, because most often than not it turns against the being who thinks himself its owner, is Eliot's most recurrent complaint.
The first 15-line stanza, easily separable from the next, owing to the total lack of explanatory links between images, describes, indeed, a very old and feeble man. It is typical of Eliot to delight in paradoxes at every level. This old man's feebleness is rendered by means of shockingly violent images. The contrast is rather awkward. The first two lines come from a Life of Edward FitzGerald by A.C. Benson.
A long list of critics have been busy tracing these bookish echoes, to no disadvantage to the poem whatever. The quoted lines state plainly that the speaker is some old man who longs for rain. We must be suspicious of this lack of ambiguity, knowing that Eliot's clarity is one of emotion, and much less of its 'verbal equivalent'. It must not be forgotten that, but for Ezra Pound, who strongly advised against it, Eliot would have placed Gerontion as a prelude to The Waste Land. Anyway, the rain never arrives in either of the poems. Now, a critic's job (in spite of Eliot's repeated refutations of the fact) is to sift the work he writes about through the magic sieve of his impressions and words. He might also put the work to the test of various methods, on condition he does not become the slave of any. A piece of criticism on Eliot's poetry is, therefore, meant to allow the critic to be seen behind it. That is why it seems quite strange that such a number of Eliot's critics have so far been busily employed in mathematically ('coolly' and 'impersonally') detecting the 'symbols', the hidden cipher of some (I think) undecodable images.
Eliot's power, the power of a man who so often used the associative tune of bookish echoes, is to suggest, not to hide. He shuns explanations (in his criticism he repeatedly says so), because he wants his poems to be caressingly guessed at, not exposed pitilessly under broad daylight. There is an obvious secrecy about Eliot's poems, which he hates to see violated. The images of this first stanza of Gerontion are, then, rather suggestive of, than equal to a certain explainable, definable or definite meaning. As Eliot so often repeated, poetry can only be felt if it is not explained.
Virginia Woolf expected of the 'modern mind' to allow each moment / experience to fall and impress it at random. She thus replaced the chronologically coherent narrative by a nonchronological, associative (therefore fragmentary) story. It was a mixture of future, past and present moments, joined on an emotional and subjective basis. She was interested in a sequence that takes place rather in the soul of her heroes then in the impersonal flow of incidents that besiege them. In the same way, Eliot would like his readers, on first reading his poems, to allow their impressions to pervade their hearts before their minds have had the time to order them. He feels that the heart has always a passport to penetrate into the realm of poetry, unless the mind (which might spoil the magic) accompanies it.
This is the reason why his images are suggestive, and die when decoded into bare thoughts. They appeal to the emotions. They are meant to move rather than set the readers thinking. They count on the reader's following Eliot's own habit of associative feeling, more than arouse the reader's associative thinking. You read a line and suddenly you feel as if you were in two (three, four, even more) places at once. This willed disorder and ambiguity gives Eliot's poetic world the magic coordinates of a nowhere land. Every object, every word, every line, every apparently clear image is highly elusive.
The feeble little old man of the first stanza lives in a world which may look like a magic carpet. We see it flying here and there, inside and outside what we call reality. It was the age of relativity, and Eliot did his best to push this narrow reality farther than the boundaries of our prejudices. We find ourselves now above, then suddenly underground. Images of mysterious anger (Gerontion's? God's?) surround the old man. He never valiantly fought in a war, he says. He never reached the 'hot gates' (more suggestive words than Thermopylae).
These gates seem to be opening towards who knows what hell, where he ought to have once struggled, dragging his feet through marshes, heaving a 'cutlass', bitten by flies. An image smelling half of Dante, half of Eliot's own taste for disgusting mud, horrifying insects and impotence.
This powerless and self-despising old man lives in a 'decayed' house (reminding us, indeed, of the 'decayed' chapel in part V of The Waste Land). A strange abode, over whose roof there is a field, where at night a goat is heard coughing. Why a goat? Too many have tried to find a hidden meaning there. The goat is surrounded by 'rocks, moss, stonecrop, iron, merds'. Among other
things, Eliot always was (Lawrence Durrell was right) a poet of the uncomfortable, the uninhabitable, the unthinkable and the most unpleasant. A denying poet, besides being a gloomy one, in short. There is a slightly ridiculous old woman in this house, too. She sneezes in the evening (before the goat coughs at night). She cleans the kitchen, cooks supper, pokes the feeble fire that will not give warmth. There is here a touch of clumsy irony, which Eliot often uses to an ambiguous purpose. He either means to make us laugh (which he does not), or to sympathize, as if we were in front of someone who has a natural infirmity, which may look ridiculous but it would not do for us to laugh at that.
This misplaced irony makes us feel thoroughly uncomfortable in the chilly space which, but for a window that is mentioned, might very well be a tomb under a field. As for the window, a 'Jew' (identified by some as Christ) who owns the house (man's body, maybe) is squatting on the window sill, as if lying in ambush. A sense of impotence, of discomfort, of life decayed, of menacing death approaching, all these besiege the old man. He feels bereft, a 'dull head among windy spaces'. Monotonous, this use of only two lyrical registers in this poem: powerlessness (the hazy head), and the cold, which makes shiver a body that is slowly deserted by its life.
The second stanza turns abruptly to an apparently different topic. The hiatus that we feel here is only at the level of words. The logic, the understatement of the poem, goes on along its firm way, it is never abandoned or interrupted. These suggested statements, because of the verbally elliptical aspect of the poem, are ambiguous. Saying less, Eliot suggests more. Like an oracle, he utters understatements which, when over-stated for the sake of explanation, reveal a richness of interpretations.
Their merit lies in this very duplicity, which allows the reader to choose whatever meaning seems more suitable to his own disposition. It is not difficult at all to interpret this stanza in the spirit. It starts with the reproaching line, 'Signs are taken for wonders'. The line is followed by the image of a guilty man, who is unable to believe in anything above or different from him, unless he touches, he strokes the metaphysical with his hands. Which, of course, is impossible.
Therefore, the second line describes
The word within a word, unable to speak a word, / Swaddled with darkness.
The situation sounds desperate. Man is consequently doomed to fail. In the 'juvescence' (word coined by Eliot to replace the Latin 'juvenescence'), that is, the birth of the year (Christmas), Christ is born, and to what end? If we go along this accusing line, we shall interpret the 'depraved May' as the time of Easter. It is then that we see around 'dogwood' (the wood Christ's cross was made of) and 'flowering judas' (name that reminds of Christ's being fatally betrayed). Centuries after his crucifixion, Christ seems to be born over and over again, only to die at Easter endlessly, and to be 'eaten', 'divided', 'drunk' during the yearly religious service. The people he once came to help did not, still do not need him. They prefer the 'sign'. Christ's sacrifice was wasted and the failure is man's, not Christ's. Man goes to church and ignores its essence.
Several names of various nationalities are mentioned: Mr. Silvero, Hakagawa, Madame de Tornquist, Fraulein von Kulp. Together with the lines addressed directly to the reader, they generalize the meaning of the poem, including into it humanity at large. Eliot describes them all in meaningless, again clumsily ridiculous and intensely displeasing postures. One walks all night to and fro in the adjoining room (a sense of guilt prevents him from sleeping?). Another bows (that is all he can do) among miracles of art (paintings by Titian). A woman shifts the candles (out of a sense of fear?). Another woman's name (Kulp) is directly suggestive of guilt. What is the use of all these disparate images forcibly massed together? To lead to a conclusion: human beings are mere 'vacant shuttles' that 'weave the wind'. Gerontion too is, like them (powerless because unable to reach God?),
an old man in a draughty house / Under a windy knob.
Disquieting, again, this image of life entombed before it has actually ceased to breathe.
The anger of the first stanza is continued in the second. It does not seem to restrict itself to only the sense. A few words plainly discourage the religious interpretation:
In the juvescence of the year / Came Christ the tiger.
Why the tiger? Can the word have been used only to remind us of Blake's poem? Is it just another bookish echo, meant to create a mental melody? We might even ignore it, if it did not appear in the fourth stanza again:
The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours. Think at last ...
This third stanza, in between the abovementioned lines, seems to make things very much clearer. It describes man's utter powerlessness. 'History', with its maze of 'passages', 'corridors' and 'issues', is deceptive. What man seems to be granted is in fact out of his reach. The fulfillment of a wish or hope comes either too early, when one is unable to enjoy it properly, or too late, when the wish (like a lover's passion) is dead. Human hunger (what for?) is thus never unappeased. Four times the imperative 'think!' ('now', then 'at last') is uttered: think of what? The last line speaks of human tragedy and of human 'tears', but:
These tears are shaken from the wrath-bearing tree.
Wrath is now named aloud. A certain tree (easily recognizable--the apple tree that man craved for, God denied, man stole and we all know what followed) bears it. Of course, this wrath can belong to the God who chased man out of Paradise. But the tears, would they be his, too? The stanza abounds in images of victimized human beings. Why then shouldn't Eliot's tree rather bear the wrath of a man who was the victim of divine punishment, and whose tears and anger are openly directed against that vengeful God? The first line makes it even more final:
After such knowledge, what forgiveness?
Of course, the Bible often wonders whether God can ever forgive man. Only we are not compelled to do the same. Now man knows (has been warned by this very poem) how utterly lonely and helpless he is in this wide universe. Can then God (or whatever other name the creator of this world may bear) be forgiven for pushing him over the brink of the precipice? For having made man mortal, for having (by destroying for him the existence of a real Paradise) created death? 'The tiger springs in the new year', Eliot says. 'Us he devours'.
The image of a solitary human being, unwillingly mortal, and therefore full of anger against sky and earth, emerges from this stanza. And, in a way, taking into account the intense sense of tragedy the poem creates, God or religion may very well have nothing to do with it. What Gerontion really speaks of is his own, his mortal condition, which he has to go through alone. No second character is really allowed even to speak of it. This is first and foremost the monologue of a man who feels he is alone in the world. God, to this dying man, is just another word, another absence.
The fourth stanza lends certainty to this inference. In a 'rented house' (a suggestive image for the perishable human body), the speaker is slowly 'stiffening'. Remarkable, this gift Eliot always had of challenging what his every fibre feared most. In all his works, he looks like a fighter who duels with the sense of death. He puts on a mask of undaunted belief in life, although he dimly realizes that, while fencing, he is being driven with his back against the last fatal wall, where he will finally be stabbed to death.
This is where the violence of his images comes from. The courage of his harsh, shameless words is, in spite of their blinding clarity, an understatement of reticent regret, of a silent but intense sense of loss. That is why feebleness is paradoxically rendered in this poem by means of aggressive snapshots. A temperamental shyness reduced Eliot to wearing a hideous mask. Maybe we should remember here again that he once firmly denied being either learned or cold?
The speaker's protracted dying is described with sickening minuteness. He has lost his 'passion', 'sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch'. Gerontion argues with someone who has pushed him away, with somebody absent from the poem, as a matter of fact. At this stage, it would be too little to say that the dying old man is merely dissatisfied with his condition.
Wrath against the injustice he feels is being done to him pervades every single word he spits out. The whole stanza is a howl of despair, which the end of the poem tries to soften by means of a touch of irony. But this irony is so clumsy, crude and distasteful that, instead of being softened, the sense of tragedy is downright intensified. Some of the images are variations along the line,
Excite the membrane when the sense has cooled.
Others are more palatable flashes of a gull whirled by the wind, of white feathers (its own?) fallen in the snow, of (again violent) winds, windy straits, killing Gulfs, of the fatal Horn and the Trades. Everything ends where it had begun, in a 'sleepy corner', where the thoughts of this old man, of his 'dry brain in a dry season', are merely 'tenants' of a house. Something, whether it is life, or the whole world, or just our memory of this poem, is going to end for good and all. So, what Gerontion manages to convey (leaving aside scholarly or bookish investigation) is a poignant sense of disappearance. Rather than call this a religious poem, we ought to see in it the regret that everything (God is, in fact, already absent) is bound to disintegrate. We ought to sense in it, first and last, Eliot's intense fear of a lifeless universe, his horror of the dark.
sh-Wednesday (1930) is, in the religious ritual, the day when the fast (six weeks) before Easter (Christ's resurrection) begins. On this day, in church, the priest dips his thumb in ashes, marks the sign of the cross on the believer's forehead and intones: 'Remember, man, that thou art dust and unto dust thou shalt return'. Numberless associations can and have been made between the ashes in the title and the 'burning' often mentioned in the course of the poem. Innumerable arguments support a religious interpretation of the six parts. The most obvious of them all is the religious tone of every line, the many and very picturesque words clearly traceable to the Bible. God is absent again. He is mentioned only to be entreated, or rather as an empty hope, because the poem is very far from being a prayer. The hero of this poem seems in fact unable to believe in the effect of any prayer at all. Mary, too, is recalled, in name only.
Eliot's own images, fanciful landscapes, colours or paradoxical words give a certain poetic reality to the two. The more often these two silent metaphysical shadows are invoked, the less palpable they grow. It is not either God or the Virgin that the poem is about, in spite of the numberless quotations from Dante, which have prompted so many critics to decide so. AshWednesday is the partial story of a life. Someone
unwillingly goes ahead through it. Someone whose last form of expression, whose last conclusion, in the terms of the poem, is a 'cry'.
The so-called misreading of this poem is equivalent to doubting all Eliot's over-statements and making recourse to his understatements. It implies paying more attention to what Eliot does not say than to his actual utterances. This treacherous reading is made possible by the ambiguity of some key lines, most of them quoted directly from the Bible. This ambiguity is usually due to some willful omission of words, and to (again willful) deficient (or rather absent) punctuation. It is easy to ignore this ambiguity, and consequently imagine that the whole poem is just a prayer, an openly expressed wish to join Divinity in thought or in being. But the interest of the poem lies, as a matter of fact, in the very reversal of this mood.
Part I begins with a line taken (via Ezra Pound, it seems) from the Italian poet Cavalcanti:
Because I do not hope to turn again.
It seems that it is precisely this irreversibility of passing years that Eliot would like to contradict, to exorcise out of his body, by uttering it so clearly. The real, unuttered meaning of this line is its opposite: the ardent hope of the poet that he may never reach the point where he would have to admit there is no going back. He indirectly voices his desire that he might never find himself his back against the fatal wall, the last of all walls. Eliot's poetry is incredibly inventive in creating such final obstacles. Eliot refuses here to leave the realm of his life and go beyond, where there is only 'what is not' (to use a favourite paradox of his), just nothingness, void, disintegration, dark. This strategy of coyly flirting with the undesirable, thus temporarily discrediting it, is what could be called Eliot's wishful thinking.
Part I of Ash-Wednesday abounds in gracefully dejected images. It is written in the first person. This was the device that best suited Eliot, since his really good poems are first person monologues or meditations. The poem has a tone of subdued and at the same time subversive renunciation. A line from Sonnet XXIX by Shakespeare ('Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope') supports the mood. Eliot uses literary echoes here as a trick
meant to bully his readers into agreeing to whatever is being said. If other authors, and even such well-known authors too (like Shakespeare, Cavalcanti, Dante, etc.), have experienced this mood, it can hardly be false or feigned. It must be true, and its sadness is genuine.
A gymnastics of renunciation is being practised here, even in the slow cadence imposed on each line, in strong contrast with the restless, breathless race of words in The Waste Land. Some lines are here like a soothing intake of air. They do not manage to silence the turmoil that we feel is going on undeceived, unimpaired by such wishful thinking, deep down in those areas of Eliot's mind which are never exposed to light. These points of hidden darkness, the poet's true self, flash into some chameleonic (ambiguous) understatements from time to time, understatements which enclose, therefore, the precious diamonds of each poem.
An aged eagle no longer sees any use in stretching its wings in the effort to fly, now that, as we have been told, there is no hope to turn to the 'vanished power of the usual reign'. That eagle claims to have lost the feeling of confident strength, of time at hand, of life worth living, of (once probably thought everlasting) youth. The speaker tries to bring himself to give up hope, to give up striving or mourning for what has been lost. His falsely firm negatives (I do not, I no longer ...) or weak, unanswerable questions (why should I? ... ) might look like resignation.
Combined with the negatives (I do not hope to turn again), against which obviously the speaker's mind painfully rebels, the rhetorical questions create a poignant sense of loss. We see here somebody who fears he may never know again 'the infirm glory of the positive hour'. These few words offer a splendid definition of careless youth, that thinks itself untouchable, impossible to be marred by age, imperishable in fact. The more negatives this speaker's mind masses together, the better we feel how rending his so youthful revolt, his incredulity, even his refusal to accept an end are:
Because I cannot drink / There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again.
A more abstract argument is then brought forth in the third stanza. 'Time is always time'
for each of us. Yet, there is, for each of us, one place and one time that cannot be repeated ('I cannot hope to turn again'). Consequently the speaker decides that, things being as they are (impossible to be either kept forever or at least recovered), he is utterly powerless. What is left for him to do except to rejoice? Now, Eliot is not exactly a rejoicing poet. We know that from everything he has written. He knows it himself, since the third stanza puts it so clearly:
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice.
It follows that we shall witness Eliot's mind trying its hardest to 'construct' something that should help him forget his sorrow, his resentment against the way of all flesh. His mind will, for a while, try to 'rejoice': find something (here or beyond?) that may make the rest of his life bearable. Now is the time to remember that Eliot was no older than forty-two when Ash-Wednesday was printed. We cannot deal with it, then, as a subterfuge of old age, but rather as the result of a certain type of sensibility that may have been born old, in a way. A sensibility particularly aware of lost (never future) years, particularly afraid of waiting, because waiting (and wishing--no matter what for) was to him a parade of lost moments, all drowned forever into what was to come no more. Generalizing on this sense of the irretrievably lost, we might say that Eliot is a poet who thrives on ends. His sensibility is set quivering by a reversed feeling of nevermore. Eliot loves uttering aloud these ends because he feels that only by making a clean breast of the whole thing can he safely think away from them.
One way of cleverly killing the sense of loss is, in Ash-Wednesday, to address God and Mary. To name them only, because he hardly ever manages even to picture them. Words from the Bible are called to fill in the gaps. He prays to God to have 'mercy upon us'. He repeats with the Bible, 'May the judgment not be too heavy upon us'. What judgement? There is no metaphysical daring in these ritual words. The only world we perceive is the one here, not the one beyond. Beyond (meta) the physical there is merely the absence of God. It is down here, on earth, that the pain and the poetry are intensely felt. The wings of the eagle are no longer able to
fly. They have become mere 'vans to beat the air'. A real master of self-pity, Eliot was. The very air down here is no longer breathable: it is now 'thoroughly small and dry'. Consequently the speaker prays to be granted something to make up for what he has been bereft of:
Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still.
There is no rejoicing in God or a world beyond ours, so far. There is no sitting 'still' (alive), either. It is obvious that, unlike Yeats, Eliot cannot send his mind beyond death, ahead of his body, to find for him a place in Dante's Paradise. The ambiguity at the end of Part I strengthens Eliot's stubbornness to stay right where he is. No matter how often he may speak of beyond and after, Eliot is undoubtedly a poet of the here and now. The last lines of Part I come from the prayer Ave Maria, which in Latin goes as follows:
Ave Maria, gratia plena, Dominus tecum / Benedicta tu in mulieribus, et benedictus fructus ventris tui, Jesus. Sancta Maria, Mater Dei, ora pro nobis pecatoribus, / Nunc, et in ora mortis nostre, Amen.
The line Eliot quotes,
Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death,
is the most ambiguous line of Part I. The meaning of the initial prayer was: Holy Mary, pray for us mortals and sinners, pray for us now and pray for us at the hour of our death, too.
The last but one line of the poem, with no punctuation whatever, can be read in two opposite ways. For a believer, the obvious meaning is the religious one: the concern with the world after death (pray for us, for our future life). The second meaning is the reverse of the first. It stubbornly sticks to life. It can be read using an imaginary comma after 'pray for us'. We meet, then, a speaker who confesses that, however much we may speak of Divinity, we are sinners (that is ignore it) now, and will still be so at the hour of our death.
The stress falls in that case on the here and now. The more negatives or rhetorical (disabused) questions concerning the present we hear, and the more numerous the words from the Bible invoked to rescue the speaker (who seems to feel his bones disintegrate with each passing moment), the less appealing his metaphysical thoughts become. The hero's only reality is the one denied, belittled, disparaged--yet unspeakably cherished. All the rest (God, prayers, Mary, even the hour of our death) are to him mere make believe.
Part II of Ash-Wednesday opens with an odd image of disintegration of a human body into what might be taken for after life, although it would be hard to do so if it were not for the mentioned names of God and the Virgin. Part I had stated that the speaker felt there was no going back or, to put it slightly differently, that he had lost something for good and all. In Part II, he behaves as if he had, in fact, lost his whole life. That is, he tries to address us as if from a time and land after death.
The poem is far from being the best of the series, partly because of its obscurity, rather dry and uninviting. It is true, Eliot used to commend a poet's being able to express his feelings in whatever shape (clear or obscure) he was able to produce. He often repeated that we must write as we can, and accept others' poems as we find them. The stress laid by him on the poetic effort, rather than on its results, will not help Eliot's case here.
It is this particular part of Ash-Wednesday that occasioned the well-known incident which has become a very telling joke. A student asked Eliot what he meant by the opening line ('Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree'). Eliot sternly answered: I meant precisely, 'Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree'. Now, we know Eliot's fury against any explanation of poetry in other words than the very words of the poem. His reply confirms it. In this poem he tries associating his words with those of the Bible, but this does not lend enough emotional support to his lines. The stories abound in juniper-trees and men that are having visions of God in their shade.
There are in this poem, too, other broken sentences which the Bible attributes to Christ, and which, to a believer, might suggest that world of after-being which Eliot never manages to imagine on his own. Disgusting images are of no help, either. The poem is supposed to be written after death, yet in the first person.
The speaker still speaks. But who is speaking, after all? The already introduced three white leopards sitting under a juniper tree are tired after having 'fed to satiety' on the speaker's body,
my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained / In the hollow round of my skull.
Bones only are left. It is the turn of God and the Lady to turn up. God merely asks, 'Shall these bones live?' After which the 'dry' bones start chirping and shining with 'brightness'. Some kind of profound thought is mentioned as well, the Lady honouring the Virgin in 'meditation'. Deed after which she, too, becomes invisible,
...is withdrawn / In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
In short, these lifeless bones, which pray for forgetfulness (reminding us of 'Teach us to sit still', in Part I), find themselves in the middle of the desert, side by side with
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions / Which the leopards reject,
hoping for some new life. Besides their vague hope, the main thing is that they go on speaking. They address us. What more proof of life could we expect?
There may be hidden meanings in these willfully distasteful lines. Numberless critics have hastened to decode them. Hundreds of stories from the Bible have been narrated, starting from the faintest association with one word of the poem or another. To me, these lines merely seem to attempt a resented, and therefore repelling, description of death, which is followed and, in a way, atoned for by the best approximation of an image of eternity in Eliot's poetry.
They are in fact a set of images comparable to Yeats' attempt at describing the eternal fire he sees burning in his Byzantium. These lines about 'eternity' try to conceive the inconceivable, to think of timelessness with a brain that can exist only in time, to speak of forever with a tongue that cannot bring itself to utter 'nevermore'. The lines are based on the use of paradoxes, of self-contradictory statements. Yeats used the same device. He forced together thoughts and images which smelt a little of the daring conceits of the metaphysical poets. Here is Yeats' description of the eternal fire:
Flames that no faggot feeds, nor steel has lit, / Nor storm disturbs, flames begotten of flame...
Eliot makes more ample use of the paradox. He is here more imaginative, although it does not
help him sound more convincing. The bones that are left of his body after their trip into death form a weird image. They sing of a Lady, one of the few female friendly characters in Eliot's poetry, presumably borrowed from Dante. This Lady is both 'calm and distressed', 'torn and most whole' (to be associated with the immaculate conception). She is also a 'rose' of both memory and forgetfulness. She is 'exhausted and lifegiving', and so on. She can be found in a beautifully described Garden (the same obsession with gardens as in The Waste Land), which is:
End of the endless / Journey to no end / Conclusion of all that / Is inconclusible / Speech without word and / Word of no speech...
An ambiguous garden, where 'all love ends'. This may mean that the feeling of love (a most significant absence in Eliot's work) vanishes, is put an end to. Or, on the contrary, it may also mean that it is progressively intensified, until it ends in fulfillment. The ambiguity is caused by the verb to end, which may mean either to reach a conclusion, or to be fulfilled.
This touching attempt at uttering what a man will never comprehend, this understatement of powerlessness, is one more proof of Eliot's love for the character of the feeble victim. It is followed by another landscape, with a juniper tree and bones scattered, shining in the quiet of the desert. These bones claim:
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other.
The reader is too abruptly hurled from that euphorical (because impossible, unreal, paradoxical) vision of forever into the disgusting scene of a tomb. Where is John Donne, to teach Eliot the poetry and joy of life that can be derived even from the description of a tomb? This reader, so violently handled, ends by believing very little of what is being said. The failure of the lines dealing with death serves in fact Eliot's purpose. It weakens our sense of an approaching end, it withers our fear of death.
As for the ambiguous lines which end this part, here they are:
... This is the land which ye / Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity / Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.
The story is well known: God promises land to his chosen people. But there is also in the Bible another, more widely known story: that of Adam and Eve. And it was not exactly a heavenly, fertile land that God gave them for an inheritance. That land was supposed to be a punishment, as a matter of fact. Part V even says something about those who are 'spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed'. The inheritance then (the ambiguous word of this part) may be taken as the promise a good Christian would see in it: God giving land to his chosen people.
But it may also be the consequence of Adam and Eve biting of the apple tree of life (love), and being driven into mortality as a punishment (Gerontion advanced the same idea), which alone would justify their hurry to spit out the withered apple seed. Here we are, then, almost on the point of concluding that God gave man death as an inheritance; a most undesired death. But Eliot's accusation is not that violent as yet. It is only the (as we shall soon find, reversible) trip into nonbeing that we resent. Yet, from now on, the poem steadily develops towards an accusing frame of mind.
Part III of Ash-Wednesday is a predictable return to the story of the speaker's life. It seems to be the most impressive of the six parts, although it might be rather difficult to point out the elements that make it so. Maybe the use of a conceit (life seen as similar to a winding flight of stairs) gives it a special obvious coherence. A coherence which Eliot usually conceals in his poetry, in his lines, that are breathlessly broken, meant to be tentatively rearranged.
It may also be because of the (mostly gloomy) clarity of every image. Or the almost total lack of literary echoes. A light air of concrete words which the poet does not invest with more than their plain meaning. A feeling of the associative load of bookish remembrances being taken off our backs. It is a concentrated and at the same time easily understood poem. It does not place us in the position (which Eliot himself indicated, though, of course, in connection with other poets' works) of a reader who must muster up his courage and be ready to plunge into an alien language. A language which he may never fully understand, not even when it actually pleases him.
The poem begins at the first turning of a second stair. Which means that a first stair and part of the second, too, have already been climbed. The flight of stairs is a favourite motif with Eliot. There is one in The Boston Evening Transcript'. Then there is another--climbed almost on all fours--in Portrait of a Lady. Another one is being dejectedly descended by a rapidly ageing man in Prufrock, and so on. This short enumeration is enough to plead in favour of Eliot's constantly using several obsessive images (gardens, stairs, bones ...), whose recurrence ends by giving his poems an air of something familiar, a taste of some magic potion that we have, at a certain time, come across before. These recurrent images hardly change their meaning from one poem to another. The stairs, for instance, are practically everywhere associated with the hero's age, with the ruthless passage of time. The association was tentative, rather inferred than plainly seen, in the previous poems. It is very clear now.
The hero of this third part, while climbing the second stair, suddenly turns to look back. The typical retrospective glance, premonitory of sorrow in Eliot's lyrical strategy. What the hero sees below there looks like a ghost of himself a while ago. 'The same shape', he says. The strange thing about this poem, if we do interpret it as a conceit (a description of human life by associating it to the image of the stairs), is that instead of beginning enthusiastically, instead of enjoying life while the hero is still young, his love of it comes much later. Too late in fact, when the top (the end) of the stairs is close by.
It is not so strange, though, if we remember that Eliot is particularly sensitive to sadness, that only pain spurs him into poetry. His sensibility trudges through a land of misfortunes and, as a rule, it looks back. Those backward glances are bewildering. When it is too late, when everything is lost Eliot's heroes regretfully discover the beauty, the love, the joy that have been missed. These wished for things, seen only when they can no longer be had, rediscovered with the remorse that they have been foolishly wasted, make the exquisite pain complete. Eliot does not overlook one single trick to enhance his downward, depressing disposition.
What the hero of this third part (presumably the same as the hero of all the other parts of the
poem) sees below is, therefore, his own image on the first stair, at the moment when he was only beginning to climb. It is a contorted, far from youthful image of a 'shape twisted on the banister'. A shape struggling hard for its right to climb, as if it were trying to push open some mysterious gates. Dante's spirit peeps from every fold of Eliot's poems. We can feel it here in the hellish air of the stairs, a fetid vapour, the hero says. Dante can also be detected in the 'devil of the stairs', (a very impressive, almost philosophical generalization Eliot makes of it), who wears 'the deceitful face of hope and despair'.
Whether this devil keeps the gates of a hell to come, pushing the hero back from future despair, or whether, on the contrary, he prompts the hero to start climbing, forcing hope upon his innocent soul, we cannot know. This is an instance of fertile ambiguity. It is not even important to find out for certain, since both hope and despair are taken together, as a 'deceitful face'. Neither of them, therefore, leads to the right place. This joyless climbing should remind us of the prayer in part I, which asked:
Teach us to care and not to care / teach us to sit still.
It can also be associated with Eliot's sloweddown plays, in which the heroes will not budge, afraid of making wishes, lest their very wishes should drown them in the despair of never getting what they expect. Here Eliot utters belated wishes. Wishes which come only when the time of their fulfillment is gone forever, and, at that stage, they are not even wishes any more, just nostalgic thoughts to embalm time. The lack of movement, the shy, quiet reticence, the apparent static air (which hides an intense torment of anxiety) of Eliot's poems comes from this belated wishful thinking.
The hero soon reaches 'the second turning of the second stair', and forgets about that 'twisting' below, he says. He forgets about the moment when the climbing began, or about whatever went before that time. But, as we shall see, his forgetfulness is short-lived. For the time being he still has a long way to climb, his strength still supports him. He can afford to leave his beginnings aside, and pretend to ignore everything. He seems to be all alone now. He sees no more faces around. No more hope and despair?
That is a little hard to believe, especially because it is so emphatically stated. The devil of the stairs is out of our sight. Maybe because the second stair is so frighteningly dark that to the climbing hero it looks like an untimely tomb:
Damp, jagged, like an old man's mouth drivelling beyond repair, / Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.
Lawrence Durrell, in his short characterization of Eliot (Alexandria Quartet) was, after all, right to inquire: 'But where is the smile?'. Everything is dishearteningly serious.
The third stair is not far away. Its first turning rends the darkness with a 'slotted window, bellied like the fig's fruit'. Again, the man who has climbed this far halts to have a look around. He seems now to be looking beyond. This might imply to some a suggestion of after-life. It seems more convincing if taken as an intent realization that the beauties which suddenly flash into the hero's sight (and which could have been his once) are not beyond his life now, but merely beyond his reach, beyond his age.
The only luminous scene of his life is now revealed to the climber who cannot help gazing out of that last window, while climbing the last stair. He sees a 'hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene' in Maytime, and hears an 'antique flute', played by a 'broadbacked figure drest in blue and green'. Any interpretation of this flute-player is possible. Many have been concocted, in fact but to no effect. The importance of this enigmatic image in the last stanza is diminished by the immediately following lines:
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown, / Lilac and brown hair.
These two short lines, reminiscent of the hyacinth girl (image of wasted love) in The Waste Land, bring an unexpected (therefore the more intense) participation of the speaker to his own story. So far, everything was retold in the Past Tense: the struggle with the deceitful devil of the first stair, the dejectedness of the second, even the first step taken up the third stair. Suddenly, the tense is changed to the Present. The narrator feels (how late) what he, in his stubbornness to fight this devil of hope and despair, has left and lost outside.
The possible image of a (once) young girl, a lilac stalk in her hand ('Blown hair is sweet'),
looms far away. Could it be a memory of the time before the climbing had begun? The beginnings, then, are not at all dead. Forgetfulness was a transitory feat.
The outcome of this revelation is a late wish to be outside, and start it all over again, maybe never to climb these stairs at all, not any more. It breeds the need to postpone, to slow down the hero's rush up:
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair ...
Distracted from its (as Part II called it) 'concentration' on the purpose of advancing, the hero's mind falters. The idea is rendered by the remarkable assonance 'stops and steps'. It suggests the desire to climb both up and back down. The mind stumbles. The emotions that seemed to have been given up in the darkness of the first and second stairs blow up with the halo and destructive power of a volcano. Instead of a man who, with all his might, had wanted to reach the top of the stair, we suddenly see in front of us someone inside whom everything is 'fading, fading'. He boasts of having defeated the deceitful devil of the stairs, of possessing now a strength 'beyond hope and despair', of being beyond human emotions.
But this, again, is (being so over-stated) just wishful thinking. His voice, when he announces the victory, falters. The human being, who at the beginning of the climbing was determined to struggle with himself until he had managed to attain what The Waste Land might have called the 'peace that passeth understanding', is finally exposed. When the climbing draws to its end, he is still that frail being, full of despair now, because only hope has been lost. Like the Sibyl in the motto to The Waste Land, he finds himself the prisoner of endless despair. As to the religious interpretation, as to hope in the help of some God, very few signs of it survive, if at all.
Let us start by noticing that, in this third part of Ash-Wednesday, God has been totally absent again. He is only mentioned in the last lines, in a prayer uttered by a man who falteringly climbs this last of all stairs:
Lord, I am not worthy / Lord, I am not worthy / but speak the word only.
For an illustration of how Eliot used to deface the words of the Bible to his own purpose, I shall
quote here the whole fragment (Matthew, 8) where these words come from:
And when Jesus was entered into Capernaum, there came unto him a centurion, beseeching him, and saying, Lord, my servant lieth at home sick of the palsy, grievously tormented. And Jesus saith unto him, I will come and heal him. The centurion answered and said, Lord I am not worthy that thou shouldest come under my roof: but speak the word only and my servant shall be healed (...) And Jesus said unto the centurion, Go thy way; and as thou hast believed, so be it done unto thee. And his servant was healed in the selfsame hour.
It is a quotation which, if well-known and promptly remembered, will forbid any other interpretation than belief in Divinity. But the words Eliot chose to use out of the story are extremely ambiguous, like any last line of the six poems in Ash-Wednesday. Here the ambiguity is due to the willful omission of explanatory attributes. What is the hero not 'worthy' of, and what kind of 'word' would he like to hear uttered from above? As a rule, whatever word Eliot quotes from some other work loses its initial connotations, and is given a new coat. All borrowed words are borrowed so well by Eliot that, in fact, they simply become his own.
Not more than a few lines before, a weak voice was complaining of the slow advance, of those 'stops and steps of the mind over the third stair'. The same voice tells us now that the man does not feel 'worthy' of reaching the top of the stairs any more. As a matter of fact, he would like to postpone belief, to postpone his reaching the place where his life would stop being his own. He definitely does not want to step over the threshold of death. The 'word' he would like to hear from above must be one to the effect that his wish to linger on this side of the world has been granted him. God is not to come any closer. He is required to stay there, far away, wherever he may be, and 'speak the word only'. The slow passage from one image to another finally reveals the hero's unwillingness to continue the natural course of his journey. His wishful thinking that ageing may be reverted clings to his very small (yet fervent) hope that death might avoid him, for the moment at least. The careful reserve of Eliot's words supports the God-rejecting interpretation of the poem.
Part IV of Ash-Wednesday is an oasis of sunshine, serene sky, green fertility and appeasing water for the thirsty. It is troubled only here and there by short memories of a possible menace: the 'garden god', the yew trees (trees of the churchyard, signs of death), and the same weird word 'unheard, unspoken'. Except the hero's own final ambiguous exclamations (which become his own precisely because they mis-use, they reverse the religious meaning of the context they come from), nobody utters a sound. A friendly feminine presence moves among angelic colours of violet, blue, white, green, wearing 'white light folded, sheathed about her, folded'. We do not know who she is. The poem itself is a question:
Who walked between the violet and the violet ...
This unknown, yet definitely benevolent, feminine shape is one of the few angelic descriptions of a woman in Eliot's poetry. She makes 'cool the dry rock'. She also makes 'firm the sand' (echoes of The Waste Land still haunt the landscape). She is the 'silent sister' (well found alliteration) 'behind' the garden god, existing together with that god 'between the yews'. She has a 'breathless flute', and she speaks no word. But, in spite of her silence (which, in fact, suggests both the hero's inability and his unwillingness to hear, to come near her), the land is redeemed to life by her mere presence. The fountain springs up, the springs are renewed, 'made fresh'. The earth which the hero treads becomes a fruitful, though unfortunately delusive, oasis.
What makes this feeling of well-being seem delusive? Besides the slight menace of the unseen garden god, there are a few lines reminiscent of pain, coming from the New Testament ('Mary's colour') and from Dante (they speak of 'eternal dolour'). Eliot even quotes a wailing fragment from Dante, which he must have learned by heart. He openly confessed that he used to memorize texts from Dante even before actually knowing Italian at all. Several words belonging to the same Dantean text pop up here and there, in various other poems by Eliot. The lines in question consist in the speech made by a Provencal poet, Daniel Arnaut, whose excellence had been preached at length by Ezra Pound. It must be admitted that many of Ezra Pound's findings and tastes deeply influenced Eliot's less pioneering nature in criticism. The words that remind of Arnaut are 'Sovegna vos'. They come from the following fragment, which has more than one word that sounds familiar to a reader of Eliot's poems:
Jeu sui Arnaut, que plor e vau cantan; / consiros vei la passada folos, / E vei jauzen lo jorn, que'esper denan. / Ara vos prec per aquella valor / que vos condus al som de l'escalina, / sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor. / Poi s'ascose nel foco che li affina. (Purgatorio, 26)
The last four lines are quoted by Eliot himself in his Notes to The Waste Land. The English translation of the fragment is the following:
I am Arnaut who weeps and goes singing; / I see in thought all the past folly / And I see with joy the day / for which I hope, before me. / And so I pray you, by that virtue / Which leads you to the topmost of the stair, / be mindful, in due time, of my pain. / Then he dived back into that fire which refines them.
The stair present here must have made the quotation even more appealing to Eliot. As for the two words quoted in Part IV, they can convey their full meaning only to someone who has the whole background in front of his eyes. Someone who knows Dante and maybe has even read Pound's bulky essay on Arnaut. The quoted words mean to say, 'remember my pain'. This time, the line requires initiation into a certain type of literature, not very widely read in the original. It needs a long explanation to be understood. Consequently, it arouses a faint dissatisfaction with the bookish tone of these words which, unless explained in footnotes, remain just an intriguing turn of an Italian, hardly ever heard, tune. In a similar way, the rather obscure image of the 'jewelled unicorns' drawn by a 'gilded hearse' seems to come from Dante again (possibly suggestive of the divine pageant accompanying the appearance of Beatrice). Frankly speaking, the explanation of all these bookish allusions should not take so long. Eliot did not manage to appropriate these borrowings. The device failed him. The cultured poetry which he wrote had its moments of weakness, of unrewarding obscurity.
Really important here are the suggestions of regretful wishes and pain, which, in time, lead to the last ambiguous line. The friendly feminine figure walks 'between sleep and waking'. Present sleep and future waking, or the other way round? We shall have to wait for the end to decide which is which. In spite of her refreshing influence, the hero cannot forget his despair, not even at the core of this paradisiacal vision. More than a vision, it is rather the sign of an invisible, unheard, remote and (as we have seen and shall see again) refused Paradise. The hero keeps whispering the imperative 'Redeem'. It comes after the statement that the years, the fiddles, the flutes are being borne away. It is repeated in various synonymous ways, such as 'restore', 'the new years', the new verse. Towards the end, the whisper becomes much more audible:
Redeem the time, redeem the dream ...
We can hardly fail to notice how the gloomy feeling of loss has managed to squeeze again into a poem initially meant to be an image of afterlife blissful light. Redeem the time, it seems to say, now, when it is not too late yet. 'Think now', Gerontion was saying. The 'waking' of the first lines should be seen, I suppose, as belonging to the present, too. Redeem the time now, when life is still with us. Now, he prompts, before and not after:
Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew.
Excellent image of death, this last but one line. Here we are, again, watching Eliot advance like a crawfish, backwards, his eyes riveted on what could have been had, on what may have been had, anyway on what has eventually been lost. His steps lead him towards what he refuses to see. Walking backwards, he hopes to reach death unawares, maybe even slip past it without being forced to turn round and look it in the face. The aim of his paradisiacal images (few as they are) is to confirm this very faint hope that he might be spared awareness and experience of disintegration, of non-being. They tend to propitiate. The last line of this part, besides its stern religious interpretation, conveys the hero's devouring fear and faint hope. It is taken from another prayer, Salve Regina. In Latin, its end says:
Et Jesum, benedictum ventris tui, nobis post hoc exilium ostende.
Which in English would be, 'And, after this our exile, show us the blessed fruit of thy womb,
Jesus'. The beginning of the prayer speaks of 'Eve's exiled children', who in this vale of tears (the 'cloud of tears' in the poem), implore Mary's mercy, and ask for their exile on earth to be revoked by the sight, the birth of Jesus. From the broken presence of this prayer all over the poem, we can realize how much Eliot loved the language of his prayers. The words he quoted have only one, uncompromising meaning, which is rather far from the spirit of the prayer quoted. The prayer states: after this life of ours, which has been like an exile, give us the hope of a brighter future.
The mere lack of punctuation, as well as Eliot's habit of incomplete quotation (omission of the words which are basic for the original context, and whose absence modifies the initial meaning), give this last line a totally different meaning. If read with an imaginary comma ('And after this, our exile'), the words drastically reverse the appeasing hope of the prayer, changing it into a howl of despair. After 'this' (the wind shaking a thousand whispers from the yew, which implies man's death), nothing can come but an endless exile into lifelessness.
The hero draws a long breath, and almost feels like swallowing his words, still he utters them. He intimates that eternity, after-life or whatever image the New Testament may have created to diminish this fear of death, are only a long, undesired exile. If the oasis is to be had, it must be had while we can still touch it. All visions of after-life are therefore, here, either obscure or unconvincing, weak. Eliot did not take the trouble to enlarge upon them. On the other hand, the present images of fertility are as haunting to our ears (so used to Eliot's gloomy landscapes) as a will-o'-the-wisp. Which makes us remark, not for the first time, that Eliot is everywhere a poet of the here and now.
Part V concentrates more directly on the image of human lot, to which the hero himself belongs. It is true that it begins with a whole stanza dealing with the 'Word', capitalized, definitely reminiscent of the well known opening:
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. The same was in the beginning with God. All things were made by him; and without him was not anything made that was made. In him was life; and the life was the light of
men. And the light shineth in darkness; and the darkness comprehended it not. (John, 1)
We hear in this poem that the 'Word' is now lost, spent, unheard, even unspoken, a 'word without a word', yet a word
within / The world and for the world.
A resourceful assonance is found in such a line as
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled.
A direct echo from the Bible could not have been absent. A line reminds us that 'the light shone in darkness'. Another line continues that this 'silent Word' is the centre of the world. These opening lines of Part V are all beautiful music. One does not have to try very hard to see their verbal association with the beautiful envisaging of the absolute beginning of the world. They might have been taken as an indictment of man's deplorable unwillingness to partake of Divinity (his only hope to become immortal again), if the rest of the poem had not been written. The Bible says that God's first word when he created the world was 'Light'. He ordered that light should surround his creation. Eliot's poem, too, mentions a few divine words, but they belong to Jesus (the New Testament), and constitute the ambiguous key lines of this fifth part. These words, a fragment from what is known as The Good Friday Reproach, come from the following context:
O my people, what have I done unto three, or wherein have I wearied thee? Testify against me. Because I brought three forth from the land of Egypt, thou hast prepared a cross for thy Saviour ...
Christ utters these words the night before his crucifixion, when the people gathered around him abuse him and hit him with stones. The New Testament as a piece of literature had a perfect command of this device which Eliot himself used: victimizing heroes in order to force the readers into full agreement to the idea that lurked behind them. This obviously pitiful self-description of Jesus (Mica, 3) is cut short by Eliot. First, he only remembers, 'O my people, what have I done unto three', then, as a last line, just 'O my people'. The ambiguity of the quotation comes out clearly after a careful reading of the stanzas that describe the people addressed by Christ. That luminous Word of whoever created this world, the poem itself states, is now totally absent. The second stanza opens with a rhetorical question:
Where shall the word be found, where will the word / Resound?
As was to be expected, the answer is negative: 'not here'. Some of the words seem to have been used merely for the sake of music or fluency, such as:
... Not here, there is not enough silence / Not on the sea or on the islands, not / On the mainland, in the desert, or the rainland ...
It must be admitted, though, that Eliot's irregular, incomplete rhymes are enticing, even when the sense behind them is somewhat deficient. Some six years later, he was in fact to accuse Milton of this very deficiency, but that is another story and, anyway, Eliot's slipping into empty words does not occur very often (in his good poems). On the contrary, he might often plead guilty of the opposite: of over-loading his words with too many side-meanings (cultured echoes) besides his own.
When the blurred shape of this 'lost word' is set aside, the kernel of the poem unfolds. The last three stanzas bring, in Eliot's best gloomy apparel, the image of victimized man. Eliot speaks of people who walk in darkness, who can find no 'place of grace', who have no time to rejoice, who are torn
... between season and season, time and time, between / Hour and hour, word and word, power and power ...
It is true that these people 'wait in darkness' because they 'avoid the face' and 'deny the voice'. But their so-called guilt does not sound the least bit as impressive as the violence of their utter innocence, frailty, powerlessness. A cosmic cold (instead of light) engulfs these people who 'wait in darkness', who (again, remarkable assonance, felt so by Eliot himself, since he repeated it) 'chose and oppose'. People who are like 'children at the gate' of their dreamland, who would like to go in ('will not go away'), but feel they will never be allowed to, and, consequently, as the line ends, they 'cannot pray'. Of course, Eliot does not put things so plainly himself. He only masses together these stabbing images of human helplessness. From time to time he remembers man's sense of guilt, and wonders:
Will the veiled sister between the slender / Yew trees pray for those who offend her.
But the very next line brings back his rending sympathy for those who 'are terrified and cannot surrender'. This modal verb 'can', used in the negative all over the poem, together with other modals, such as 'will not', and with the simple negative present, or just negative adverbs in which the poem abounds, come to impress the reader more deeply than the initial affirmative statement of God's well-meaning promise. When the two legendary figures (God and the silent sister) are mentioned, that is done under the hood of a question mark. Their relation to the 'people' of the poem is mentioned only in rhetorical questions, whose answer is provided by the negative strategy of the whole poem.
Everything is therefore denied: the presence of Divinity, the beauty of man's life. The logical conclusion is that the former destroyed the latter. Every negative trick is used. Besides the grammatical ones mentioned above, Eliot resorts to his favourite lexical habit: he repeatedly joins in pairs words that devour each other (chose and oppose, affirm and deny...). After this resourceful display of denials, the only question our mind formulates seems to be, Who is denied what and by whom?
When the ambiguous line, 'O my people, what have I done unto thee', first turns up, it may not be very obvious yet. The last stanza, however, leaves no doubt. These people, on whose shoulders the burden of whole volumes of religious literature has been heaped, find themselves in a 'last desert', mingled (in imagination only?) with a garden. They are 'spitting from the mouth the withered appleseed'. And then Christ's words come back to our mind, but in another mantle, since Eliot himself chose to omit the words that would have shown clearly that he was man's victim.
When we hear, 'O my people, what have I done unto thee', we cannot fail to detect the meaning Eliot infused in these words while he was making them, in this poem, his own. The divine character actually pleads guilty. He repents at seeing the fate he has prepared for the human being he meant to protect. The apple-seed (the beginning of mortality legendarily given by God to man) is now withered, and man spits it out. He is powerless to change his dissatisfactory lot. What is worse is that the divine character is equally powerless, so the poem ends with the disheartening echo, 'O my people'.
Part VI (the last) of Ash-Wednesday is the reverse of the first. Part I had begun by letting us know that, as there was no going back in time, no arresting it at least, something had to be built, upon which the hero might rejoice in future years, while he was forced to go his (abominable) way. Unwillingness breathed out of every word.
Each line which openly affirmed that the hero felt ready to give up past moments ('the infirm glory of the positive hour', 'the vanished power of the usual reign', 'the place where trees flower and springs flow') was merely a half-hearted renunciation, an understatement. Behind them, we could hardly fail to detect the hero's resentment. In an apparently blank voice, he was announcing that what was lost was lost. Inner agony lurked hidden deep inside his soul, never uttered. He had no choice besides heading for another land.
A different kind of being he was going to become. Someone who, after leaving life, was to inhabit what may be called (to use a bunch of irrelevant words, because Eliot failed to clothe them in images) eternity, timelessness, etc. This hero, therefore, sets out on a journey to the land of forever. Should we, psychoanalytically, notice here a child's wish that some things may never be lost? The second part actually tries to imagine the beginning of that journey with the moment of death. It only manages to leave us confused as to where the hero means to go. Describing the hero's 'forever' by paradoxical, self-devouring images ('end of the endless, conclusion of all that is inconclusible'), Eliot simply destroys his destination in our minds. Part III confirms our inclination towards doubting the reality of this journey. The hero suddenly forgets about death in the desert and whatever kind of future life was supposed to follow it, in order to linger at the top (end) of the stair of his own true life, uttering his ardent wish to go no farther than that.
Part IV is a mixed description of soothing visions, which makes us feel that there is an inner turmoil in the hero's heart to be appeased. Peace of mind does not alight however, no matter what authorities in the matter (the Bible, the New Testament, Dante) may be invoked. The hero of the poem may have started hopefully (more or less, anyway) on a trip into after-death. Yet, on his way there, he finds out he simply does not want to experience death of the body, even if it promises a magnificent resurrection of the mind. In spite of the opening line of the poem ('I do not hope to turn again'), he finally discovers that he has mis-read himself.
The obligation to rejoice upon something still unknown, the desert where immortal shapes feed on humble mortal life, where the air destroys man's most precious possession (his living being, that can feel time), the Garden where all love ends, all these lead to the gloomy Part V. The hero reveals here that he has merely been flirting with the idea of leaving this world in order to approach Divinity. Dante is utterly forgotten. Eliot views himself as the victim of this Divinity, whose presence can only be felt from the fact that once, at the beginning of all times, of all worlds, of all life, it created death. In this context, the hero of the poem, who would have liked his life to last forever, but finds that a certain God has placed it under the sign of mortality, feels he has been wronged, and makes this very God a bearer of the guilt ('O my people, what have I done unto thee').
Consequently, Part VI reverses the direction of the whole poem. No more imagined divine forever. Even the well known opening line is changed. 'Because' becomes 'although I do not hope to turn again'. An 'although' which openly confesses the hero's unwillingness to go ahead. How could we now fail to sense that, instead of a brave going forward (such as Browning's Childe Roland to the Dark Tower Came), this poem is a wavering retreat? Wishful thinking has been pushed from behind for a little space, but the hero's regret, resentment, revolt turn out to be much stronger. In spite of the fact that ('although') he may have wanted to face his fate imagining some kind of God, Eliot (who is his own hero, after all) appears again here to advance crab-like, blindly, his eyes riveted on the once foolishly wasted emotions, felt as desirable only now, that they have been lost for good and all.
His soul is numbed by the paralyzing fear that one fine day he may find himself his back against the final of all final walls. The whole poem is pervaded by the premonition of the pitiable powerlessness he will feel then. 'Do not go gentle into that good night', Dylan Thomas later said. Eliot indeed raged, raged madly at the loss of day. Part VI of Ash-Wednesday proves it amply. It speaks with impressive (and depressing) melancholy about this brief transit where the dreams cross / The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying.
Here and there, echoes of his previous wishfulthinking forever turn up: 'Bless me father', 'blessed sister, holy mother', 'our peace in his will' (Dante).... Although, he says, 'I do not wish to wish these things', the desire (and the pain) to live cannot be forgotten.
A beautiful image conveys Eliot's melancholy wish to step back rather than go ahead. He changes his image of the first part, where the wings of the aged eagle were useless, no longer good to fly, 'but merely vans to beat the air'. The air itself seemed then 'thoroughly small and dry'. That time of dissatisfaction, when his wishful thinking actually began, has now become desirable. Typical for Eliot, these retrospective desires are another device to enhance the pain that the poem is meant to convey. No poem by Eliot (not even the few humorous or luminous ones) is ever light-hearted. Right now,
... though I do not wish to wish these things / From the window towards the granite shore / The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying / Unbroken wings
Although and still may have been just an understatement. But the following stanza, the most personal and the most painfully touching in the whole poem, can leave no doubt as to the belated regret in this poem:
And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices / In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices / And the weak spirit quickens to rebel / For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea-smell / Quickens to recover / The cry of quail and the whirling plover / And the blind eye creates / The empty forms between the ivory gates / And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth
Consummate minstrel of the pain of all ends, Eliot was undoubtedly, and that even in the poems of his youth. What else is left from AshWednesday besides this slashing image of the 'time of tension between dying and birth'? Forgotten, the building of something imaginary upon which to rejoice. Feeble the voice which still moans,
Suffer us not to mock ourselves with falsehood / Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still ...
The rending truth is that (and here alliterations literally fly to Eliot's help) the 'lost heart' rejoices now, this being its only time of joy, although it is too late, because the things it rejoices in (lilac, sea voices, sea smell) are all lost. Loss is the unique topic of Eliot's sensibility. A monotonous poet, maybe, but the intensity of his sense of loss and the vividness of the images that convey it make up for the monotone of his soul.
The end of this final part is a whisper, ashamed of its own lack of belief. It moans about a sensation of solitude, which is crossed by dreams. Dreams of real misfortunes, rather than of future imaginary bliss. Even 'among these rocks', Eliot says, where 'the voices shaken from the yew-trees drift away' (dead or dying voices, then), here, where the yew, as a messenger of death, is his only company, the hero still prays ambiguously:
Suffer me not to be separated.
Separated from himself, rather than what the prayer the echo comes from might have implied (from God). When the final line of the poem is uttered,
And let my cry come unto Thee,
(again incompletely, therefore ambiguously quoted), we know for certain what this cry means to say. It is not a cry of belief, nor is it one of meek renunciation. The author of Ash-Wednesday crams into this last cry the bitter discontent of a poet for whom all joy was pain, all seasons winter, all beliefs a huge hoax. A poet whose falterings between believing and wishful thinking incite us to unveil his unuttered sense of failure and misread his over--and understatements until we have victoriously (though dejectedly) exposed them.
We must write our poetry as we can, and take it as we find it--this is what Eliot used to say. Can he have envisaged his being read by what Valery called 'un lecteur de bonne foi et de mauvaise volonte', who would make havoc of all his over-statements, dive into his understatements and come up with a nonreligious view of the apparently most religious part of his work?
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