Sunday, November 8, 2009

T. S. Eliot and The Pure Poetry of Despair: Ash Wednesday (1930)

Ash Wednesday is supposed to be about Eliot's recovery of faith—he had joined the Anglican Church in 1927—but that's not how it sounds. Here's how it begins:

Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope [a line from Shakespeare's sonnet #29]
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know again
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where the trees flower, and springs flow, for there is nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for a time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
And I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And I pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
Let these words answer
For what is done, not to be done again
May the judgment not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings fly
But merely vans to beat the air
The air which is now thoroughly small and dry
Smaller and dryer than the will
Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners not and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

The poem has six sections or chapters, of which I have given you the first. The last section is not about the recovery of faith; it is about loss. I quote, in part.

Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and death
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

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 the quail and whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth . . . .

1 comment:

  1. A beautiful and brilliant poem. It explains that faith is the abandonment of questioning, of seeking "this man's gift and that man's scope." When one has faith, one hopes never to turn--never to lose one's faith.