Three white leopards open the second movement of T. S. Eliot’s Ash-Wednesday. What they are supposed to represent is anyone’s guess: the Holy Trinity; the three sins of avarice, gluttony, and lust; the divine agents of destruction that occasionally appear in the Old Testamentthe scholarship is indecisive, to put it mildly. In any case, these leopards have devoured our poet’s innardsheart and liver and brainleaving only a skeleton, broken and blanched. Then, in this valley of dry bones, comes a question: “Shall these bones live?”
That might well be, too, the question of Lent, which we begin today. Unto bones, “scattered and shining,” we shall return, as God promised guilty Adam. But shall these bones live?
By his late thirties, Eliot had realized that the secular order could not remedy the drought of the spirit in the modern age. His conversion in 1927 to the Anglican Communion was the culmination of a long period of searching, and it made possible the grand poetic vision that would occupy works such as his “Choruses from The Rock”; his dramatization of the murder of Thomas Becket, Murder in the Cathedral; and, ultimately, Four Quartets.
But his rejection of the age’s secular dogmas was not well received; even fifty years after his death Eliot’s post-conversion poetry is regularly ranked below his early workif it is read at all. As Allen Tate observed in 1931, “Eliot’s critics are a little less able each year to see the poetry for Westminster Abbey; the wood is all trees.” It says much about the fragility of the intellectual class of Eliot’s day that it refused to entertain his poems for fear of accepting his convictions. They were dry bones, indeed.
In his indispensable study of T. S. Eliot’s life and work, Eliot and His Age, Russell Kirk contends that Eliot’s oeuvre parallels the principal work of Eliot’s favorite poet, Dante: at one end, The Waste Land (1922), Eliot’s Inferno; at the opposite end, Four Quartets (1943), Eliot’s Paradiso. Between those two worksboth large, complex, heavily allusive, symphonicis a curious poem, of equal, if not greater, beauty, less a symphony than a chamber piece: Ash-Wednesday (1930), Eliot’s Purgatorio.
It is a revealing comparison, for Purgatorio too is a strange poem. Following Virgil, Dante winds his way up the seven-storey mountain, encountering along the terraces atoning sinners, willingly taking to their suffering in order to be purified. In Purgatorio the grotesquerie of Inferno vanishes; the symbolism becomes more subtle; we begin to encounter touches of the divine that defy language. Compared with the demons of Hell below, and the saints in the heavenly strata above, this is a human realmone of not good enough, of striving and struggling, of fixing our eyes on the unseen.
Ash-Wednesday is a purgatorial poem in this same way: earthbound but ascendant, the humble expression of one sinner’s solitary hope. It is, in Tate’s words, “a brief moment of religious experience in an age that believes religion to be a kind of defeatism and puts all its hope for man in finding the right secular order.”
Eliot’s first major post-conversion poem, Ash-Wednesday is not discontinuous with his earlier work, as some contend, but it is open to truths previously cordoned off. It opens with the conviction of a familiar weariness: “Because I do not hope to turn again.” What is done cannot be undone; all that remains to us is to pray for God’s mercy, that “the judgement not be too heavy upon us.” The simplicity of the poem, its straightforward lyricism contrasted with the dense tangles of verbiage in The Waste Land and Four Quartets, is born of a profound experience of humility. Ash-Wednesday is an expression for our age of an ancient plea: “Have mercy upon me, O God, according to thy loving kindness . . .”
What follows is a winding ascent. The poet makes a perilous climb, distracted from distraction by distraction, up the turning stairs, where he is able to rebuff temptation only by a “strength beyond hope and despair.” We encounter him in the garden, in the desert, upon the shore, praying to a Lady who will not refuse him: “Suffer me not to be separated / And let my cry come unto Thee.”
Tate notes that Ash-Wednesday fuses two orders of imagery: “the visual and tactile imagery common to all poetry, without significance in itself for any kind of experience, and the traditional religious symbols.” The latter, by Eliot’s time, had become hollow; the symbols of Christianity survived, but evacuated of their power. Only the mingling of the two orders could stimulate a return to the reality of the experienceand only a return to the reality of the experience could reanimate the symbols. It was just this “expression anew of transcendent experience [that] was Eliot’s achievement in Ash-Wednesday,” writes Kirk. “He was not refurbishing old formulas merely: what mattered to those who understood or half-understood him, he was relating his own experience of ‘the higher dream’” (italics original). For both critics, Eliot demonstrated how religious poetry could be revived in a secular agenamely, by returning to the ground of the language, the experience, to restore to parched symbols their substance.
During Lent, our desert season, we face a similar challenge. The symbols of our lived faith are constantly going dry, being exposed as conventions without particular significance. Eliot invites us to return to the ground of our beseeching, to encounter again the figure veiled in light who quenches our thirst among the rocks. Our experience of the “heart of light” (Eliot’s phrase in Four Quartets) can “redeem the time”can restore to us the hours and the years consumed by sin, now seen through the lens of God’s abundant grace. But this filling up requires submitting ourselves to being emptied out: to being consumed anew by God’s love, to being reduced to bones. But it is a trial so beautiful that our bones, scattered in the sand, will sing.
Lent is our purgatorial season, and we must start from our unworthiness. We are “children at the gate / Who will not go away and cannot pray.” We are the faithless crowd who “chose thee and oppose thee.” Yet the poet still cries to Heaven, trusting that God will not forsake us. The desert of our wandering will be restored to the Garden of the single Rose, where all is gathered into God’s love. He will crush and scatter our bones, but these bones shall live.
Ian Tuttle is a senior at St. John’s College in Annapolis, Maryland.