Ash Wednesday

These are the last lines from the last part of T. S. Eliot’s Ash Wednesday, his long poem of personal conversion to the Anglican church and a kind of statement by him of the public value of religion. If it is a great poem–and some critics have said that it is–then it can carry a reader in any number of directions. Full of Eliot’s personal life, of Dante, and of hard and opaque allusions, it is not a poem that just opens up and says Come in. It is difficult and curious and bawling and beautiful and at the same time it is ours to hold and to make of what we will. The words and the phrases and the images belong to us, the readers. The end of the poem brings in the spirit of the water, of Mary, of the garden, of the earth. There is a memory of a garden behind us and the promise of a garden ahead of us.  No wonder that Edwin Muir thought that Ash Wednesday was the most moving of Eliot’s poems, and the most perfect.

from Ash Wednesday by T. S. Eliot

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

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

Blessèd sister, holy mother, spirit of the fountain, spirit
of the garden,
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
Sister, mother
And spirit of the river, spirit of the sea,
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto Thee.

Ash Wednesday by Carl Spitzweg 1808-1885


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