Wednesday, March 01, 2006

Ash-Wednesday I

by T.S. Eliot

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
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the aged 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 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 one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessed 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 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 judgement not be too heavy upon us

Because these wings are no longer wings to 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 now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

* * *

All right, this time I think I really did bite off more than I can chew. But how could I resist posting this poem today? However, I must warn you that I understand very little of it, and so can say little. Even Meredith doesn't understand it all.

This is just Part I; I plan to post the rest during the course of Lent.

The beginning is despairing. The speaker does not hope to "turn again," to be converted. However, he does seem to acknowledge that it is what he should hope. Line 4 is from a Shakespeare sonnet, number 29, which can be found here: "When, in disgrace with fortune and men's eyes . . . " This is more or less the state of this poem's speaker. He has more or less reached the bottom. He is no longer reaching for higher things, because he thinks he will never reach them. He does not even mourn because he feels it will be useless.

Knowledge also evades him. I like to read the third and fourth lines of the second section, "Because I do not think -- because I know I shall not know," as if he is interrupting himself. What can he not know? "The infirm glory of the positive hour," that is, that momentary joy one gets when suddenly struck with positive truth -- when everything is absolutely clear. It never lasts long; it must be followed by faith in dark times. But, having no faith, the speaker is forced to give up any hope for those moments of sight as well. He knows that somewhere is a garden with a spring (the same desire for water we find in The Waste Land), but he stands without it, denied entrance because he cannot find faith or experience conversion.

The next section is hard; I don't think I really understand it. My guess is that he is reflecting on the temporality of his moments of light. At some time he saw the light, at some place, and now it is gone. He accepts this. In the same way as he does not mourn, he actually rejoices -- not because there is anything upon which to rejoice. He has to construct something for himself, because true joy is not available to him. He renounces God, His voice and His face; he has placed them in the past and moved on to rejoicing at new things, things he has constructed himself.

The next section is my favourite in this selection. The speaker does pray, not for faith, not for enlightenment, but for mercy. Right now I am reading Crime and Punishment, and Raskolnikov has just asked Marmeladov's little daughter to pray God to forgive "his servant Rodion." Even though Raskolnikov does not pray himself, even though he does not seek to be holy, he wants to be forgiven. This is the same state as the speaker in this poem. He wants to stop tormenting himself with "these matters," his thoughts that entrap him in a circle. He prays that what he has done, his sins, he will not do again, and that he will not be judged too harshly. It is a humble prayer, but a beginning.

The part about the wings is more reinforcement of the speaker's helplessness, hearkening back to the first section's "Why should the aged eagle stretch its wings?" Since his flapping around is not getting him anywhere, he wants to be allowed to "sit still," to stop his useless efforts. Still, he wants to care -- and yet not to care. He does not want to forget the place he is in and the "garden" where he wants to be, and yet if he cares too much he is afraid he will only "beat the air," continuing trapped in the impotent circles of his thought.

The prayer ending the first part is for forgiveness, all the speaker is truly praying for. I'm not sure what the repetition omitting the word "sinners" means -- perhaps the speaker's hope that he will not always be a sinner?

* * *

Ash-Wednesday Series:
Part II
Part III
Part IV
Part V
Part VI

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