Friday, March 31, 2006

Ash-Wednesday III

by T.S. Eliot

At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jagged, like an old man's mouth drivelling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an aged shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs's fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
            but speak the word only.

* * *

All right, I'm finally continuing with this. It's about my fourth attempt to post this section; something always happens with the computer, or I'm interrupted, or something.

At first I had a vague idea that the stairs were some kind of reference to St. John of the Cross, but I searched through all his poems, and the only mention of stairs I could find was from "Dark Night of the Soul," and it did not seem particularly related.

The speaker has completed the stage of self-emptying, and now he begins an ascent toward faith. The devil tries to lure him away, sometimes by giving him the wrong hope, and sometimes by tempting him to despair. It is interesting that we begin with the second stair -- maybe during his stage in the desert, he made progress on the first stair without knowing it. I'm not sure what the "same shape" is. Perhaps himself.

As he progresses further, active resistance by the devil ends, but he is left with the difficulty of his situation. It is hard to travel upwards; it is not pleasant to be alone with himself.

When he reaches the third stair, he faced with something new: a vision of beauty. Maybe this is a preview of the "garden" he is striving to reach -- but more likely it is a distraction. He is tempted to stop, to hear Pan playing his pipes and see the lady with brown hair . . . but he continues upward, without either the hope or the despair the devil tempted him with, but finding some strength.

The prayer ending this is both humble and hopeful: he knows his own unworthiness, but he also knows there is healing for him. By now he has made a lot of progress from "I do not hope to turn again." He has turned again and is climbing.

Ash-Wednesday I

Ash-Wednesday IV


Amberg said...

Thou lovest me more dearly than I know.
I thank Thee for the mercy Thou hast shown,
That Thou hast paid the debt I still should owe,
That Thou might'st have me as Thy chosen own.
Ah! Help me, as my soul is stirred within
By doubts of pain no number could relate,
As deep calls unto deep about my sin
And drives my mind Thy wrath to contemplate!
O ransomed soul, why art thou so cast down?
Hope thou in Christ, whose soul was cast to death,
But for the joy of lifting thine on high,
When sheer despair should well have caught His breath.

So hope in Him, whose blood defies thy fears,
And thou shalt praise him now and all thy years.

For though throughout the night thy tears remain,
Well will thy weeping scatter seeds of grief,
And God will surely send His Word as rain,
So morning's sun sprouts laughter's sweet relief.
Commit thy way to Him whose way is truth,
Whose mercies new direct thee everyday,
And love Him who has taught thee from thy youth
To sing, "my walk is Heav'nward all the way."
Yea, love, oh love! for love, it is of God,
Who freed thee from the fear of sinful chains
To cry the "Abba!" all throughout life's road,
Rejoicing htoruhg Thy sorrows and thy pains.

Hope thou in God, who saved thy life today
To teach a sinner in His gracious way.

Sheila said...

What's this?

Amberg said...

It's a poem about the mercy of God. I thought it might sort pertain to your post.

It's good to see some Latinists, by the way, even though Catullus is highly inappropriate;)

Sheila said...

Of course he is. That's rather the point. But "Media vita" isn't, is it?

I should have been more specific -- is the poem yours? Or who wrote it?

Amberg said...

Yes, that is the point. That's funny. Media Vita is one of the best hymns ever written, and Catullus is certainly in the midst of every man's life in some way or another. God save me from 16 though!

I wrote the poem after I got into a car accident and got away (amazingly) completely safe. It really perked me up, actually.