Wednesday, April 05, 2006

Ash-Wednesday IV

by T.S. Eliot

Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary's colour,
Sovegna vos

Here are the years that walk between, bearing
Away the fiddles and the flutes, restoring
One who moves in the time between sleep and waking, wearing

White light folded, sheathing about her, folded.
The new years walk, restoring
Through a bright cloud of tears, the years, restoring
With a new verse the ancient rhyme.
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile

* * *

This poem is getting harder to explain the further I get into it. "Who," I guess, is the sister who keeps appearing at different times. Why she is "talking of trivial things," I don't know, but the rest fits well enough. She is walking in the garden, "in knowledge and in ignorance," I think because she knows that people are suffering, and (more than they do) she knows why, but she is in ignorance because she has not experienced this, not being a great sinner herself.

"Sovenga vos" is a reference to Dante's Purgatorio, Canto XXVI. Arnaut Daniel, a Provencal poet, is being purified of sins of lust. His discourse is not in Italian but in Provencal. (This is why I had so much trouble trying to find what it means. It doesn't help that it is also spelled "Sovenha vos" or "Sovenga vus.") The full line is, "Sovenha vos a temps de ma dolor!" and means, "Be mindful to assuage my suffering." The speaker is asking the sister to "be mindful" of him, and to pray that his sins are purged.

There is a notion of timelessness as the sister walks while the years "walk between." It's a little too deep for me, but I get a sense of it. The sister is restoring the goodness of the past ("the vanished power of the usual reign") by living in it herself, "restoring with a new verse the ancient rhyme." Unlike the lost souls, she is living in step with the past -- and there is no suggestions that she as at all out of date. Her mission is to redeem the time she is living in by her prayers, lest it be lost.

John says the gilded hearse means the sister dies at this point. I don't believe it myself, although I know I don't get everything in this poem. I'm hoping for Meredith to explain it to me. But at any rate, it seems to me that gilding suggests artificiality, something that has no part in the sister's life.

Yews are symbol of immortality because they are evergreen; they are planted in graveyards, and therefore they might also symbolize death. The garden god seems to be Pan, who appeared in part III; I guess he might symbolize the pleasures of the world. The sister has gotten behind the pleasures of the world into immortality. (Which, pace John, means her life is a kind of immortality, since she has rid herself of sin, which is death.) The garden god's flute is breathless anyway; it fails, since it was only fleeting pleasure. The sister is silent but she signs, both to speak to God herself and to give a sign to the world.

The garden becomes even lovelier, and the message is repeated: the time must be redeemed. The "word" (nudge, nudge, this will be important later) is unspoken and unheard. We hope that it will be spoken and heard at some point. Perhaps this is what the whispers from the yew are: the voices of those who have passed over into immortality, speaking "the word."

And after this our exile . . . it could signify death, I suppose, or at any rate the end of the speaker's journey out of sin into life. I think he hopes that he will be able to be whispering from the yew as well. He wants to speak the word too.

Ash-Wednesday I

Ash Wednesday V

No comments: