Ash-Wednesday

Richard Wilbur
Illustration by Tyler Varsell

MANY PEOPLE of my generation, I think, have made much the same halting progress toward Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday.” Growing up during the quarter century of Eliot’s poetic dominance, we first read the poem in adolescence and found it beautiful but baffling—baffling in its allusions and in its omission of explicit narrative or argument. Going then to college in a time of frenzied exegesis, we were made acquainted with “Ash-Wednesday” and other modernist poems through lectures, analytic essays, and footnotes by the yard. All of which was exciting but at the same time vicarious and dry; we learned to talk the poem, but we did not yet possess it. In other or later reading, whether or not we were preoccupied with Eliot, we then found ourselves encountering many of the texts that had prompted him—above all, the Commedia of Dante; this happened partly, of course, because Eliot’s poetry and criticism had modified one’s sense of the “canon,” of what books were living and ought to be read.

We learned to talk the poem, but we did not yet possess it.

No doubt we also came to know, in our own lives, some of the feelings pertinent to “Ash-Wednesday”: emptiness, yearning, a sense of entrapment in the self. At last there came the day when, once again picking up this difficult poem, we found it suddenly open and moving and there to be experienced.

At such a moment, the poem’s first line—“Because I do not hope to turn again”—has an astonishing resonance. We hear in it the voice of a penitent who is renouncing his active hopes of this world and the next, yet hoping against hope to be renewed by grace. We hear the many uses of the word turn in the epistle for Ash Wednesday and in the Penitential Office for that day: “Turn ye even unto me, saith the Lord.… Who knoweth if he will return and repent?… Turn thy face from my sins… turn thine anger from us.… Turn thou us, O good Lord, and so shall we be turned…. Be favorable to thy people, who turn to thee in weeping, fasting, and praying.” Eliot’s first line is also a translation: we hear it in Cavalcanti’s Perch’io non spero di tornar giammai—the first line of a ballad written in exile, in the expectation of death, and in devotion to a lady who is both actual and ideal. And this citation of Cavalcanti brings with it the thought of Dante, who dedicated to Cavalcanti his Vita Nuova and whose turning purgatorial stair is found in the third section of “Ash-Wednesday.”

The austerity of the poem is tempered by its own great beauty.

I know that what I am saying of the poem’s first line sounds like a blurt of explication, but in a lucky reading, that is not what we experience: all of these felt ideas of turning and returning, of death and exile and the lady, come flocking to us at once with a complex immediacy, like a first peal of those bells on which the rest of the poem will ring its changes.

Many readers have resisted “Ash-Wednesday.” Some have found the spadework too much trouble. Some have found the poem flawed, particularly in the noisy rhymes and tongue twisters of the fifth section. Some, especially in the political thirties, have been put off by its very substance and by its concern with personal salvation. Recent biography will, I think, make it seem all the more personal—the poem of an afflicted man who had announced his conversion in 1927 and longed to make it genuine; who in 1928 took a vow of celibacy; who was horrified by the animality of sex unredeemed by “higher love”; who feared the life after death; and for whose puritan temperament the religious experience was overwhelmingly penitential in emphasis. And yet the poem largely does or should disarm such resistances. It draws us in because, though it grows in spiritual vigor, it is not a complacent success story but an enactment of continual struggle, distraction, wavering, stops and steps of the mind. Whatever may seem personal or peculiar in the work is generalized by liturgy, by scripture, and by the conventions of religious art; and it builds, in section 5, toward an anguished concern for society as a whole. Finally, the austerity of the poem is tempered by its own great beauty and, in section 6, by what seem to me its most compelling lines—a rebellious rush of sense imagery that is resolved, at the close, into an energized movement both toward God and toward his world.

Richard Wilbur was an American poet and a two-time recipient of the Pulitzer Prize.
Originally published:
December 1, 1989

Featured

A Faceless Compass

Johannesburg’s haunted streets
Ivan Vladislavić

Case Studies

A critic tracks herself
Margo Jefferson

Geoff Dyer

The essayist on not having a career
James Surowiecki

Newsletter

Sign up for The Yale Review newsletter and keep up with news, events, and more.