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Poem rec 4, "Ash-Wednesday" - The Phantom Librarian
Spewing out too many words since November 2003
Poem rec 4, "Ash-Wednesday"
The other day, I had a girl in who had to find "a poem." Her teacher had ruled out Poe and Frost for whatever reasons--she said it was because they were "too well-known," but apparently T.S. bloody-Eliot wasn't on the too-familiar list. Which at least let me give her an Eliot collection when she said, "You know, Frost and Poe and stuff aside, who's your favorite?"

Ten minutes later, she came back, looking somewhat horrified, and said, "Why is this guy one of your favorites?"


Seriously, I flipped over to "Ash-Wednesday," which is one of my all time favorite poems, and showed her some neat imagery, but I don't think I sold her on it as anything but a way to fulfill her assignment. Which is fair. It took me quite a long time to warm to him--time and aging. At fifteen, Eliot-esque angst about the waste land of modernity and deep shame and grief needing redemption don't tend to resonate particularly well. Life still makes too much sense, and angst tends to be about the more concrete things in the world. I disliked him in high school, and learning that he'd once had fascist sympathies didn't help, because I hadn't quite gotten over the ad hominem fallacy, or realized that a person's professed beliefs and his art may well express different things... and in this case, rather opposite things. (My guess is that, just like in every other era, the artistic community was just prone to joining trendy political causes, and there happened to be a particularly virulent one around at the time. Unlike a certain architect I can think of--grr--it didn't seem to affect the art.)

At any rate, Stephen King got me started again as an adult, when he used "The Waste Land" as preferatory material in the third Dark Tower book, The Waste Lands. That haunting line, "I will show you fear in a handful of dust," got stuck in my head, and I hunted the whole poem down... and wasn't wild about it the first time through. Too much use of foreign language in the middle of an English poem, a little affected, and so on. And yet... it stayed in my head. So a few years after that, I picked up an Eliot collection to read it again, liked it much better, and went on to read several others, and toward the end, came across "Ash-Wednesday." I honestly haven't come across much criticism of it, and I don't know the history around it, so I may well be reading it wrong, but to me, what it feels like is... hmm. A desperate, passionate desire for redemption, feeling hopeless but still wanting and needing it. And the language use... it's prettier and more haunting than "The Waste Land," its imagery vivid and still wild and dreamy and alive in a fundamental way.

The whole poem can be found here. Here are some of my favorite verses:

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.


Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
There is no life in them. As I am forgotten
And would be forgotten, so I would forget
Thus devoted, concentrated in purpose. And God said
Prophesy to the wind, to the wind only for only
The wind will listen. And the bones sang...

(I used "Prophesy to the Wind" as the title of a fic a few years ago.)

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. Redeem
The time. Redeem
The unread vision in the higher dream


Will the veiled sister pray for
Those who walk in darkness, who chose thee and oppose thee,
Those who are torn on the horn between season and season, time and time, between
Hour and hour, word and word, power and power, those who wait
In darkness? Will the veiled sister pray
For children at the gate
Who will not go away and cannot pray:
Pray for those who chose and oppose

O my people, what have I done unto thee.


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.



23 comments or Leave a comment
subsidaryforge From: subsidaryforge Date: April 4th, 2006 06:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
Eliot's still my favorite poet. His lines have such whist and imagery and a certain near rhyme that really catches my ear.

Nonetheless, I have read at least one terrifically funny parody of the Wasteland and agree with it entirely. I like the Wasteland -- I prefer his other poetry. Ash Wednesday is gorgeous.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 07:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, he's parodyable. That's also part of the fun. ;)

Ear-catching is really the word for it. It's the poetic equivalent of a catchy melody.
From: le_parapluie Date: April 4th, 2006 06:50 pm (UTC) (Link)
Eliot and Ginsberg often compete for "favorite poet" title. Some of my favorite lines are from "The Waste Land," and I still sit stupefied and awed when I read them.

What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.

fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 07:41 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oo, yeah. Very iconic imagery.
toastedcheese From: toastedcheese Date: April 4th, 2006 06:59 pm (UTC) (Link)
These were roughly my experiences of first reading Eliot, at fifteen:

Four Quartets: This is the weirdest thing I've ever read. I love it.
Prufrock: This is beautiful and amazing and I relate to it way too much. My life has been changed forever.
The Waste Land: ...huh?

Now I'm definitely fond of The Waste Land, and at times suspect I know what it's about, but it is definitely an acquired taste of a poem. There are parts I adore, but I agree that his other poems are much more accessible and organic.

Have you read "Marina"? Not only is it pretty, it's almost straightforwardly happy.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 07:42 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think I've read "Marina," but it's been awhile. I should look it up.

"Acquired taste" sums it up. But parts are powerful even before you acquire it.
From: tree_and_leaf Date: April 4th, 2006 07:04 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think 'Little Gidding' is my favourite Eliot poem, or perhaps 'The Journey of the Magi'.
stephantom From: stephantom Date: April 4th, 2006 07:10 pm (UTC) (Link)
I love Eliot. (And actually, I know quite a few fellow teenagers with whom "Eliot-esque angst about the waste land of modernity and deep shame and grief needing redemption" resonate quite well.) "Hollow Men" and "Prufrock" are among my top favorite poems. They're amazing. He has such unique and haunting imagery. It's intense stuff. We read "Hollow Men" out loud in my English class this year and I just remember reading that last stanza...

This is how the world ends
This is how the world ends
This is how the world ends
Not with a bang, but a whimper.

Gah. It kills me.

I'm really enjoying these poet-of-the-days things you're doing, actually. I'm a fan of each one you did.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 07:45 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, I was trying to remember where that came from! I put out poems (or stanzas) on all the tables today and I wanted to include that, but I forgot where to look for it. Eliot--of course. :rolleyes: That's what I get for looking for specific titles instead of flipping through a book. Of course, I had two Eliot stanzas out already. ;) (Including the "Heap of broken images" one quoted earlier.)
(Deleted comment)
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 07:50 pm (UTC) (Link)

My issue with "Waste Land" was less the allusions--which I liked--than the sudden bursts into foreign languages for a stanza at a time. Granted, the religious imagery of Ash-Wednesday is part of a body of literature that I've studied more in depth, and studied it because it's appealing to me, so the resonance goes in a lot of directions, but I do love Greek mythology and Shakespeare as well. I'm an equal opportunity mythicist. ;)
parallactic From: parallactic Date: April 4th, 2006 07:19 pm (UTC) (Link)
When I was a teenager, I loved the "Hollow Men", and only liked a few passages from his other poems. But the passages I liked haunted me, and I'd keep remembering bits and pieces. So years later I went back and read his poems again; I loved the rhythm of his words and the surreal imagery, and the way he combines bleakness with everyday banality. So I might grow into further liking his other poems, even if I'm still frustrated over how he'd suddenly switch to French or Latin in a poem.
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: April 4th, 2006 07:38 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ugh. hwhat's wrong with well-known poems? If iwer in that school withhe character I have I'd getthe feelignthe more obscure m ychoice was the mroe inaw the rest of the class would be.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 08:27 pm (UTC) (Link)
I think she probably just didn't want to get twenty reports on "The Raven" and twenty more on "The Road Not Taken." ;) But honestly, those are both excellent poems. If she wanted to limit the number of papers she read on them, why not let the students sign up for poems, with only one person doing each poem?
erised1810 From: erised1810 Date: April 4th, 2006 09:09 pm (UTC) (Link)
exactly. that soudnsa lot more logica lto me. (i ahda whoel philosophical half-rant about subjective and objectiveoverlappign each other but neverm ind that)
zoepaleologa From: zoepaleologa Date: April 4th, 2006 08:16 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah. My favourite poem in the whole of the English Language, even though I am NOT a Christian. However the imagery of the faith is so wonderful it applies to any belief system (moral based) if you let it.

This bit would comfort anyone in hour of need:

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

When I became old enough and well read enough to understand a good many of Eliot's allusions (esp. to Dante, my most beloved poet) I was sooo pleased to read and understand.

It's his imagery, erudition, and simple magnificence with language that knocks me sideways.

*wibbles* thanks for posting!
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 4th, 2006 08:24 pm (UTC) (Link)
Oh, you're welcome! I waffled on whether or not to do it because I've mentioned the poem a lot and thought it might be overkill, but then again, I mention it often because I just love it.

simple magnificence with language

Exactly. I read him with a great deal of envy, also salivating to learn everything I can and feeling hopeless of ever being good enough to say that I'm even writing in the same language... in other words, he's one of my favorites.
keestone From: keestone Date: April 4th, 2006 10:20 pm (UTC) (Link)
Hmm. I'll have to read Ash Wednesday in full sometime when I'm not meant to be preparing to teach Yeats. As far as Modernist poets go, I've always preferred Carl Sandburg and Marianne Moore. Eliot can get a bit elitist for my taste. I've always liked Prufrock, but I never really cared for The Wasteland. He definitely does have some beautiful imagery though.
rabidsamfan From: rabidsamfan Date: April 4th, 2006 11:05 pm (UTC) (Link)
Ah... I hand them don marquis and Rudyard Kipling...
sonetka From: sonetka Date: April 5th, 2006 01:19 am (UTC) (Link)
My first knowledge of Eliot was actually from "Practical Cats" - when I was six or so, my dad would read them to me at bedtime. Then when I was about ten I noticed "The Annotated Waste Land" on my parents' shelf and noticed it was by the same guy. Hey, this was sure to be fun! So I pulled it down, and seldom have I been so disappointed in a book all at once :). But when I was fourteen I encountered "Prufrock", which was my favourite poem for a long while (what depressed outsider adolescent can't relate) and a few years later, "The Waste Land." I'm only just now coming to an appreciation of "Ash-Wednesday" - thanks for posting it, it prompted me to reread the whole thing. Teach us to sit still, indeed - I need to learn that in the worst way.
matril From: matril Date: April 5th, 2006 02:06 am (UTC) (Link)
I've had a sort of love-hate relationship with Eliot since high school. Maybe hate's a strong word for it - I adore his imagery and phenomenal skill with language, but I can't help being irked by his elitist break-into-another-language-mid-poem sort of aesthetic. I read Prufrock for AP English and really struggled with it before eventually succumbing and deciding that with lines like "Let us go then, you and I/when the evening is spread out against the sky/like a patient etherized upon a table" it was just too priceless not to love. Also, "Do I dare to eat a peach?" Love it.

Later, in college, I discovered "The Wasteland" and again was annoyed that I required footnotes to truly appreciate it - and yet, with footnotes, it was absolutely, fantastically beautiful. Even sometimes without footnotes. So once more I succumbed. He's just too good. Kind of full of himself, but so good.

Haven't read Ash Wednesday. I like what I see. I'll check it out. It'll probably take lots of time to really understand it, but I expect it'll be worth the effort. It usually is.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 5th, 2006 04:08 am (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, he had some personality issues.

I guess "elitist" didn't really come to mind with the allusions. It's just an education thing, I think. He's speaking the language his mind turns to. Elitist, to me, would be requiring something that couldn't be added to footnotes. If you can get it in the footnotes, then it's free to anyone who wants it, which is egalitarian.
matril From: matril Date: April 5th, 2006 02:36 pm (UTC) (Link)
True enough. Though I recall reading a poem by Eliot's mentor, Ezra Pound, that basically lambasted the general public for being excited about tawdry, mass-produced art and not understanding true high art - a poem that was itself nearly inaccessible to the less-educated. And I half-agreed with the sentiment...but it just seemed so unabashedly snobbish, so it kind of repelled me. Eliot's not quite so extreme as Pound, though.
fernwithy From: fernwithy Date: April 5th, 2006 02:40 pm (UTC) (Link)
Yeah, I'm not as fond of Pound. But I think that attitude is endemic. Basically, it's the same thing as sci-fi writers who are annoyed that fantasy is popular, or Mary Sue writers stomping their feet and complaining about how someone else is getting more comments then they are. "Why don't you like my fic???? You're all just stoopid meeniez."
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