A little meditation on Ash Wednesday, Part II

So I’m going to suggest that the first movement of Eliot’s poem marks the beginning of Lent — the rejection of the flesh and its pleasures (we’ve just finished celebrating Fat or Shrove Tuesday — Mardi Gras — when Catholics traditionally gorged themselves on all the pleasures they would be giving up for Lent — meat, and sweets, and strong drink, and sex, and greed, and licentiousness, and so on. Carne vale.).

The tropes used by Eliot in this movement are interesting, but not particularly moving. The second movement of the poem elicited exclamations of pleasure; the first got a terse comment from Tony Parsons who is quite familiar with Eliot’s work, I imagine. The language is terse, the images are sparse, the whole is rather abstract, rather controlled. When Eliot talks about turning, I read it as his talking about giving up, letting go, the movement towards self-denial that is inherent in the season of Lent. The turning is a turning towards his own failings — which I read as his conceit, his pride in his art. The allusion in line 4 is to Shakespeare, after all, to Sonnet 29.

The second movement I read as reflecting the result of that turning-away: the stripping of the old man in preparation for the putting on of the new. The allusions in this movement are to the Virgin Mary (of course), the holy mother, the approachable divinity-saint who provides the conduit to God, the one for whom having one’s old self destroyed down to the bones is a pleasure, as well as to the visions of the prophet Ezekiel — the resurrection of the dry bones in the desert. To worship the almighty one has to strip away all one’s flesh, all one’s desire; one has to discard all desire, or have it discarded for one. Leopards can indeed change their spots — or have them made as white as snow. Part II is ecstatic; it’s also the high point of the poem.

Because the ecstasy comes in part II, right at the beginning of the six weeks of Lent; Part III , which I’ll post by the end of the day, is going to bring temptation. If you’re following this poem, I’ll leave you to read it before I come back with my interpretation, later.

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