Reflection on Part IV
by Dr. Miranda Hickman
Here we are at a step of this spiritual journey, involving many steps and “turns” in odyssean fashion. In this literary reflection I ask how Eliot’s turns, even what I take to be a kind of wrong turn intimated by this section, might suggest a way out of this limbo in which the speaker finds himself, beyond the merely still “Garden” space, which his speaker here seems to take as destination, toward even greater affirmation and hope, a stronger stance of “rejoicing” than the poem initially invokes. Here I’d suggest that a kind of wisdom on this comes through more strongly by way of Eliot’s poetic cues than his themes.
For Eliot, the idea of the turn (so emphasized here through repetition) was inspired in part by the work of medieval Italian poet Guido Cavalcanti, who wrote a poem on exile which Eliot knew, which opened with “Because I do not hope to turn again.” Eliot’s dwelling on the topos of the turn was also inspired partly by 17C church figure Lancelot Andrewes (Bishop of Winchester), whose sermons Eliot admired; one Ash Wednesday sermon in particular emphasizes the “turn” to God. Poem IV, like Poem II, features a turn to the salvific “Lady,” a Beatricean figure of pity, sorrow, and redemption, showing Eliot’s interest in Dante and echoing Cavalcanti.
In part what I follow in Part IV is what Eliot’s speaker needs the Lady to be and do in order to think his way onward from the purgatorial (jn “between”) space that much of the poem conjures, especially through words in Part IV, whereby the speaker seeks to leave behind one “reign” and turn over a new leaf, a “new verse”—one might say undergo a “change of heart,” or what the Ancient Greek calls metanoia, in Christian terms a rethinking, a transformation and cleansing of the soul through repudiation, change of mind, repentance, and atonement—all part of the speaker’s process.
What I follow, first, is the part this “silent sister” figure (as Eliot imagines her) plays in the “turn,” or transformation. She is clearly both a Beatricean and a Marian figure – “going in blue and white, in Mary’s colour” – thus reading as the inverse of the women who come and go in Eliot’s early “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”: a maternal, salvific, intercessionist figure who saves through pity, mindfulness of the speaker’s pain (which Eliot suggests through his fragment of a phrase from Dante and Arnaut Daniel, “Sovegna vos”: “be mindful”; “be mindful in due time of my pain”) and by helping the speaker turn from worldly vanities and desire, including romantic and erotic desire, toward a “higher dream.” In poem II she is presented as able to unite apparent contraries (“calm and distressed,” “torn and most whole”), the sister through validation of the speaker’s suffering guides the speaker away from “torment” of love of the past to a “Garden” where there are fountains and fresh springs restoring life to the waste land.
Yet here I also follow other strands elsewhere in Ash Wednesday, together with threads from Eliot’s other work, that suggest a way out of this purgatorial space alternative to what Poem IV suggests, a way toward hope I read as more affirmative, and for me, less costly – since as Julia Kristeva suggests, there can be real costs in the world if in an imaginary garden the female figure is insistently positioned (and needed) as silent, sorrowful, maternal guide, as merely mater dolorosa. I’d also suggest that this alternative is (if surprisingly) truer to another dimension of Eliot’s thought not always given explicit voice in the dominant lines of his poems, yet one that comes across as a kind of shadow second voice around the edges of Eliot’s overt themes and notes.
In Ash Wednesday, Eliot’s speaker ultimately takes as explicit destination a posture of humility toward the Lady as “teacher,” and a stance of wishing to “sit still” in acceptance of loss and current conditions (Eliot may have been thinking of both the Psalm 46: “Be still and know that I am God,” as well as the work of Blaise Pascal). But how does the poem also suggest an alternative stance, one involving greater affirmation, less denial and mere acceptance?
It does so, I’d suggest, through the powerful image in Ash Wednesday of the dry bones singing. Eliot’s other work likewise conjures bones, inspired by Ezekiel – his poem The Waste Land does so, for instance, by noting “dry bones” that “harm no one” at the site of the ruined, “empty Chapel.” This moment in Eliot’s earlier poem always suggests to me Eliot’s awareness of the bankruptcy of the inherited archetypical quest narrative – and a turn to an alternative route. Ash Wednesday likewise renounces the striving associated with the traditional quest and turns down a different path. Where Ash Wednesday is most eloquent, where it “rejoices” most, I’d suggest, despite its apparent endorsement of the posture of “sit still” at the last, is when the dry bones sing.
Indeed the bones sing in this poem from a kind of Ecclesiastian recognition of vanity, where grasshoppers mark spiritual drought. Yet they also imply a kind of “lyric singing,” a lyrical impulse that, despite what is uppermost in Eliot’s themes here, in fact points to another way to redemption, one potentially stronger than renunciation, stillness and silence. Eliot’s religious imagination as it manifests in his verse often seeks to quash such lyric “singing,” such love songs, as part of the realm of temptation to be transcended. Yet at the same time, poetic cues of his poems suggest otherwise. With the kind of deeper awareness Eliot suggested poetry could help access,** he also suggested another way toward hope, one involving giving voice (by way of the lyricism of poetry) to pain that otherwise would remain voiceless.
Thus while the thematics of Eliot’s poem at times suggest that the “music of the flute” is unwanted “distraction” beyond which he must climb through the assistance of the Lady, in contrast, the poem as a whole, especially through the poignant image of the bones insisting on singing despite being lifeless and dry, Eliot’s poem in fact suggests another way out of limbo toward salvation through lyric song. This alternative lyric way toward hope, I would offer, is suggested through the image of the bones, through the allusion to Cavalcanti, but also through the form of this poem, when it is read as poetry: through its repetitions, insistent rhythms, imagery—through its formal patterns and its own singing. These poetic cues, on a subliminal level, I’d suggest, guide us toward another way out toward rejoicing not by “sitting still” as guided by the silent sister, breathless, but instead through lyric, which sings feeling, sings pain, and often involves singing love. “Soul clap its hands and sing,” said Yeats, another poet of roughly Eliot’s time, and I’d suggest that this is what the “other Eliot,” conjured through the nether layers of his poetry, himself recommends—and sings.
** Eliot, from the “The Use of Poetry and the Use of Criticism”: Poetry “may make us … a little more aware of the deeper, unnamed feelings which form the substratum of our being, to which we rarely penetrate; for our lives are mostly a constant evasion of ourselves, and an evasion of the visible and sensible world.”