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Ash Wednesday by T. S. Eliot

T. S. Eliot was one of the most important founders of the modernist movement in literature, a cutting-edge poet of the first order.  And yet he was converted to Christianity.  He also began calling himself a conservative and a classicist.  But he still wrote cutting-edge poems of the first order.  Among them is “Ash Wednesday,” which he wrote not too long after his baptism.  Here he writes about the Word of God, Christ as the still point of the whirling world, of the Church which he had newly joined (he was an Anglican) and which he personifies as the veiled sister.  An excerpt:

If the lost word is lost, if the spent word is spent
If the unheard, unspoken
Word is unspoken, unheard;
Still is the unspoken word, the Word unheard,
The Word without a word, the Word within
The world and for the world;
And the light shone in darkness and
Against the Word the unstilled world still whirled
About the centre of the silent Word.

O my people, what have I done unto thee.

Where shall the word be found, where will the word
Resound? Not here, there is not enough silence
Not on the sea or on the islands, not
On the mainland, in the desert or the rain land,
For those who walk in darkness
Both in the day time and in the night time
The right time and the right place are not here
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk among noise and deny the voice

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.

Will the veiled sister between the slender
Yew trees pray for those who offend her
And are terrified and cannot surrender
And affirm before the world and deny between the rocks
In the last desert before the last blue rocks
The desert in the garden the garden in the desert
Of drouth, spitting from the mouth the withered apple-seed.

O my people.

. . . . . . . . .

Blessed 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.

via Ash Wednesday: Ash Wednesday by TS Eliot.

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Eliot understood a lot; though in a literary sense he is a modernist, he is really a post-modernist in that he understood that the rationalism of the “enlightenment” along with the Romantic reaction to it were passe. Instead of succumbing to Nietzschean nihilism, as many of his contemporaries did, he returned to the authentic Christian narrative.

    The line in Ash Wednesday that is most moving is Teach us to care and not to care, which could have been said by Christ.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Eliot understood a lot; though in a literary sense he is a modernist, he is really a post-modernist in that he understood that the rationalism of the “enlightenment” along with the Romantic reaction to it were passe. Instead of succumbing to Nietzschean nihilism, as many of his contemporaries did, he returned to the authentic Christian narrative.

    The line in Ash Wednesday that is most moving is Teach us to care and not to care, which could have been said by Christ.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    What Eliot in particular battled was what he saw as the “dissociation of sensibility,” how, after the Enlightenment our different faculties were torn apart and set in opposition to each other. The Age of Reason (which minimized emotion) was followed by The Age of Emotion (Romanticism, which minimized reason). Whereas, Eliot noted, in earlier days, poets like John Donne “feel their thoughts and think their feelings.” Eliot began to see that this was because of Donne’s Christianity, which offered the wholeness he craved.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    What Eliot in particular battled was what he saw as the “dissociation of sensibility,” how, after the Enlightenment our different faculties were torn apart and set in opposition to each other. The Age of Reason (which minimized emotion) was followed by The Age of Emotion (Romanticism, which minimized reason). Whereas, Eliot noted, in earlier days, poets like John Donne “feel their thoughts and think their feelings.” Eliot began to see that this was because of Donne’s Christianity, which offered the wholeness he craved.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Eliot would have seen the inadequacies of modernist rationalism, as you say, Peter, and he would also have seen the inadequacies of postmodernist anti-rationalism. Christianity, by contrast, has a place for reason AND mystery.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Eliot would have seen the inadequacies of modernist rationalism, as you say, Peter, and he would also have seen the inadequacies of postmodernist anti-rationalism. Christianity, by contrast, has a place for reason AND mystery.

  • Elizabeth Foreman

    Thank you for bringing me back to Eliot. I haven’t read him for years, and tonight — after our Ash Wednesday service (and imposition of ashes), I will pull out my copy of Complete Poems and Plays.

  • Elizabeth Foreman

    Thank you for bringing me back to Eliot. I haven’t read him for years, and tonight — after our Ash Wednesday service (and imposition of ashes), I will pull out my copy of Complete Poems and Plays.

  • JonSLC

    Speaking of Donne (@2), his “Hymn to God the Father” always hits me between the eyes. Also fitting for this day.

  • JonSLC

    Speaking of Donne (@2), his “Hymn to God the Father” always hits me between the eyes. Also fitting for this day.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Dr. Veith, agreed. Christianity at its best is about both reason and mystery. Post-Modernism, beyond Eliot’s criticism of Enlightenment and Romantic modernism, is about at best relativism and at worst nihilism. Your book, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture helped me to understand this.

  • Peter Leavitt

    Dr. Veith, agreed. Christianity at its best is about both reason and mystery. Post-Modernism, beyond Eliot’s criticism of Enlightenment and Romantic modernism, is about at best relativism and at worst nihilism. Your book, Postmodern Times: A Christian Guide to Contemporary Thought and Culture helped me to understand this.

  • fws

    Veith @ 2,3

    Very interesting Dr.

    I grew up in the upper midwest as a WELS lutheran in an area that had alot of volga german lutherans with strong roots in their unique brand of pietism. I noticed that there was a certain conceit there that EVERYthing could be learned from books, if only you could read enough and the right ones. This resulted in people thinking they could lecture a young black man about what it is like to be young and black. Experiential knowledge was heavily discounted, and emotional experience was looked at with alot of suspicion.

    Then I moved to california. One was not considered qualified to comment on anything unless one had personal experiences. experience and feelings seemed to trump any other form of learning or knowledge or even truth.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts Dr Veith on what strains of all this you see lifelong lutherans being most likely to be infected by? since you were not born Lutheran, you probably have a keen perspective here. Do Lutherans tend to be overly… what…? rational, emotional, experiential?

    I often feel Lutherans drop out of Lutheranism for another church or no church because they sense some imbalance in their experience as a Lutheran. any validity to this?

    if you see an common Lutheran imbalance here, what would we encourage one another to do to overcome this?

    thanks!

  • fws

    Veith @ 2,3

    Very interesting Dr.

    I grew up in the upper midwest as a WELS lutheran in an area that had alot of volga german lutherans with strong roots in their unique brand of pietism. I noticed that there was a certain conceit there that EVERYthing could be learned from books, if only you could read enough and the right ones. This resulted in people thinking they could lecture a young black man about what it is like to be young and black. Experiential knowledge was heavily discounted, and emotional experience was looked at with alot of suspicion.

    Then I moved to california. One was not considered qualified to comment on anything unless one had personal experiences. experience and feelings seemed to trump any other form of learning or knowledge or even truth.

    I would be interested to hear your thoughts Dr Veith on what strains of all this you see lifelong lutherans being most likely to be infected by? since you were not born Lutheran, you probably have a keen perspective here. Do Lutherans tend to be overly… what…? rational, emotional, experiential?

    I often feel Lutherans drop out of Lutheranism for another church or no church because they sense some imbalance in their experience as a Lutheran. any validity to this?

    if you see an common Lutheran imbalance here, what would we encourage one another to do to overcome this?

    thanks!

  • N Jarrell

    Not to draw to fine of a line on it (those English teachers…) This from http://www.adherents.com/people/pe/TS_Eliot.html
    “T.S. Eliot identified himself as an “Anglo-Catholic” (i.e., an Anglican that emphasizes continuity with Catholic tradition).

    From “Eliot, T.S.” Britannica Student Encyclopedia. 2005. Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service (URL: http://www.britannica.com/ebi/article?tocId=9274157; viewed 25 June 2005):

    “I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics.” T.S. Eliot so defined, and even exaggerated, his own conservatism. The ideas of this stimulating writer were perhaps traditional, but the way in which he expressed them was extremely modern. Eliot was one of the first to reject conventional verse forms and language.

    For further reference, read about T.S. Eliot’s belief in God in Part II: Chapter 28 of Tihomir Dimitrov’s book 50 Nobel Laureates and Other Great Scientists Who Believe in God (2007), (http://nobelists.net/; viewed 19 April 2007).

    Cheers (and hi to Frank!)

    Nancy J

  • N Jarrell

    Not to draw to fine of a line on it (those English teachers…) This from http://www.adherents.com/people/pe/TS_Eliot.html
    “T.S. Eliot identified himself as an “Anglo-Catholic” (i.e., an Anglican that emphasizes continuity with Catholic tradition).

    From “Eliot, T.S.” Britannica Student Encyclopedia. 2005. Encyclopedia Britannica Premium Service (URL: http://www.britannica.com/ebi/article?tocId=9274157; viewed 25 June 2005):

    “I am an Anglo-Catholic in religion, a classicist in literature, and a royalist in politics.” T.S. Eliot so defined, and even exaggerated, his own conservatism. The ideas of this stimulating writer were perhaps traditional, but the way in which he expressed them was extremely modern. Eliot was one of the first to reject conventional verse forms and language.

    For further reference, read about T.S. Eliot’s belief in God in Part II: Chapter 28 of Tihomir Dimitrov’s book 50 Nobel Laureates and Other Great Scientists Who Believe in God (2007), (http://nobelists.net/; viewed 19 April 2007).

    Cheers (and hi to Frank!)

    Nancy J

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    fws, I’m not sure what I think about this. I would say that, coming from the outside, I have found Lutherans to be INTENSE.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    fws, I’m not sure what I think about this. I would say that, coming from the outside, I have found Lutherans to be INTENSE.

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