Remember, O Man, that you are dust

And He said unto me, Son of man, can these bones live 
And I answered, O Lord God, thou knowest... Ezekiel 37:3

Note: [click for larger image] as always, the details in Dore are astonishing: the skeleton on the left pushing the coffin up, the incarnating forms as the eye travels up to Ezekiel, the riveting skeleton on the right with arms raised, seeming not to be agonizing with incarnation but rejoicing in it, one imagines the skull at lower center to start rising out of the ground, bones gathering together underneath.

The poetry of T. S. Eliot has shaped my development perhaps more than any other. I remember being a sophomore in high school, studying in the library, a friend throwing down a copy of The Waste Land upon the table with frustration, saying that it would take a genius to understand it. Why, I asked. It's just really difficult, they replied, significantly adding, everyone knows it means something, but Eliot made it difficult to figure out what exactly that is. My friend continued, he even added footnotes because no one could figure it out. I was intrigued. I wondered why a poet would make something intentionally difficult. 

At the time, I knew of basically two types of poetry: Shakespeare and everything else. With Shakespeare, the difficulty - as I sophomorically conceived it - was in the language being dated, "old." To figure out Shakespeare's poetry, you just had to look all the strange words up in the dictionary, learn about Elizabethan customs. But he was not deliberately trying to be difficult or obscure. That was just the way people talked and wrote back then. (I had much to learn.) What other poetry I knew was mostly comprised of Poe, Frost and Dickinson.

Every high school sophomore would like to think themselves a genius, so I started in on The Waste Land. I quickly came to the realization that by this standard, I was no genius. Nevertheless, I determined myself to read it through to the end. I tried reading it out loud, under my breath, and this opened up the meter for me, being able to listen for hints of meaning. (I have never stopped this practice of reading poetry "out loud to myself.") Images and ideas piled on top of each other, like photographs in a drawer. By the time I reached the dialogue in the Game of Chess section, I could discern flashes of meaning beneath the surface. Enough to hook me. Enough to change my life. Not long after, I was deep into reading Weston's Ritual to Romance, Campbell's The Hero With a Thousand Faces and Jung's Man and His Symbols. The Waste Land started to make a great deal of sense to me. Took me a few years and a lot of hard work until I could say that I finally "understood" The Waste Land. So much for my genius. And I should add that it was about ten years later, sitting on a bench in Hyde Park in London, alone and in love with that city, that the poem surrendered completely, unforgettably, to me.

Of course, during my agonies with The Waste Land, I read the rest of Eliot: The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock, The Hollow Men, Gerontion, Journey of the Magi, the masterpiece, The Four Quartets. Also Ash Wednesday.

The poem was written in 1927, his first work since his conversion Anglicism. Eliot stayed deep in the shadows of Dante all his life. And it is through the reflected radiance of the Commedia that you can best discern the momentous Purgatorial Turnings glowing between the lines of Ash Wednesday. This is a poem about conversion and redemption. Eliot is turning away from the old life, from the muted apostasies of Gerontion (1920):

Signs are taken for wonders. “We would see a sign!”
The word within a word, unable to speak a word,
Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year
Came Christ the tiger
In depraved May, dogwood and chestnut, flowering judas,
To be eaten, to be divided, to be drunk
Among whispers

from the bleak quips of prediction in the Hollow Men (1925):

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

towards an authentic petition for redemption:

Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.

into a genuine religious longing, "even among these rocks":

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

In the Dantean cosmology, those who suffered in the Inferno had no hope of Purgatory. None but Dante and Virgil had ever traveled to the absolute nadir of that Hell and moved on, and up, into Purgatory. There are few inventions in the history of the written word that show greater audacity, of creative transgression, than Dante's recounting of this journey out of the Inferno. Dante created a Cosmos that verges upon being more substantial than our own. He mapped out the Christian World of the Soul. To this day, many understand the afterlife as according to Dante. To do this, he allowed himself, as the living author to transgress Divine Law. Dante wrote himself a way out of Hell. It's beautful. One of the first on a series of literary coup de graces to God.

Dante's intention was to set up a moral allegory: that the "lost souls" of the living still have hope. Turn your life around. Release yourself from the bindings of sin and begin the Purgatorial ascent up to the Divine.

Here is Eliot on the matter:

Ash Wednesday by T. S. Eliot


Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive towards such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

Because I do not hope to know
The infirm glory of the positive hour
Because I do not think
Because I know I shall not know
The one veritable transitory power
Because I cannot drink
There, where trees flower, and springs flow, for there is
nothing again

Because I know that time is always time
And place is always and only place
And what is actual is actual only for one time
And only for one place
I rejoice that things are as they are and
I renounce the blessèd face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain
Because I do not hope to turn again
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.

Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.


Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to sateity
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honours the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.
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 chirping
With the burden of the grasshopper, saying

Lady of silences
Calm and distressed
Torn and most whole
Rose of memory
Rose of forgetfulness
Exhausted and life-giving
Worried reposeful
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
End of the endless
Journey to no end
Conclusion of all that
Is inconclusible
Speech without word and
Word of no speech
Grace to the Mother
For the Garden
Where all love ends.

Under a juniper-tree the bones sang, scattered and shining
We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other,
Under a tree in the cool of day, with the blessing of sand,
Forgetting themselves and each other, united
In the quiet of the desert. This is the land which ye
Shall divide by lot. And neither division nor unity
Matters. This is the land. We have our inheritance.


At the first turning of the second stair
I turned and saw below
The same shape twisted on the banister
Under the vapour in the fetid air
Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitul face of hope and of despair.

At the second turning of the second stair
I left them twisting, turning below;
There were no more faces and the stair was dark,
Damp, jaggèd, like an old man's mouth driveling, beyond repair,
Or the toothed gullet of an agèd shark.

At the first turning of the third stair
Was a slotted window bellied like the figs's fruit
And beyond the hawthorn blossom and a pasture scene
The broadbacked figure drest in blue and green
Enchanted the maytime with an antique flute.
Blown hair is sweet, brown hair over the mouth blown,
Lilac and brown hair;
Distraction, music of the flute, stops and steps of the mind
over the third stair,
Fading, fading; strength beyond hope and despair
Climbing the third stair.

Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy

but speak the word only.


Who walked between the violet and the violet
Who walked between
The various ranks of varied green
Going in white and blue, in Mary's colour,
Talking of trivial things
In ignorance and knowledge of eternal dolour
Who moved among the others as they walked,
Who then made strong the fountains and made fresh the springs

Made cool the dry rock and made firm the sand
In blue of larkspur, blue of Mary's colour,
Sovegna vos

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
While jewelled unicorns draw by the gilded hearse.

The silent sister veiled in white and blue
Between the yews, behind the garden god,
Whose flute is breathless, bent her head and signed but spoke no word

But the fountain sprang up and the bird sang down
Redeem the time, redeem the dream
The token of the word unheard, unspoken

Till the wind shake a thousand whispers from the yew

And after this our exile


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.


Although I do not hope to turn again
Although I do not hope
Although I do not hope to turn

Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
(Bless me father) though I do not wish to wish these things
From the wide window towards the granite shore
The white sails still fly seaward, seaward flying
Unbroken wings

And the lost heart stiffens and rejoices
In the lost lilac and the lost sea voices
And the weak spirit quickens to rebel
For the bent golden-rod and the lost sea smell
Quickens to recover
The cry of quail and the whirling plover
And the blind eye creates
The empty forms between the ivory gates
And smell renews the salt savour of the sandy earth

This is the time of tension between dying and birth
The place of solitude where three dreams cross
Between blue rocks
But when the voices shaken from the yew-tree drift away
Let the other yew be shaken and reply.

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.