Ashwednesday

Dante and Lancelot Andrewes provide the main sources for 'Ash-Wednesday' (1930), traditionally read as Eliot's conversion poem. Drawing on Dante's Vita Nuova (c. 1292—1294), a volume of poetry Eliot considered 'antiromantic' in its refusal 'to expect more from life than it can give or more from human beings than they can give', 'Ash-Wednesday' describes the speaker's struggle to turn away from human desires and ambitions towards a spiritual life, caught in 'the time of tension between dying and birth / The place of solitude' (1980: 275; 1969a: 98). The dominant motif of the poem, the 'turn' to God and away from the world, is taken from Andrewes's 1619 Ash-Wednesday sermon on a Biblical text: 'Therefore also, now (saith the Lord); Turne you unto Me' (Moody 1980: 137). The discipline and austerity of the religious life is conveyed by the tightly controlled style and simple vocabulary: key phrases and images are repeated and patterned throughout the poem (such as the phrase 'I do not hope to turn again' in the first and final sections, and the oppositions between rocks and trees throughout). Eliot had been refining this mature style in earlier poems, 'The Hollow Men' (1925) and the first Ariel poems, 'The Journey of the Magi', 'A Song for Simeon' and 'Animula' (1927—1929), and it is a marked departure from the style of The Waste Land. Where The Waste Land was characterized by the fragmented images and dissonant rhythms of modern life, 'Ash-Wednesday' conveys the unity and order of religious liturgy.

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