L. Michelle Baker

Eliot Presentation

20 September 2005

Locating the Turn:  Conversion as an Objective Correlative in Eliot’s Ash Wednesday

Ash Wednesday has long been read, rightly, as a conversion poem.  Its very title evokes a time of contemplation and humility.  Reference works describe it as a “religious meditation” which “celebrates the turning point in Eliot’s life” (Enc. Britannica, DLB—American Poets).  The poem’s narrative persona entreats some unknown entity to “Pray for us sinners now and at the hour of our death” and wonders if the “veiled sister” will intercede for an unidentified “those.”  Empirical evidence including letters by the author and testimony from friends confirms that T. S. Eliot composed the work within a period of what Derek Traversi describes as “recollection and stock-taking” in his life during which he was baptized in the Anglican church.  Eliot himself, even while railing against assumptions that religious conviction makes for bad poetry, never claims his autonomy from the narrator, despite critical assertions that Ash Wednesday’s spiritual overtones would alienate Eliot’s readers and perhaps end his career.  Granville Hicks goes so far as to state, “Mr. Eliot’s principles seem to be strangling his poetic gifts:  he can now speak neither as a poet of faith nor as a poet of doubt.”  Even sympathetic readers such as R.P. Blackmur and Herbert Read claim that the poem’s “moralistic” tone interferes with its poetic “immediacy” substituting what D.S. Savage calls a “contemplative abstraction for the evocative imagery” of his earlier works.

            Doubtless these critics have salient points, but our present purpose is not to discuss the merits of such a position.  Instead, let us examine what is meant by conversion; let us define the experience Eliot is attempting to convey.  The Oxford English Dictionary tells us that the most general definition of the term is a "change of condition or function" and it is most commonly used to describe a "turning in position, direction [or] distinction."  Theologians specify that such a turn is "a spiritual change from sinfulness, ungodliness, or worldliness to love of God and pursuit of holiness."  Like Ash Wednesday itself, a poem that was composed and published in six discrete segments over three years, conversion is a process.  The true penitent soon discovers that a single turn is insufficient.  Daily, hourly, the decision to convert must be reaffirmed.

            The process of conversion is both temporal and spatial.  Conversion necessitates a continual rejection of the past, but does not allow fixation on the future.  To do so would be to ignore man’s present responsibility.  Instead, the convert must learn to reconcile his present experience with future hope.  As he does so, the believer discovers an accommodating space within God's grace and a community of believers--a place to which he belongs.  As the process continues, this never-ending turn leads to the stillness of paradox that a life in the world but not of the world necessitates.  Converts eventually learn to say:  "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still."

            This paradox, expressed in Eliot's poem, has been described as humility by many of the poem’s critics and interpreted in strictly spiritual terms.  But rarely does a poem operate on one plane of meaning alone.  John Kwan-Terry appears to agree with the majority opinion when he states that Ash Wednesday is "widely regarded as Eliot's 'conversion' poem," but the critic also challenges us to explore what the narrator is turning from and what the reader is exhorted to turn to.  I would like to suggest that Eliot employs the imagery of the conversion process as an "objective correlative" for the poet's reconciliation to the weight of literary tradition.  Some may argue, as R.P. Blackmur has, that Eliot's Christian images are too difficult for the modern reader to comprehend, but would it not be even more difficult to create the same sense of paralysis and indecision using strictly literary allusion?  Spiritual anxiety, even in the contemporary culture is far more common than concern over the inability to create.  While religious conversion may not be a truly universal experience, it is certainly more so than that which Harold Bloom has dubbed the "anxiety of influence.”

Religious conversion is an appropriate correlative in part because of the strong ties between literature and religion.  Both attempt to define the world and our place in it using intuitive and emotional processes rather than rational or empirical ones.  Eliot's great insight is that, like spiritual conversion, literary creativity resides in a process of turning, from the past of great literature to a reconciliation of present ability and future possibility, thus achieving a moment of stillness.  Northrop Frye has described this tendency rather lucidly:  "The function of art, for Eliot, [..] should be to get beyond itself, pointing to its superior reality with such urgency and clarity that it disappears in that reality" (19 Myth & Symbol).  Composition, or inspiration, is only to be found in the stillness, and only by those who walk between.  But what is meant by these esoteric and enigmatic phrases?  How does a poet discover “stillness” or “walk between”?  To answer that question, let us turn our attention to an early, but astute work of literary criticism.

In Aristotle's Ethics the philosopher claims that the highest good to which man can attain is that which is possible.  In his Poetics, he relies upon this logic to suggest that literature is valuable because it presents a possibility within a world of actuality.  The work's enigmas or symbols require interpretation by the reader, instituting an interactive relationship between the author and the audience.  This stream of possibilities in classical times was potentially endless, and so it remained until the advent of the periodical and the widespread literary criticism it codified.  The fixing of critical interpretations makes of literature an actuality and robs it of its potential timelessness.  The author of Ash Wednesday agrees that fixity is deadening, stating "what is actual is actual only for one time / And only for one place," but he still finds reason to "rejoice, having to construct something / Upon which to rejoice,” because Eliot has discovered the means to return to the immortality of possibility.

Eliot escapes the deadening world of fixity by defining and entering the between in a variety of ways.  One way he does so is through the use of setting.  The space of the poem, “a desert in the garden and the garden in the desert” is everywhere and nowhere--a sort of constant between. Both Derek Traversi and John Kwan-Terry have noted that the poet also escapes from temporal concerns.  Traversi says in his analysis of the poem, "what was born in time, time necessarily and inevitably destroys" and this realization by the poet leads "to a renunciation of the finality of all merely time-based consolations" (69).  Renunciation may be too strong a word, however, for what Kwan-Terry describes as unity:  "to unify is to incorporate and to transmute, to make what was other our own, and so to get free again of the world of timebound phenomena" (132).  Thematically, the poet turns knowledge into hope and thus discovers stillness within the tension of creativity.  The poet incorporates the voices of biblical prophets and other authors in an effort to remove them from the fixity of the actual.  He employs fragmented syntactic and poetic structures.  He forces his reader to the middle via paradox, and he maintains his poetry within the status of becoming by emphasizing the indigestible, that which cannot be interpreted. 

Traversi informs us that the poet has instituted a contract between knowing and hoping.  The poem's first segment turns in its initial phrase from "because I do not hope" to "Because I know" and then back to "Because I cannot hope."  The contract is an uneasy one in section I; the poet turns from one to the other, suggesting according to Traversi, "the need to renounce hope, in so far as this represents a premature, a limiting, process of belief" (80).  This change implies a change in temporal focus.  Knowledge is based on experience or learning and is rooted in the past.  Hope turns to the future, and like faith, is distinguishable from knowledge precisely because of its uncertain nature.  The last section of the poem begins much as the first one had, but like John's substitution of logos for Elohim, the poet's replacement of “because” with “although” makes an enormous difference.  Again, Traversi:  "Here, in spite of and beyond this renunciation, which has made possible a return to the sources of life, the desire to live survives" (80).  The "although" renounces hope while reconciling present experience, the poet's "return to the sources of life," with positive future action.  While the poet "waver"s between worlds, at the center of his turn, the location from which he does not "hope to turn again," all that is lost becomes rejuvenated, turning again to the sources of life.  In this "time of tension between dying and birth," at this moment of stillness within the turn, the experiencing subject renews and creates the world of experience.  It is the "blind eye" that "create"s "the empty forms between the ivory gates" and the "smell" that "renew"s "the salt savour of the sandy earth."  The reconciliation of the actual with the possible allows a place wherein the process of becoming can occur. 

These turns--between “knowing” and “hoping,” between “because” and “although”--have the paradoxical effect of creating moments of calm.  The poet terms this "stillness" although it occurs at the very center of the whirlwind.  The phenomena is not new, given that we’ve recently seen it again in the Gulf Coast.  At the very moment of the turn, outside of its dizzying and disorienting action, outside too of time and space, the positivity of the actual is negated.  Throughout Ash Wednesday's many turns, the poet attempts to recreate that moment for his reader, but nowhere does he do so with such precision and grace as in the beginning of section V.  These nine lines, divided with strong end-stops into segments of three lines each, represent a linguistic formula for three to the third power, and are thus the perfection of perfection, Eliot's hymn of praise to possibility.  Eliot here displays what Frye describes as the "technique of repetition of sound representing concentration on a single idea" (39).  The idea on which the poet is concentrating is without a doubt the Word, the poet's creative medium; but it is the non-existent word, the word yet to be.  The word is either unspoken because it has not yet been created, or it is unheard because it has not yet been spoken.  It exists only in the process of becoming.  It is therefore in tension against the “unstilled” or moving World, creating the still centre about which such a world may converse. 

The poet, however, remains aware that some words have been spoken, heard, or spent, and these he incorporates into the body of the poem, continuing in Ash Wednesday his technique of allusion by aligning himself with various prophets.  It was David who begged the Lord to "teach us to sit still" as the poet states in section I, and the valley of dry bones in section II reminds us of Ezekiel.  The anxiety of the phrase "Lord, I am not worthy" found in section III belongs to Moses who feared his own faltering tongue, and it was Jesus who lamented "O my people what have I done unto thee?"  Derek Traversi feels that the words of the prophets negate any expression of the personal voice, that the two exist only in conflict with one another, and that when the poet does find his own voice, "the cost of the new vision […] is the forgetting of the old" (62).  While this forgetting is part of the poet's fear, and anxiety, the poem's conclusion suggests a return to creativity within the process of assimilation.  By lifting lines from previous authors, Eliot removes their writings from the fixity of the actual and creates for them a moment of possibility from which new meaning can be gleaned.  The old becomes new when put into a different context.  Eliot had claimed in “Tradition and the Individual Talent” that “no poet, no artist of any art, has his complete meaning alone.”  “Not only the best, but the most individual parts of [a poet’s] work may be those in which the dead poets, his ancestors, assert their immortality most vigorously” (33.)  In Ash Wednesday, he finally learns how to make this critical assessment a poetic reality.

The cost of the new vision is more likely to be the indigestibility of segments of the poem, both its unexplained allusions and its uncertain, seemingly non-rational symbols and structures.  According to Herbert Read, Eliot felt that “the habit of rationalization sustains the mystic, but it is a deadly habit in the poet” (31).  I find the word “deadly” rather telling in this context, since within Ash Wednesday, the anxiety of discovering truths outside of rational processes manifests itself in the violent metaphor of the leopards and the human body parts.  The leopards in Ash Wednesday have frequently been interpreted as guardians of either the Lady or the bones; however, given the poem’s Christian overtones, their biblical interpretation must be taken into account, and leopards are referred to only once in the Bible as observers or watchers (Hosea 13:17).  Other critics, such as Grover Smith, have used the biblical connotations of the leopard as Dante did in The Divine Comedy to suggest that “being predatory, the leopards may well signify the world, the flesh, and the devil” (144).  Leopards are most often portrayed in the Bible as agents of destruction and fear, comparable to the wolf and the lion (see Isaiah 11:16, Jeremiah 5:6, 13:23, Habakkuk 1:8 and Revelation 13:2).  Eliot may be combining these negative associations with Daniel’s image of the leopard, wherein the animal is one of the four beasts that helps God exact his righteous judgment (Daniel 7:6).  Regardless, a literary interpretation of these spiritual images might make the leopards representatives of contemporary literary critics.  The devoured body would therefore refer not to the sinful ways of the flesh that must be renounced for salvation, but to the way in which critics have consumed and digested literary works.  The leopards, or critics, devour the body of an artist’s texts, leaving only the bones to carry forward to the next generation. 

Eliot vividly describes how the leopards have “fed to satiety / On [his] legs [his] heart [his] liver and that which had been contained / In the hollow round of [his] skull.”  But he hopes that by “proffer[ing his] deed to oblivion” his “guts the strings of [his] eyes and the indigestible portions / Which the leopards reject” might be “recover”ed.  The poet seems to imply that it is only those most obscure portions of his work, the allusions, paradoxes, and fragments which the critics cannot comprehend, that remain to sing to future generations, chirping.  The critics leave only the “guts,” the indigestible portions of the texts, for posterity, who must then recover the poem in its process of becoming, before its meaning is fixed.  Eliot’s attempts to be elusive and erudite, to put the most sinewy language possible into his texts, are not therefore an effort to escape from the masses and identify himself with the cultural elite, as critics such as Harold Laski might have us believe (37).  Instead, these are efforts to make the bulk of his work as stringy and indigestible as possible, so that the poem may be left for immortality, in the hope that the bones may be reassembled to sing again.

Has he succeeded, or have our interpretive efforts fixed him, and failed him?  Perhaps the answer to that question is not to be found in any work of literary criticism, but in poetry itself.  W. H. Auden, a man whom many believe to be Eliot’s successor, continues Eliot’s metaphor in his famous elegy, “In Memory of W. B. Yeats” saying there “the words of a dead man / Are modified in the guts of the living.”  He thereby expresses his hope that even the process of digestion, or literary interpretation, is a creative one through which new possibilities are born.  Later in his career in a poem entitled “Spring 1940” Auden claims “for however they dream they are scattered / Our bones cannot help reassembling themselves / Into the philosophic city where dwells / The knowledge they cannot get out of.”  It may be for future generations to decide whether the reassembling of the bones is a boon or a bane—an actuality or a possibility.