This is the day the Church puts on ashes to make the beginning of our great season of penitence. Traditionally, this sign of penitence is heralded with the proclamation: Memento, homo, quia pulvis est, et in pulverem reverteris (“Remember, O man, that thou art dust, and unto dust thou shalt return.”).
Sober words for a sober season.
TS Eliot’s Ash Wednesday is sometimes called his “conversion poem”–it was written a few years after Eliot joined the Anglican communion–and sometimes read as a poem of renunciation, a paean to Christian asceticism. Still others see in the verse more of Bradley’s Idealism–on which Eliot wrote his doctoral dissertation–than Christian tradition. Eliot himself was notoriously unhelpful in clarifying his words. When asked what he meant by the line “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree” he replied “I meant ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree.’”
As Eliot recklessly left himself open to every interpretation under the sun, I have long aspired to as add my own to the pile, and someday, when all my other responsibilities and projects magically resolve themselves, I shall write a book (or at the very least a substantial essay) on Ash Wednesday as a work of ecclesiology, specifically a meditation on the mediacy of the Church in conversion and penitence. This is what the title points to. No mention of Ash Wednesday itself occurs in the poem itself, but Ash Wednesday is so-called with respect to the liturgy of the Church, the imposition of ashes. The title points the way, and echoes the pronouncement that we are dust unto dust.
Perhaps the most well known lines from Ash Wednesday, apart from “Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree,” are the opening:
Because I do not hope to turn again Because I do not hope Because I do not hope to turn
These words recur at the outset of the final section with “Because” replaced by “Although”, contrasting a state where the penitent is stymied because of lack of hope and one where he is borne forward despite his own deficiencies.
The other motif is a plea, repeated verbatim in the first and last sections:
Teach us to care and not to care Teach us to sit still
But it is set differently in the verse. Unlike the first motif, which is changed so subtly one could mistake it for straight repetition, the second motif is set so differently one might miss the repetition altogether.