A Poem from Despair to Hope: T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”

I was introduced to T. S. Eliot in high school through a short excerpt in our required anthology. I think everyone else hated the entire unit, but I was hooked. The timing could not have been anything but divine. I had recently come to faith in Christ and was processing my sudden, unexpected, still-shocking-to-myself conversion. I started reading everything I could by him and was completely captured by his “Four Quartets.” He was writing in poetic verse what I had been experiencing but unable to voice.

Many decades later, I still find great solace in Eliot’s poetry. Every year on Ash Wednesday while others are getting ashes on their head, I am drawn to reread his poem, “Ash Wednesday,” written back in 1930. The first reading always leaves me befuddled. The second is the same. By the third, I start catching glimpses of the beauty contained therein.

Despair & Emptiness

If ever there were a poet for our despairing, God-haunted time, T.S. Eliot would be the man. With an entire generation, he saw the empty promises of progress theory go up in the trench smoke of World War I. It seems that soldiers were not the only ones to experience shell-shock; rather, an entire culture stared blankly at what was left after such a chilling experience.

“Ash Wednesday” is structured in six sections, moving from utter despair to the beginnings of hope.

Towards the end of the first section, Eliot writes:

“I renounce the blessed face
And renounce the voice
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice.”

He has renounced the faith, yet that leaves him nothing upon which to stand. Even when he wants to rejoice, he has to build something upon which to rejoice. This is our modern age which is marked by so much talk of hope and unity and progress but has no foundation upon which to build upon.

We have been reduced to sending positive vibes to people, hoping in our weak words to manifest realities. We speak of endless possibility but are utterly swimming in inadequacies. We scream about heights but are barely treading water in the seas of our shame.

If Eliot and some of his post-first-world-war cronies could find faith, I find such great hope for our generation. Having been raised in a vacuum of truth and having beed fed a steady diet of self-help, our generation is poised to hunger for the solid truth of a Sovereign God.

Hope of Fullness

By the third section of the poem, we feel a subtle shift. The poet has not only named the Lord but called out for His word:

“Lord, I am not worthy
Lord, I am not worthy
But speak the word only.”

In section five, the poet plays with the logos of John 1. He realizes that even if we refuse to hear him, the Word of God remains and speaks:

“Where shall the word be found, where the Word
Resound? Noe here, there is not enough silence…
No place of grace for those who avoid the face
No time to rejoice for those who walk
Among noise and deny the voice.”

By the end of the sixth section, the poet has moved toward hope, believing that God will hear his cry. He has moved from separation from God to vocalizing a desire to never be separated from him again.

“Teach us to care and not to care
Teach us to sit still
Even among these rocks,
Our peace in His will….
Suffer me not to be separated

And let my cry come unto thee.”

God is not far off from those who feel far off from Him (Isaiah 43: 6-7). Though he dwells in a high and holy place, he also domiciles with those who are lowly and contrite (Isaiah 57:15). The same Word of God which spoke creation into existence can re-create souls who seek him. He is full of grace and truth (John 1:14). God came to seek and to save the lost (Luke 19:10).

These are the truths that an entire generation needs to hear. Isolated, empty, and failed by self-help, the coming generations are primed to hear the truth that changed T.S. Eliot and still changes the despairing today.

The stage is set. It is time to speak.

3 thoughts on “A Poem from Despair to Hope: T. S. Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday”

  1. Michele Morin

    I have been telling myself that I need to read Eliot’s work for ages, and then shying away from it, convinced that it will be inscrutable to me. Thanks for this reassurance that it’s something I NEED to read!


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