Eliot’s “Ash-Wednesday,” a monumental work—the Purgatorio between the Inferno of “The Waste-land” and the Paradiso of the “Four Quartets”—has always been, as long as I can remember in my adult life, a comfort and a mystery to me.
I assume it remained as such even to the Great Bard of the Twentieth Century himself.
Stephen Spender, one of Eliot’s friends, remembers a student asking Eliot, after a group of Roman Catholics had studied the poem with Father Martin D’Arcy, “please, sir, what do you mean by the line; ‘Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper tree’”? To which Eliot somewhat frustratingly replied, “I mean, ‘Lady, three white leopard sat under a juniper tree.’”
Is it enough to know that the Lady, surrounded by the white leopards, “honours the Virgin in meditation,” allowing those around her to “shine with brightness”?
Perhaps, and perhaps not. A mystery it remains. Oh, Thomas, what were you thinking?
Regardless, it would be difficult to dismiss the penetrating intelligence and Imagist brilliance of Eliot’s 1930 poem, “Ash Wednesday.”
I will be the first—and perhaps the last, one never knows the future, as my sagacious grandmother reminded me frequently—to admit that I have allowed the more mysterious parts of Eliot’s “Ash Wednesday” to distract me from the essence, purpose, and meaning of the poem.
But, a close read reveals much about Eliot’s intentions with the purgatorial poem, a turn toward all that is Good, True, and Beautiful. As with all modernists, even (and, perhaps, especially) the Imagists, Eliot offered a sacramental vision of time and place.
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. . . .