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TS Eliot's Ash Wednesday a call to spiritual awareness that falls short | Roz Kaveney

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As with Dante, this is a poem in which the visions of hell are stronger than the visions of heaven

Among the first fruits of TS Eliot's conversion were the first three parts of the poem that he ended up calling Ash Wednesday and that, accordingly, we think of, not wholly inaccurately, as an essentially liturgical piece. Ash Wednesday is after all a set of rituals and prayers that Anglicanism ended up transferring across from Catholicism essentially unaltered. For a high Anglican like Eliot it was perhaps especially important that Protestants such as Thomas Cranmer tried to remove them and failed. The liturgy is a reminder of mortality and a call to repentance both individual and collective; the poem does these things, but also creates, in its later sections, an idealised medieval landscape, a jewelled pictorial Book of Hours to contemplate as well as pray over.

Yet that is not all that is going on here. When the poem was first published as a whole in 1930, it was dedicated to Vivienne, from whom he was increasingly estranged but not yet formally separated. Eliot had chosen as his spiritual adviser a clergyman who, after hearing his confession, agreed that he should probably end the marriage it's worth remembering that for Eliot, who never tried to divorce Vivienne, this meant, because he took these issues seriously, a choice of celibacy. This is perhaps not entirely surprising given how he had written of the sexual life in The Waste Land and in Sweeney Agonistes; his misogyny meant that he blamed and went on blaming Vivienne. (When he appeared as the murderer Crippen for fancy dress, she went as his cross-dressed mistress and accomplice, not his wife and victim.)

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