The Grateful Christian

Essays, opinions, and works-in-progress by a conservative Lutheran pastor.

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Location: West Michigan, United States

In order of importance, I am a: Husband, father, pastor, hobby programmer, writer. Thoughts are but coins. Let me not trust instead
Of Thee, their thin-worn image of Thy head.

--C.S.Lewis, The Apologist's Evening Prayer

Tuesday, March 22, 2011

Eliot's Ash-Wednesday, part II

II
Lady, three white leopards sat under a juniper-tree
In the cool of the day, having fed to satiety
On my legs my heart my liver and that which had been contained
In the hollow round of my skull. And God said
Shall these bones live? shall these
Bones live? And that which had been contained
In the bones (which were already dry) said chirping:
Because of the goodness of this Lady
And because of her loveliness, and because
She honors the Virgin in meditation,
We shine with brightness. And I who am here dissembled
Proffer my deeds to oblivion, and my love
To the posterity of the desert and the fruit of the gourd.
It is this which recovers
My guts the strings of my eyes and the indigestible portions
Which the leopards reject. The Lady is withdrawn
In a white gown, in contemplation, in a white gown.
Let the whiteness of bones atone to forgetfulness.
(The rest of the poem can be found here.) I’m having trouble with this second part. One of my troubles is I want to identify the symbol of the Lady in white (the Church?). Another is that I want to check and see if “I who am here dissembled” shouldn’t read “disassembled.” But the biggest trouble is that I am bothered by a bit of cognitive dissonance.
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I.e.: part II reminds me of Charles Williams’ “Palomides Before His Christening,” which appeared in Taliessin Through Logres (1938). I’ve spent far more time with Williams’ Arthuriad poetry (and C. S. Lewis’ instruction thereon) than with anything by T. S. Eliot. And Lewis himself acknowledges the similarity and remarks in chapter five of Williams And The Arthuriad:

"Here, and here alone, Williams approaches the temper of Mr. Eliot’s later poetry. The dry rock scenery, the artfully prosaic sentences, the sense of a vast pause, a vacuity, which may be the prelude either to conversion or despair, all remind us of the other poet. There is even an echo of Mr. Eliot’s manner in the lines
The Chi-Rho is only a scratching like other scratchings,
But in the turn of the sky the only scratching.
The borrowing seems to me to be ill-judged. No two great poetic styles are less likely to mix fruitfully than those of Williams and Mr. Eliot."

So there. But I'll take a stab at some thoughts anyway.

Whiteness, like an empty page. White-gowned Lady, white leopards, whiteness of bones. The blank of forgetfulness. Perhaps a naking of oneself, in order to prepare to be clothed. Perhaps it's the sitting still, forced upon one by the feeding leopards. Later Eliot has the bones say
The single Rose
Is now the Garden
Where all loves end
Terminate torment
Of love unsatisfied
The greater torment
Of love satisfied
Our lesser loves must, in a sense, die in order for God Who Is Love to take His rightful place in our lives. Perhaps, Eliot would have prayed like Lewis, said in the prayer I quote in the bannerhead above, "From all my thoughts, even from my thoughts of Thee, / O thou fair Silence, fall, and set me free."

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