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

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 The Lady is withdrawn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.
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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Monday, March 14, 2011

Eliot's Ash-Wednesday, part I



Because I do not hope to turn again
Because I do not hope
Because I do not hope to turn
Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope
I no longer strive to strive toward such things
(Why should the agèd eagle stretch its wings?)
Why should I mourn
The vanished power of the usual reign?

T. S. Eliot's big poem is my poetry meditation this Lent. (Something about this season makes me want to access my inner poet.) I know pretty much nothing about Mr. Eliot, except that I like this poem. And it just happens that it has six parts, so for an exercise I am going to comment on one part a week.
Read more...A caveat: this isn't going to be some deep, high-powered commentary or critique. I'm just going to offer some personal reactions. Hey, I'm on dialup here.

"Desiring this man's gift and that man's scope"--this is a quote, of course, from Shakespeare's Sonnet 29, the only Shakespeare I have almost memorized. The Bard finds relief from his self-despite by thinking of some Beloved (human, not divine, it would seem): "Haply, I think on thee..." "thy sweet love remembered brings such wealth brings"--but for Eliot, it's not going to be that easy.

This first installment of his long poem seems to be about negation. The only "positive" thing is perhaps ironic: "I rejoice that things are as they are / And I renounce the blessèd face / And renounce the voice" from which he goes on to say:
Because I cannot hope to turn again
Consequently I rejoice, having to construct something
Upon which to rejoice

And pray to God to have mercy upon us
And pray that I may forget
These matters that with myself I too much discuss
Too much explain

The construction of something upon which to rejoice--his poverty forces him to rejoice in his negations, but stops short of falling into the power of Nothing as Screwtape wrote to Wormwood in Screwtape Letter #12. He does so by prayer, or at least, by words about prayer.

The prayers described are well known to me. It's the only antidote to the condition I sometimes find myself in, "too much in my own head." God have mercy on me, help me forget: forget myself, and my obsession with my own reflections masquerading as "ideas." Later Eliot goes on to say, "Teach us to care and not to care / Teach us to sit still." That's a great prayer. It says, "God, my passions, thoughts, feelings, need to be brought under Your dominion, lest they run riot with my life. I do not know how to forget, nor how to sit still, unless You teach me."

Jane Siberry had a great line in one of her songs from long ago, "You Don't Need":
and a bird I don't recall
called, 'don't recall,'
called, 'don't recall.'
Forgiving and forgetting come from God, or else they are just tricks we play on ourselves.

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