Ash Wednesday (poem)

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This article is about a poem by T. S. Eliot. For other uses, see Ash Wednesday (disambiguation).
First edition (publ. Faber & Faber)

Ash Wednesday (sometimes Ash-Wednesday) is the first long poem written by T. S. Eliot after his 1927 conversion to Anglicanism. Published in 1930, this poem deals with the struggle that ensues when one who has lacked faith in the past strives to move towards God.

Sometimes referred to as Eliot's "conversion poem", Ash-Wednesday, with a base of Dante's Purgatorio, is richly but ambiguously allusive and deals with the move from spiritual barrenness to hope for human salvation. The style is different from his poetry which predates his conversion. "Ash-Wednesday" and the poems that followed had a more casual, melodic, and contemplative method.[citation needed]

Many critics were "particularly enthusiastic concerning 'Ash-Wednesday'",[1] while in other quarters it was not well received.[2] Among many of the more secular literati its groundwork of orthodox Christianity was discomfiting. Edwin Muir maintained that "'Ash-Wednesday' is one of the most moving poems he [Eliot] has written, and perhaps the most perfect."[3]


The poem’s title comes from the Christian feast day marking the beginning of Lent, forty days before Easter. It is a poem about the difficulty of religious belief,[4] and concerned with personal salvation in an age of uncertainty. In Ash Wednesday Eliot’s poetic persona, one who has lacked faith in the past, has somehow found the courage, through spiritual exhaustion, to seek faith.

The first section Eliot introduces the idea of renunciation with a quote from Cavalcanti, in which the poet expresses his devotion to his lady as death approaches. Dante Gabriel Rossetti translated it under the title Ballata, Written in Exile at Sarzana, and rendered the first line as "Because I do not hope to return". The idea of exile is thus also introduced.[5]

Publication information[edit]

The poem was first published as now known in April, 1930 as a small book limited to 600 numbered and signed copies. Later that month an ordinary run of 2000 copies was published in the UK, and in September another 2000 published in the US.

Eliot is known to have collected poems and fragments of poems to produce new works. This is most clearly seen in his poems "The Hollow Men" and "Ash-Wednesday" where he incorporated previously published poems to become sections of a larger work. Three of the five sections comprising "Ash-Wednesday" had already been published earlier as separate poems (years link to corresponding "[year] in poetry" articles):

  • "Perch' Io non Spero" (part I of "Ash-Wednesday") was published in the Spring, 1928 issue of Commerce along with a French translation.
  • "Salutation" (now part II of "Ash-Wednesday") was published in December, 1927 in Saturday Review of Literature. It was also published in January, 1928 in Eliot's own Criterion magazine.
  • "Som de l'escalina" (part III of "Ash-Wednesday") was published in the Autumn, 1929 issue of Commerce along with a French translation.

(Publication information from Gallup[6])


When first published, the poem bore the dedication "To my wife", referring to Eliot's first wife, Vivienne Haigh-Wood Eliot, with whom he had a strained relationship, and from whom he initiated a legal separation in 1933. The dedication does not appear in subsequent editions.[7]

References in other works[edit]

Vladimir Nabokov parodied Ash Wednesday in his novel Lolita.[8][9] In chapter 35 of Part Two of Nabokov's book, Humbert's "death sentence" on Quilty parodies the rhythm and use of anaphora in T. S. Eliot's poem. According to David Rampton, "...Quilty's versified death sentence is, in part, a comic version of Ash Wednesday."[10]


  1. ^ Untermeyer, Louis. Modern American Poetry pp. 395-396 (Harcourt Brace 1950)
  2. ^ Britannica: Guide to the Nobel Prizes: Eliot, T.S. by Dame Helen Gardner and Allen Tate, accessed November 6, 2006.
  3. ^ Untermeyer, Louis. Modern American Poetry p. 396 (Harcourt Brace 1950)
  4. ^ Raine, Craig. T. S. Eliot (New York: Oxford University Press, 2006)
  5. ^ Williamson, George. A Reader's Guide to T.S. Eliot, Syracuse University Press, 1998, ISBN 9780815605003
  6. ^ Gallup, Donald. T. S. Eliot: A Bibliography (A Revised and Extended Edition) pp. 39-40, 218, 219, 223 (Harcourt Brace & World 1969)
  7. ^ Seymour-Jones, Carole. Painted Shadow. Doubleday 2001, p. 4.
  8. ^ Rampton, David (1984). Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 112. ISBN 0521257107. Retrieved 27 July 2015. 
  9. ^ Alexandrov, Vladimir E. (1995). The Garland Companion to Vladimir Nabokov. New York and London: Garland. p. 620. Retrieved 27 July 2015. 
  10. ^ Rampton, David (1984). Vladimir Nabokov: A Critical Study of the Novels. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. p. 112. ISBN 0521257107. Retrieved 27 July 2015. 

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