Struggling with the devil of the stairs who wears
The deceitful face of hope and despair.
TS Eliot, Ash Wednesday
Stepping out of our current parish office at St Peter’s and turning right ways one is greeted with a steep flight of concrete stairs. It always seems much easier walking up rather than down this flight of well-worn steps, perhaps because as humans we naturally lean forward. Stepping down requires carefulness and holding onto the banister rail, especially if carrying a laptop, mobile, printouts and all the paraphernalia that can still come out of a 21st century office.
When I was very young I fell down a flight of stairs at my home in England. I still have a small scar on the back of my head where the panel heater fixed to the wall opposite the bottom stair smacked it. I don’t remember the incident, at least not consciously, but it is a family tale.
Eliot’s poem Ash Wednesday was written soon after his conversion to Anglicanism and published in 1930. The Wasteland had been published 8 years earlier, and Four Quartets came out in stages in the following10 years. Ash Wednesday is a transitional poem in many ways. It’s also a knotty poem, the fluent phrasing, easy flow of metre belies intricately woven and echoing themes. Divided into 6 parts, it is spread throughout with prayer book and biblical allusions, Dante’s Purgatorio features prominently, and the voice in the poem has it feel closer to the writings of St John of the Cross than early 20th century poetry. Though it employs many bold, colourful images, its abstruse, philosophical nature can be a turnoff for the cursory reader. I still find sudden unexpected moments of contemplative joy in revisiting familiar but forgotten lines: ‘teach us to care and not to care / teach us to sit still.’ But I also feel at the beginning of Lent 2023 as if I understand this poem less now than I did 20 or 30 years ago.
Who is the poet addressing? He prays to God ‘to have mercy upon us’, echoes the petition in the mass: ‘Lord have mercy on us.’ He imagines the fixed images of Dante’s Beatrice and Our Lady. They, like the ‘veiled sister’ become figures asked on the poet’s behalf to intercede for ‘those who chose and oppose.’ They are much less in the realm of gender debate or politics here than signifiers that in life, in prayer, there is a force, an energy that enables a world seeming out of control, a world where words are lost and bones have no hope of revival, to find hope.
The poet walks up stairs and turns to look back. Beatrice walks Virgil up the stairs out of hell and into the realm of heaven. She, like Mary, ‘the silent sister veiled in white and blue’ becomes synonymous in the poem with ‘the spirit of the river, spirit of the sea.’ Residing in liminal spaces, in ‘tension between dying and birth’, ‘between blue rocks’ her presence enables intercession for a suffering world to be redeemed. By her prayer, those in exile have hope that their cry ‘come unto Thee.’ Hope here is not the deceitful face laced by fear glimpsed on the stair. It is the place where bones can s