- Charlotte Stearns Eliot and Ash-Wednesday’s Lady of Silences
One need not be a psychologist to note from the evidence of T. S. Eliot’s poetry and criticism that the poet had an intensely ambivalent relationship to the maternal. His early poetry is haunted by a series of voracious, often voluble, semi-hysterical women who, in their capacity to trap, “formulate,” and disintegrate the male speakers of these poems, exhibit maternal power at its most frightening. When, in the wake of Eliot’s conversion, his work turned from images of fatal femininity to those of a silent, holy motherhood, such figures of maternal benevolence as Ash-Wednesday’s Holy Virgin, Agatha from The Family Reunion, or Monica from The Elder Statesman, continue to co-exist with representations of maternal excess or neglect: there is, for instance, Agatha’s sister, Dowager Monchensey, who relinquishes her destructive hold on her son only in death; comically absent-minded Lady Elizabeth in The Confidential Clerk who mislaid her son; and Mrs. Guzzard from the same play who is by name associated with a vulture, even as her actions betray a remarkably distorted understanding of maternal obligations. 1 Finally, even the silent lady of Ash Wednesday retains a decidedly disturbing aspect when she appears as the object of the male speaker’s adulation. While he is reduced, in his humility, to scattered, dry bones, chirping her praise, she herself is “withdrawn / In a white gown, to contemplation, in a white gown.” 2
From a feminist point of view, such polarized figurations of good and mostly silent mothers, on the one hand, and bad, which is to say, voracious, domineering, or simply forgetful, mothers on the other, symptomize a profound discomfort with maternal power and subjectivity. That resentment of female autonomy may have fuelled the misogyny of Eliot’s early poetry—from “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” to The Waste Land—has been persuasively argued by a number of critics. 3 What concerns me in this essay, however, is the effort, apparent in Eliot’s post-conversion poetry and especially in Ash-Wednesday, to symbolize the maternal in ways that implicitly challenge the binary oppositions by which such dominant discourses of our culture as [End Page 479] Christianity and psychoanalysis have defined the good mother. Of course, by invoking in Ash-Wednesday the Christian ideal of the virginal mother who bears the word but does not speak it, Eliot’s work appears to endorse a limited, because desubjectivizing, model of motherhood. 4 Mary, we might say, relinquishes her subjectivity—her language and agency—in order to become the passive receptacle for the emerging consciousness within her. Yet in Eliot’s poem, as I shall show, maternal purity and silence betoken an awe-inspiring, even threatening, otherness; in other words, not absence of subjectivity but its presence, not selflessness but selfhood, and most paradoxical perhaps, not simply silence but “the word unheard.”
I view Eliot’s poetic struggle to symbolize maternal power, and specifically maternal subjectivity, as part of a life-long effort to understand his own mother Charlotte Stearns Eliot, a social reformer and poet herself, to whom he retained an intense and affectionate, if also troubled, relationship that continued to shape the concerns of his work even after her death at the age of eighty-five. Specifically, I shall propose that the mother’s feminist effort to come into voice by (re)defining motherhood as a creative, spiritually and culturally productive force provided a model for Ash-Wednesday’s dramatization of divine maternity which propels and guides the male speaker’s conversion. 5
In a letter to Marianne Moore, Eliot once alluded to the fact that for both of them their mothers were also their first critics. 6 The first few verses young T. S. Eliot had ever written at the age of nine or ten he gave to his mother, who, a bit later, upon reading some of his juvenile publications, remarked “that she thought them better than anything in verse she had ever written.” 7 After Eliot’s departure from America, she remained a loyal and often critical guardian of her son’s career, a role that...