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Some thoughts on T.S. Eliot’s “The Waste Land”:
It’s unfortunate that “April is the cruellest month” has lost its impact and become cliché, as it’s one of the most evocative and beautiful opening lines in all of poetry. Context is crucial here, and the lines that follow it illustrate its power and loveliness:
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.
April, and, by association, spring, are commonly associated with potential, rebirth, regeneration, and the return of beauty after the cold and bleak desolation of winter. In the poem’s waste land, however, spring is the cruellest time of the year. Lilacs emerge “out of the dead land”, bringing to the residents of the waste land feelings of “memory”, “desire”, hope, and possibility. Contrary to expectation, the residents of the waste land both resent and shun these feelings, for they are content with winter’s safe yet stifling desolation. Winter “kept [them] warm”, covering [them] in “forgetful snow”. They are grateful for their pittance of “dried tubers” and are threatened by the opportunity to feast upon something better, and to experience anything more than “a little life”. Yet the lilacs come. Emotions are stirred. And it is these emotions that threaten the comfortable complacence of the residents of the waste land. Their perspective is best summed up in lines 19-24 of “The Burial of the Dead” (the poem’s first section):
What are the roots that clutch, what branches grow
Out of this stony rubbish? Son of man,
You cannot say, or guess, for you know only
A heap of broken images, where the sun beats,
And the dead tree gives no shelter, the cricket no relief,
And the dry stone no sound of water.
For the waste land’s residents, it is easier, safer, and less painful to remain in a metaphorical state of sleep, living under a covering of snow (both literally and metaphorically), than it is to be born, kicking and screaming, into the spring. Winter is safe. Spring is risky. It is possible to both welcome and resent the stirrings of long-forgotten “memor[ies] and desire[s]”; however, the residents of the waste land bear only resentment. They have neither energy nor enthusiasm to spare. Complacency has become the norm. They have become comfortably numb.
One of the poem’s speakers, however, seems to understand the heartbreaking consequences of this attitude, as illustrated in lines 35-41 of “The Burial of the Dead”:
“You gave me hyacinths first a year ago;
They called me the hyacinth girl.”
—Yet when we came back, late, from the Hyacinth garden,
Your arms full, and your hair wet, I could not
Speak, and my eyes failed, I was neither
Living nor dead, and I knew nothing,
Looking into the heart of light, the silence.
This is the intersection of memory and desire. The speaker remembers love. He once loved his “hyacinth girl”, and wishes he could love her again. Her beauty has not diminished. She is no less loveable than before. However, he has chosen safe and comfortable numbness, and this numbness cannot co-exist with desire.
April is cruel because it is threatening. It requires the residents of the waste land (and, by extension, each of us) to choose between comfortable safety and risky change. And, whether we want to admit it or not, we all know the consequences of preferring safety to risk, and of choosing comfortable numbness over “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender”:
The awful daring of a moment’s surrender
Which an age of prudence can never retract
By this, and this only, we have existed
Which is not to be found in our obituaries[.]
(Lines 83-86 of “What the Thunder Said”, the poem’s final section)