April is (not)the Cruellest Month ~ reflections on TS Eliot’s The Wasteland ~ by Karen Richards

In our final post, on the theme of Bright, Karen Richards reflects on why she does not share the view of TS Eliot when he claims that “April is the Cruellest Month” in his poem, The Wasteland.

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.

Thomas Stern Eliot

Eliot’s opening lines of The Wasteland have been ruminating in my mind, recently. It is April and, as suggested in the poem, the life that has been slumbering below ground, and on bush and tree, have stirred with the ‘spring rain’ and life, that was out of sight, during the winter months, is well and truly visible, again.

The statement, ‘April is the cruellest month’ has had literary commentators discussing its meaning, for decades. When I first read it, back in my English A level days, I took it to mean that April is full of promise, with lighter days, buds and fruit blossoms, camellias in full bloom and cheerful daffodils and tulips but that it doesn’t always deliver the brightness that we have been craving, with its rainstorms and cold winds, as in our present April.

This is as good an interpretation as any, although it is generally accepted that, written in 1922, it is essentially a poem about the spiritual state of Europe, where people prefer to be asleep to their spiritual nature, to live their ‘little life with dried tubers’, enjoying the winter, which ‘kept us warm, covering Earth in forgetful snow’ because they don’t have to take spiritual responsibility for themselves. If this is Elliot’s true meaning, I find it rather harsh and judgemental. I see people taking responsibility and revealing their True hearts, all the time.

If you enjoy poetry, particularly the art of poetry, it is well worth reading The Wasteland in its entirety, if you have never done so – though I suggest you do it with your feet up, a mug of brew and an open mind. It is technically brilliant, though strewn with puritanical judgements, which reflects Eliot’s tortured state of mind, during its writing, following the breakdown of his marriage and committal of his wife to a mental institution.

So, why is this poem in my mind right now, apart from it being April, of course? And why has it dominated my thoughts, whenever I have come to write on this month’s theme of Bright? Perhaps, because there are times when the world, nations and individual people appear to live in perpetual winter and it can seem like we are existing in the Wasteland, where compassion, love and wisdom have been buried deep beneath the ‘forgetful snow’. Times when all seems lost and there is no hope. Or times when there is hope but we haven’t the physical capacity to fulfil our heartfelt dreams. The world is in such a state as this, right now, don’t you think?

Yet lilacs do breed ‘out of the dead land’. Lotus blossoms flower because their roots are nourished by the mud into which their roots are secured. And when we are personally in despair, the simple act of looking up at the sky can change our viewpoint, both physically and spiritually. If you have never tried this, it is highly recommended. In winter or in spring, our spiritual ‘blossoming’ is in our own control. So, I am sceptical of Eliot’s Wasteland imagery and, great though the poem may be, I find its bleak despondency and moral judgement not to my taste.

Because for every dark night of the soul, there is a bright awakening. For every dark winter, there is a spring. And, come to think of it, whatever the weather, April is not the cruellest month, at all, merely a state of light and darkness, of warmth and cold. The bright nature of things revealed.

Master of light

Continuing our theme of Bright, this week, Anna Aysea writes an evocative reflection, which is “inherently intimate, shining with the light of Being that is beyond time.”

Woman reading a letter – Johannes Vermeer, 1663

Light is a central element of his composition, and because of his skill in how to render it, the Dutch painter Johannes Vermeer is called the master of light.

In a Vermeer painting, light entering through a window permeates the whole scene, gently illuminating the figure and the objects in the room, making everything almost shine with an inner glow.

Woman Reading a Letter (for a higher resolution please click on the image) depicts a quiet, private moment where a young woman is absorbed in reading a letter in the morning light. All of the colours in the composition are secondary to the radiant lapis lazuli blue of her jacket.  While the objects in the room cast shadows, Vermeer has deliberately omitted the woman’s shadow, creating an ephemeral, atemporal effect, as if the figure and the act of reading are beyond time, in eternity. The luminous blue acts as a portal to draw the attention, giving the viewer a taste of that which is beyond sensory perception, the infinite nature of Being.

Through the mastery of the artist, as the viewer, we transcend the limits of the body, the limits of time and space and are pulled into the stillness, into the emanating timeless tranquillity. We expand and extend into the domestic scene,  dissolving the seeming distance of the subject-object mode of perceiving. There is just the sweet intimacy of Being.

In the eighties, still the era of the Iron Curtain, travelling through Europe, my first acquaintance with a Soviet country was Hungary. I remember the extreme poverty, the other-worldly urban streets, completely devoid of any commercial signage screaming for attention.

One day, trying to find a place to eat in a suburb of Budapest, I ended up in what appeared to be a soup kitchen. It was located in a dilapidated monumental building of former grandeur. In the great hall with ceiling-high windows, people cued up for the counter where workers were dispensing plates of plain boiled beans for a few cents. Waiting in the cue with locals in ragged clothes, there was a serenity to the whole scene emphasized by the soft shuffling of feet. Light was filtering through the dirt-covered windows, clouds of vapour rising from bin-sized pans, myriad dust particles dancing in the beams of light, the worn down wooden floor, the shabby tables and chairs, the toothless old man in front, the scene was like a painting, intimate, timeless, without distinction between the mundane and the sacred.

With the abundance of spring oncoming, why not take inspiration from the master of light? Ultimately all perception is like a Vermeer painting, inherently intimate, shining with the light of Being that is beyond time.

The Brightness of Springtime & Friendship

This week, we continue our theme of ‘Bright’ with an insightful and moving post about the nature of true friendship and the natural world, by Mo Henderson.

Springtime is here, with its brightness unfolding. The yellow daffodils shine on the roadsides and the delicate forget-me-nots peer out amongst the grasses. In our garden colourful, small birds busy themselves, rummaging for nest-building material, including blue tits, wrens, finches and sparrows. The tree buds burst out in various shades from purple to a fine bright green. The evenings are brighter and as the day extends the garden calls to share the natural worlds awakening to lightness and beauty. I find springtime uplifting after the long dark days of winter and love being outside.

The poet Mary Oliver, who had a traumatic and dysfunctional childhood, describes how, amidst the trauma, she would take a walk in the woods amongst the trees and feel ‘saved’ by friendship with the natural world.

“Whoever you are, no matter how lonely, the world offers itself to your imagination, calls to you like the wild geese, harsh and exciting over and over announcing your place in the family of things.”

Quote from-‘Wild Geese’ Mary Oliver.

The natural world seems to awaken a sense of belonging. No matter what my own conditions are, while walking with our two dogs Shiny and Chiko in the forest or on the coast I am relaxed and feel at ‘home’ with myself and the surroundings. I observe the dogs as completely living the walk, catching the scent of another animal, sniffing all the aromas of country life and chasing the birds who come close to our path. My guess is they too are totally at home in friendship with the natural world.

Feeling this sense of mutual friendship and belonging with the natural world is not the same spontaneous process between human beings. In my experience, getting to know someone takes time before feeling able to simply be ‘me’. These days people, in general, appear to have many ‘acquaintances’ but only a very few real friendships, if any. Getting to know someone well is often a slow process and observation of intentions needs wise discernment. There are some, regardless of conscious or unconscious intention, who seek friendship for self-gain, or, use flattery to mimic friendship. These types of half-lies and half-truths can fall away when one is fortunate enough to be mutually nourished by genuine friendship.

“a friend is a person with whom [one] may be sincere, genuine friendship extends its rewards beyond the personal realm and becomes the civilisational glue that holds humanity together. Friendship produces between us a partnership in all our interests. There is no such thing as good or bad fortune for the individual; we live in common. And no one can live happily who has regard to himself alone and transforms everything into a question of his own utility; you must live for your neighbour if you would live for yourself”

Seneca, a Roman philosopher, in his magnificent letter ‘On True and False Friendship’

The natural world appears to have no hidden agenda, no purpose but to be as it is, perhaps this is why we often feel a sense of belonging as we mirror and accept both the brightness and harshness of all nature’s expressions, like Buddha in the Flower Sermon, who silently held up the flower to signify the nature of things as they are (suchness).

In ancient Celtic understanding, true friendship is seen as without mask or pretension. In true friendship you can speak with honesty and integrity from your mind/heart, it is an act of recognition, of belonging and this sense of belonging awakens a deep and special unconditional relationship. In the Celtic tradition, this is called ‘anam cara’ or ‘soul friend’.

“With the anam cara you could share your inner-most self, your mind and your heart. This friendship was an act of recognition and belonging. When you had an anam cara, your friendship cut across all convention, morality, and category. You were joined in an ancient and eternal way with the “friend of your soul.” The Celtic understanding did not set limitations of space or time on the soul. There is no cage for the soul. The soul is a divine light that flows into you and into your Other. This art of belonging awakened and fostered a deep and special companionship”.

Anam Cara
John O’Donahue

Love of nature brings a brightness which embraces presence and belonging. It is so easy to see and accept the brightness and unconditional relationship with nature, including our beloved animals. Seeing the light that shines in other human beings needs much trust and faith, can we see it in everyone and more importantly can we see it beyond our own shadows?

The natural world with all its beauty and harshness offers so much opportunity to know what unconditional friendship means. I think being vigilant and on guard with those we choose to be with is sensible, however, perhaps the half-truths and half-lies that some often use to sustain relationships are unnecessary, silence can show truth and kindness, sharing trust and loyalty with all those we meet in our lives can be a foundation for change in ourself and others. This way, like an old and dear friend, the wholesome art of love and care may help us meet our own true nature and be at ‘home” wherever we are.


Mo Henderson

Dew on the Grass
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