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.

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

  1. I studied the Waste Land at A level & agree with you, it’s miserable & depressing. I was too young then to realise that fact intellectual interpretations of its meaning were just that. I thought I wasn’t good enough as I couldn’t see deeper meanings. More generally your piece reminds me of one of our senior monks who quite often said that things are getting better all the time, just that we can’t always see it.
    1. Thank you, Angie – yes, I also had that ‘not good enough’ moment, although I do still have the anthology that used for A level, with my own thoughts, scribbled in the margins. I love the quote from the senior monk. I will remember that one!
  2. Interestingly Upaya are doing 3 online sessions with the title, Opening to Darkness in Unsettling times. As you say, Karen, spring unfolds FROM winter. I’m wondering, though, if Darkness could be a theme for future posts? For poetry lovers – The Four Quarters is a much more ’rounded’ poem and explores universal truths. Presumably written after Eliot had gone through the Dark Night and had integrated and resolved his spiritual questions.
    1. The Upaya sessions sound interesting, Eric. I will have to look those up. I like the theme of Darkness. I will bring it to our group meeting. Would you be interested in writing something for us, if we ran with that theme? Thanks for drawing my attention to The Four Quartets. It has been many years since I read that one.
  3. I could have a bash at writing something. I found an excellent audio recording of Eliot plus others reading the Wasteland. Your post got me re-reading the poem. It is certainly one of THE poems of the century, so revolutionary! I wish he didn’t assume that we all read Latin though.
  4. Thank you Karen, I enjoyed reading this thoughtful and well written piece. I re-read The Wasteland, like you I find it harsh and judgemental too and agree with your suggestion: “The world is in such a state as this, right now, don’t you think?” For me the poem illustrates the effect of conditions on the individual. For Eliot, living during World War 1, plus the separation from his wife, must have contributed hugely to his state of mind. Right now, conditions in the world are harsh and can easily be despairing. I like the analogy of ‘the forgiving snow’ and ponder in relation to your quote above, what is it that is covering the world today to keep things ‘hidden’ from us and distract us from our spiritual blossoming. There is so much in this poem and your article has inspired me to read more of TS Eliot and relate his timeless work to life today.
    1. Yes, it does, as you say, reflect the ‘conditions on the individual’. Such a wonderfully written and authoratitive poem, yet even great poems have to be read with a discerning mind, picking through both the Truth as it is for the poet and the Truth as experienced by the reader. Thank you for your thoughtful and reflective comments, Mo.

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