2014-04-25

The First Eight Lines of Eliot's "The Waste Land"
—an editor's note by Ada Fetters

The first line of The Waste Land contains one of the greatest and possibly most misunderstood lines in poetic history: "April is the cruelest month." We've all heard this but what does it mean?

Many poets use April to recall bright associations of new life. Daffodils, lilacs, tulips, lambs and so on. It is the beginning of spring, of love, of entreaties to sons or brothers to come home. Other poets (Watson, for example) say that April's vice is a changeable temperament, one minute laughing "girlish laughter" and then weeping "girlish tears." Why should Eliot say it is cruel

The first four lines are a deliberate recall to Chaucer's opening to Canterbury Tales, when Chaucer describes April rain nourishing the roots of plants which come to flower. Much of Waste Land is a recall to other poets or writers from the past, so a big part of figuring out what Eliot is trying to say is picking up these clues.

However, it does not do to be so busy trying to put a jigsaw of references together that we lose sight of Eliot himself and what he is trying to say, and indeed the way in which he says it. There is a 70s martial arts movie called "Enter the Dragon"  in which a master informs his student that the form of martial arts "is like a finger pointing a way to the moon. Do not concentrate on the finger or you will miss all the heavenly glory!" This is another way of saying "Do not look at the form/law/letter/words, look at the meanings or forces beyond them." This is not one of my favorite sayings but it makes the point well.

Eliot's Waste Land is a bit like that except readers must keep an eye on the guiding hand, the trajectory, and the beautiful moon too. If that saying could be applied to a martial arts movie, it would be a favorite of mine. Things always have a symbolic and transcendent meaning, poetry especially. This poem has several layers of it. Still, it doesn't do to miss the things themselves.

So this is a reference to Chaucer. That is important and sets the tone. Eliot is telling readers that there will be many "voices" in this poem from many walks of life,  the way Chaucer used several different "voices" to tell his various Tales. He is telling readers that much of the meaning this poem has to offer will be oblique - after all, he does not simply write, "As Chaucer said before me..." but throws out a veiled reference to the man's work and relies on the reader to catch it.

However it is not only Chaucer speaking, it is also Eliot, and his use of April is quite different from Chaucer's. In the greater context of the poem, he tells us about the fall and follies of Western civilization. He is not trying to tear down its accomplishments but rather is trying to use the lenses of these mighty accomplishments (i.e. the works of Shakespeare, Chaucer, etc.)  to show his readers what vast potential we have... and the ways we have squandered so much of it.

Thus we come back to "April is the cruelest month," and in the next few lines, he tells us that winter was easier.

If all we ever had to do was merely exist from hand to mouth in a perpetual present, the way animals do, it'd be easier for us. But no. We have so much potential. So much hope. So much ability to pull back and look to the future and plan. And this does not go away. After each and every bad winter or dark age, we stumble back out into the April sunshine, blinking.

So it has been for hundreds of years and on a level of civilizations, and so it is true today on an individual level.

According to Eliot, though, April is the cruelest month because all this greatness, existing as yet only in potential form (water slicking the roots under the earth at the beginning, just coming up to flower), is mostly squandered or frustrated (i.e., far more seeds are eaten or rot away than actually grow) or leads inevitably to a sort of Barbarian - Kingdom - Empire scenario in which the bloated, paranoid result collapses on itself. "Rust never sleeps." What we see today are its ruins.

For Eliot this is cyclical, thus his deliberate choice to represent it with a season. Winter is easy in that it is a time of dormancy. When hope and potential sets in, as they inevitably do, things get interesting.



With his choice to speak with voices from the past, Eliot is also informing his readers that although this is cyclical, we absolutely should not discount these works of greatness and these catastrophic failures. We as individuals and as civilizations stand on the shoulders of these giants. Without their past, we could not have a future. Hence he describes the April rains "mixing memory with desire." During April-times, we look back and see great civilizations such as the Romans-- or heroes such as Emmanuel Levinas or Bertrand Russell or Ammianus Marcellinus-- and we cast a desire toward the future, to be like them or better.

Not bad for the first eight lines.


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The Editor has been published in Copperwood Review, Humanist Magazine, Niche, The Journal of Humanistic Psychology, and has poems scheduled for publication in Poetry Pacific Magazine.  

The Artist: Brett Stout is a 33-year-old artist and writer. He is a high school dropout and former construction worker turned college graduate and Paramedic. He creates art while mainly hung-over from a small cramped apartment in Myrtle Beach, SC.

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