“APRIL IS THE CRUELEST MONTH”: TWO POETS, TWO MEN, TWO AGES

April is the cruelest month, breeding 
Lilacs out of 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. 
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbargersee 
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade, 
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten, 
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour. 
Bin garkeine Russin, stamm'aus Litauen, echt deutsch. 
And when we were children, staying at the arch-duke's, 
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled, 
And I was frightened. He said, Marie, 
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went. 
In the mountains, there you feel free. 
I read much of the night, and go south in the winter.

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. Only 
There is shadow under this red rock, 
(Come in under the shadow of this red rock), 
And I will show you something different from either 
Your shadow at morning striding behind you 
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you;
I will show you fear in a handful of dust. 
              Frisch weht der Wind 
              Der heimat zu 
              Mein Irisch Kind, 
              Wo weilestdu? 
"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 
Oed' und leer das Meer.
T.S.Eliot The Wasteland.

April: the month that heralds the season of spring; after long winter, the release towards renewal and regeneration; the time of year traditionally when a young man’s fancy turns to thoughts of love. Also, usually, the month of Easter, of faith gathered round the ritual of death and resurrection.

Eliot’s “April is the cruelest month denies all this” negates, as it remembers, all this. His April sees no possible fruition. Hence the cruelty of memory mixed with desire; he lives in a place and time gone sterile: the desire for love, the desire for sex, the desire to celebrate faith in unity are all still remembered but no longer meaningful.

“The Wasteland” decisively confirms a new age of poetic expression in English. The Great War, the First World War, is over but the poetry has nothing to celebrate: there is, apparently, no hope of European renewal, only an awareness of lack of continuity of the desire for life, faith, renewing love. Hence, a poetry of changing voices, fragments, with no narrative progression.

Was this the problem of Eliot or the age?. Eliot’s wife suffered from a severe hormonal condition that eventually led to being a patient at a mental institution. Eliot wrote in a letter: “To her the marriage brought no happiness to me ot brought the state of mind that led to The Wasteland.” (Collected Letters of T.S. Eliot Vol 1).

Yet it also reflected powerfully an age, devastated by war, torn by fragmentation and a lack of cultural continuity and shared faith. Given the continuation of all these through the century the wasteland may be seen as not only personal but societal.

Compare this with the opening of The Prologue of Chaucer’s masterpiece “The Canterbury Tales” also featuring April.

Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote [sweet]
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote  
And bathed every veyne in swich licour [plant vein,liquid]
Of which vertu engendred is the flour; [potency]
Whan Zephirus eek with his sweete breeth [west wind,also]
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth  [woodland,heath] 
The tendre croppes and yonge sonne      [shoots]
Hath in the Ram his halve cours yronne, [Aries]
And smale foweles maken melodye         [birds]
That slepen al the nyght with open ye   [eye] 
(So priketh hem nature in hir corages); [incites, their, hearts]
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages,
And palmeres for to seken stronge strondes [professional pilgrims]
To fernes halwes, kowthe in sondry londes; [far-off shrines, known]
And specially from every shires ende 
Of Engelonde to Caunterbury they wende,  [go] 
The hooly blisful martir for to seke,    [blessed,Thomas Becket]  
That hem hath holpen whan that they were seeke.  [helped, sick]
 

In Chaucer there is a continuity, lacking in Eliot, from the Nature that pricketh in the hearts to the longing to go on pilgrimage. In Eliot the holiday , going to the Alps in winter is exclusively enjoyed by the well off, not by the variety of classes which “The Prologue” shall introduce us to . And though for many of Chaucer’s pilgrims the religious aspect is less holy day than holiday there is no need to inquire, using the Biblical prophets: “What are the roots that clutch out of this stony rubbish” ; there is a combination of faith and culture that holds it all together.

Eliot’s sterility is replaced by a perceived vital connection linking the life of Nature with the life of folk with shared faith.

As a man Chaucer is in mid-career, a successful diplomat and an experienced poet. He is a Londoner where Norman French is the common tongue of Court and upper society so he is helping to develop the possibilities of a new poetry in “southren” English in that great era of English poetry with Langland and the poet of Sir Gawayne and the Grene Knight developing on the alliterative tradition of North WestEngland.

Chaucer is now recognised as one of the very greatest of poets in English. Eliot after “The Wasteland” journeyed towards a renewed Christian faith that found expression, specially, in “The Four Quartets”

For Chaucer the world was all before him, for Eliot, at this point, the world was collapsing around him.

Published by alan

As a retired lecturer in English Literature with the Open University I continue to run reading groups on our literary heritage. This blog seeks to interest readers in enjoying and thinking about a wide range of classic novels, plays and poems

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out /  Change )

Google photo

You are commenting using your Google account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )

Connecting to %s

%d bloggers like this: