“April is the cruellest month, breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing Memory and desire, stirring Dull roots with spring rain.”
That’s the first few lines of T.S Eliot’s famous poem, ‘The Waste Land’, which was published in 1922.
If you are an uncultured swine like me you are probably thinking “wow, this Eliot fellow doesn’t sound like much fun.”
If you aren’t an uncultured swine, what are you doing still reading?
Maybe it’s lockdown induced madness, or maybe I’m getting sentimental, but I think Thomas Stearns Eliot is actually a tad more relatable than I’d previously given him credit for being.
‘The Waste Land’ was written for times like these; it’s an epic poem about loss, frustration, despair, and self-denial.
These first few lines are more than likely a slightly more poetic version of the thoughts most of us have been having recently while in lockdown. It’s unnatural to be cooped up inside during April – especially an April as fine as the one we’ve had.
April is the second month of Spring; it is a time of re-birth and renewal for flora, fauna, and folks like you and I. It is supposed to be a happy time during which we emerge from our Winter hibernation to enjoy the long evenings and fine mornings. The word April comes from the Latin verb ‘aperire’, which translates as ‘open’.
T.S Eliot was a really smart guy so he probably knew about the etymology of the word April and thought to himself, ‘Hey, I should write a poem about misery and despair and set some of it in April just as the lilacs are blooming – yeah, that’ll show them!’
The actual story of ‘The Waste Land’ and how T.S Eliot came to write it is more complicated.
He wrote it while he was on a few months’ leave from his bank job following a nervous breakdown. Luckily, I have never had a nervous breakdown – but I have been nervous and I have had breakdowns. Most people have at some point in their lives.
I can only imagine that April’s blooming flowers and blue skies taunted Eliot, and in his depressed state, he resented nature and its ability to carry on as normal, when his mind was in turmoil.
The beautiful April weather we have been experiencing during lockdown has sometimes felt like nature is taunting us. The beaches are out there untouched because we can’t leave our homes. The mercury is climbing sometimes to nearly 20 degrees and we can’t meet our friends in our local beer garden. Children – big and small – can’t lick 99s and go haring around the park with their pals. Holidays are on hold. And yet the sun still shines on oblivious.
T.S Eliot’s problems were more severe than mere boredom; he spent time receiving treatment at a Swiss sanatorium and it is well documented by his numerous biographers that he was a disturbed individual. His first marriage to Vivienne Haigh-Wood was troubled and much of ‘The Waste Land’ is informed by repression and troubled relationships.
In a New Yorker article about T.S Eliot’s love life – or lack thereof – Louis Menand begins by asking: “T.S Eliot’s sex life. Do we really want to go there? It is a sad and desolate place.”
I don’t mean to be rude but Eliot doesn’t sound like he was an easy guy to get on with, unless you were Ezra Pound, the person to whom ‘The Waste Land is dedicated’ – and great friend and mentor to Eliot.
Menand’s piece tells us that Eliot and his wife Vivienne were both insomniacs. They slept in separate rooms and she was having affairs when she wasn’t suffering from debilitating health issues. By all accounts, they were a mismatched couple and probably didn’t even like each other.
I know that being locked inside your mind because you are mentally ill and being locked inside your house in order to curb the spread of a pandemic are two different realities, but Eliot’s poetry – in particular, ‘The Waste Land’ – is somehow relatable for people in both situations. (I also know that these realities are not mutually exclusive).
The language is evocative and the imagery is depressing one minute, and almost mystical the next. Eliot conveys very well how it feels to be utterly miserable while surrounded by beauty.
The first stanza is called ‘The Burial of the Dead’. Yikes. Right before that, there’s the Latin epigraph which acts as a little taster of bleaker things to come. This fed-up myth lady, Sybil of Cumae, is longing for death she’s so bored.
"With my own eyes I saw the Sibyl of Cumae hanging in a bottle; and when the boys said to her: 'Sybil, what do you want?' she replied 'I want to die.'"
I’m sure that longing has occurred to at least some of us during lockdown, no matter how superficially.
‘The Burial of the Dead’ features speakers lamenting lost love amid imagery of nature decaying. (That’s where the “April is the cruellest month” business come in…)
Stanza Two, ‘A Game of Chess,’ continues with more vignettes of despairing people, most of whom seem to be lamenting a lack of communication between themselves and their paramours.
"'My nerves are bad to-night. Yes, bad. Stay with me. 'Speak to me. Why do you never speak. Speak. 'What are you thinking of? What thinking? What? 'I never know what you are thinking. Think.'"
Chess playing is an allegory for an emotionally insecure relationship or something. I don’t know, I’m not a Yale scholar. The above quote is how I talk to a dog, not a boyfriend. Perhaps that’s why I’m still single.
"And we shall play a game of chess, Pressing lidless eyes and waiting for a knock upon the door."
Oh, wait, no. That’s why. Also, I’m shit at chess.
With ‘The Fire Sermon’ Eliot starts to lose the run of himself a bit. Stanza number three takes its title from a sermon given by the Buddha on achieving enlightenment through self-denial. Here, I put my biscuit down and say fuck this I’m out. I suggest any fellow uncultured swine still reading do the same – we all know the cultured folk stopped reading some time ago. They’re probably off listening to opera, or something.
Stanza Four, ‘Death By Water’ reveals the death of one of the characters referred to earlier in the poem. Phlebas the Phoenician dies by drowning and his body is devoured by the sea. It’s unclear whether or not T.S Eliot is jealous of this Phlebas fella’s fate.
Judgement comes finally in ‘What the Thunder Said’ thanks to more imagery of nature decaying and people being miserable. Eliot’s star quickly ascended after the publication of ‘The Waste Land’ and he left his bank job in 1925 to work in literature full time.
Some types think the poem was inspired – in part – by his work at the bank, as well as his neurotic, nervous tendencies.
Back in Eliot’s day, the public was a bit ‘on edge’ after World War 1, so maybe, to paraphrase Father Ted’s friend Mrs. Doyle, they liked the misery of ‘The Waste Land’?
Reading ‘The Waste Land’ is a bit like tripping balls. For a fella suffering nervous exhaustion, Eliot didn’t have any qualms about putting the reader through the wringer; the poem’s 434 lines are divided into five stanzas – each featuring multiple characters and landscapes.
It’s a heady, modernist mess, but it’s easily read, understood, and appreciated in about thirty minutes, unlike that other modernist masterpiece some of us have yet to tackle. I refer, of course, to Ulysses, which I’ve seen multiple people declare that this lockdown is as good a time as any for them to eventually get through it.
But lockdown is hard enough without forcing yourself through a book you feel you should read because some boffin said it was genius. Save Ulysses for a flight or the train and read something shorter.
Then go for a walk – if you want to. Because it is May after all, and, fingers crossed, we will slowly be able to get back to normal – whatever that is.
Come May 18th I will think about arranging to meet a small group of my very best friends in sub-groups of one or two.
There might be cans by the canal in the fine weather with friends spaced two metres apart. And then there will be days of wishing this could just stop already.
I will hug my asthmatic friends sometime before Christmas and I’ll remind them that I love them more than the pub. (T.S Eliot was never able to show such affection for his wife Vivienne.)
The serious conversations about the far-reaching impact this will have on society will continue for many months. April 2020 saw a surge in death rates like Ireland has not seen in years, according to a study done by Maynooth University.
That all these deaths happened just after Easter, a time of rebirth, resurrection, and Spring renewal in the Catholic tradition, shows that life imitates art. Or is it the other way around?
Either way, the purgatory of April is passing and so we must dust off the cobwebs and keep going, trawling through the wasteland of whatever the future might bring with this virus hanging over us. A sad, beautiful, weird poem might help.
"Frisch weht der Wind Der Heimat zu Mein Irisch Kind, Wo weilest du?"