The Cruelest Month

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
– T. S. Eliot, The Wasteland

Whew, I’m glad April’s over, then.

Although, when I look around, I don’t see any lilacs. The only things growing here at the moment are dandelions and things that look like them, but aren’t.

Close-up of yellow dandelion-like flower in early spring.

Maybe a bit more thought, a tad more precision, is in order here.

Let’s start with that selection of month. In these parts, lilacs don’t bloom until May or June. And what about the southern hemisphere? This language is needlessly exclusionary, I’d say.

As for the “cruelest” month – well, hyperbole is usually to be eschewed, isn’t it? I’m not a big fan of February, for example, but I don’t go around accusing it of being the worst month ever.

What’s that bit about “breeding” lilacs? Lilacs pretty much grow by themselves, don’t they? The only folks breeding lilacs are those trying to introduce new strains – More flowers! Fewer suckers! It’s a turn of phrase that neatly personifies the month and that captures attention due to its unexpectedness, but it’s misleading, says me.

And “out of the dead land”? Lilacs don’t grow as new shoots every year – they leaf out on established stalks, blooming on last year’s growth. Maybe Eliot was confusing them with hostas, which do grow from the roots up. And, of course, land is neither dead nor alive, is it? I get that it looks kinda icky at this time of year, but it’s not dead in any rational sense.

And “mixing memory and desire”? Memory is all about the past; desire all about the present and the future. It’s hard to see how these might mix together and, again, it seems unnecessarily exclusionary of other mental states.

As for the last phrase, well, where to begin? You can’t stir roots, dull or otherwise. Months can’t be in cahoots with, or use, rain. The most charitable interpretation is that it must be one of those poetical metaphors. Maybe it would be better just to come right out and say what he means.

All right. Let’s try again.

April, or the equivalent month in your hemisphere and climate zone, is a cruelish month, seeing
Hostas and other up-from-the-root plants emerge from ground that looks dead but isn’t really, mixing
Whatever mental states you might have, messing
With your head.

No, just as precision can be the foe of rhythm, so accuracy can be the enemy of emotional truth, and completeness the strangler of communication.

Before T. S. Eliot, did anyone experience new thoughts and feelings as the pins and needles of nerves coming to life again? And if they did feel it, did they say it in such a way that others could feel it, too?

Not that I’m a big fan. I enjoy his work only in small doses: Too much of it leaves me feeling like a patient etherized upon a table. But I like this snippet because it reminds me that while there is truth, there is no need to try to capture the whole truth. More: In trying to grasp the whole truth, I may lose hold of the one bit I did have in hand.

As long as I speak my truth, I am not obliged to couch my words carefully. To balance every thought with its antithesis. To be inclusive, accurate, precise.

Never mind when lilacs bloom: April is the cruelest month, dagnab it. How can I ever look at lilacs again without hearing that truth?

Close-up of white lilac florets.

Florets of purple-blue lilac



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6 Responses to The Cruelest Month

  1. Jim Taylor says:

    Point A: Poetry should always be taken in small doses. If it’s good poetry, with the kind of images and insights that Eliot offers, that is. Epic poems that simply rhyme a narrative go on and on and yawn and
    Point B: Living out here in the western warmth, the fruit trees have finished blooming. So have the lilacs. The dogwoods are magnificent. Even the late-leafing catalpa is turning green. I’ve mowed the lawn twice. Someone was out water-skiing already. Hallelujah!
    Jim T

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim T – Point A – Yes, that’s likely right. Like good sculpture, poetry isn’t for consumption but for savouring. Point B – Oh, stop it. It’s a cold rain here in Ottawa, and the leaves are stalled. Although I did see bees yesterday, going crazy over two heather plants that have the grace to emerge from their snow cover in full bloom.

  2. Jim Robertson says:

    I’m not a poet so I will stay away from that end of things, but sometimes I wonder why I live around here and not out on the west coast – but then I would likely miss out winters (the nice winter days that is).

    Those non-dandelions are Coltsfoot by the way. You can eat them. (Not that I do.)

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      Jim – Yes, I often wonder why I live here and not somewhere on the West Coast – or even the southern-ish interior of BC. Coltsfoot, eh? Thanks!

  3. John Whitman says:

    “As long as I speak my truth, I am not obliged to couch my words carefully. To balance every thought with its antithesis. To be inclusive, accurate, precise.”
    We certainly do mellow as we get older. I don’t remember you taking this approach when you were editing my (or anybody else’s) proposal work.

    • Isabel Gibson says:

      John – Ah, this only applies to *my* truth. Others (like you, for example) must be very particular in what you say and how you say it!

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