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.
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?