Why is April “the Cruellest Month”? The Downside of Hope

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

Here are two things that everybody should know about April. First, it is National Poetry Month, which means that anything I write for public consumption is going to be about poetry. Second, April is famously, according to actual poet T.S. Eliot, the “cruellest month.”

I had been able to quote the first lines of Eliot’s masterpiece, “The Wasteland” for close to a decade before I ever really wondered what they meant. Why was April the cruellest month? Who gets to decide this? What makes a month crueler than another month? Which is the second-cruellest month that April beat out? Once the question started coming, I found, there was no way to avoid them. I really wanted to know.

The answer, of course, is that Eliot is not speaking for the entire world here. He is ventriloquizing on behalf of the inhabitants of the world of his poem—a bizarre, high-Modernist fantasy realm called “the Waste Land.” Eliot constructed the Waste Land under the influence of anthropology—specifically the influence of Jessie Weston’s 1920 book, From Ritual to Romance. As anthropologists were wont to do in the early 20th century, Weston was tracing the way that a cultural myth travelled from paganism to Christianity without changing the core elements of its mythos.

The myth in question was the myth of the wounded land. In its most basic form, it went like this: a king is wounded, usually sexually, in a way that imparts barrenness to the entire land. Nothing grows and everything sucks. The only way to heal the land is for a hero to go on a journey to heal the king. This is the central myth at the heart of the Oedipus story, and, once Christianized, it became the myth of the Holy Grail.

Eliot’s Waste Land, then, is a poem that imagines what it would be like to be trapped in the wounded land—one incapable of growth, productivity, or renewal. The young Eliot saw this as a metaphor for the Modern malaise—with the demythologization of the symbols and narratives that humans had used for centuries to make meaning in their lives, humans faced something like a “wounded mythos.” This would be something like an existential crisis but with more references to water.

So why is April the cruellest month in the Waste Land? Because, in the non-Wasteland, it is a time of fecundity and renewal. It is (in the latitudes that Eliot knew) when the snow melts, the flowers start to grow again, and people plant their crops and look forward to a harvest. April is when the hearts of the young turn to thoughts of love. And, truth be told, the hearts of the old aren’t usually very far away. April is when we dare to hope.

In the Waste Land, nothing can be crueler than hope, since it can only lead to disappointment. It always leads to disappointment. In the Waste Land, hope hurts.

And not just in the Waste Land, either. The more I have read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more I have realized just what a dangerous emotion the great theological virtue of hope can be. Cynicism and irony are safe. To hope, one must open the door to disappointment, rejection, and disbelief. Hope in God, in salvation, is especially risky, since the disappointment of such hope leaves one in more or less the kind of Modernist malaise that Eliot was writing about: a life of frustration, despair, and profound anger at a Supreme Being for not existing.

This, I think, is why Paul is so insistent to list faith with the other theological virtues like hope and charity. Of the three, hope is the most dangerous because it requires us to leave ourselves completely vulnerable to disappointment. And yet, only by exercising it, by taking the great risk that hope entails, can we find the Kingdom of God—for (and Eliot knew this perfectly well because he read Dante), God can never reward us beyond our expectations. In order to achieve the Kingdom of God, we must first have the capacity to imagine it.

And until we do, we live in a wounded land. And April will always be the cruellest month.

Comments

  1. Mary Lythgoe Bradfford says:

    Another brilliant essay by Brilliant Mike

  2. Olde Skool says:

    If April promises more such ruminations as this, its cruelty will be balanced, for me, by joy.

  3. I enjoyed this. I hope you do more.

  4. Thanks for peeling back some of the layers on Eliot. I have an easier time with shorter poetry, and struggle with longer forms like “The Wasteland” and Eliot’s “Four Quartets.” The timing is also nice, as conference weekend in April lends itself to thoughts of renewal and hope, just as October conference gives us light to last through the dark spaces of winter.

  5. Shawn Tucker says:

    In the context of the Great War, April might have brought a renewal of hostilities that winter may have curtailed. This is reinforced by how the poem’s central section describes a sexual encounter that is presented in military terms–engage, assaults, encounter no defense. In fact, parades and optimism marked the start of the war, a conflict people believed would be “over by Christmas.” Nope. In addition, what makes hope so deadly is its connection with memory and desire, as the lines explore. The poem highlights how desires can cause pain/suffering in the conflation of the Buddha and St. Augustine “To Carthage then I came / Burning burning burning burning / O Lord Thou pluckest me out / O Lord Thou pluckest / burning” And, finally, this Thursday, April 6, marks the 100 year anniversary of the US joining WWI.

  6. Very, very nice.

    And Easter too. The hope of the resurrection is the cruelest and brightest of hopes because it applies (very nearly) universally, unlike exaltation. So, so much depends upon it.

    Speaking of depending upon things, I would love to read an exposition of William Carlos Williams’ “The Red Wheelbarrow” within a doctrinal context.

  7. Jason K. says:

    This is a really great post, Mike. Hope means risking hurt, but without that risk, there can be no life.

  8. EnglishTeacher says:

    I really appreciate the thoughts in this post, as well as others that feature literary analysis on BCC. Comparing “Ash Wednesday” and “The Waste Land” has been helpful for me to understand how Eliot’s views on hope and faith shift with his religious conversion. In some ways he retains the sort of despair that opens “The Waste Land,” but “Ash Wednesday” is able to resolve the difficult journey to faith with submission to God’s will and meditation upon it as the ultimate virtues that will provide a broken and fallen world consolation for its despair (this is my Cliffs’ Notes version of Eliot, of course). The final lines of “The Waste Land” prefigure what comes later in “Ash Wednesday” with the “What the Thunder Said” section. Eliot’s references to the Upanishads (Datta, Dayadhvam, and Damyata), as I read them, are the answer to the problem in the first line of the cruelty of April and the entailing loss of innocence, the lack of renewal, lack of hope in a fragmented wasteland. To give, to have compassion, and to have discipline, as the thunder says, is to be freed from the confirmed prison, also mentioned in the final lines of the poem. Once I started treating these poems as companion texts–and diving headfirst into all the allusions and source material–Eliot’s already-incredible poetry took on a new world of meaning.

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 )

Twitter picture

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

Facebook photo

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

Google+ photo

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

Connecting to %s