Why April is the cruelest month

For T. S. Eliot, it’s simple. Because April means rebirth.

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the 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.

In these opening lines of “The Waste Land,” the “dull roots” and “dried tubers” feel the full weight of pain at being called back to life from their comfortably deadened existence under ground. It is an interesting concept – to start your death and rebirth poem with the cruel anguish of rebirth, the agonized stirring of memory and desire pulling those presumed dead roots upward through the soil toward the surface and rebirth – or perhaps with memory pulling downward into the lost unconscious depths of the soil and desire pulling upward toward rebirth. It doesn’t help that the surface we’re being born into is a barren waste land. Indeed rebirth here pretty much means being re-initiated into another form of death, rising from the subsoil to a surface where “the sun beats” mercilessly on “dry stone” and “the dead tree gives no shelter.” So April’s rebirth is cruel both for what it pulls us from (our comfortable deadness under the “forgetful snow”) and for what it pulls us to – the waste land of life on the surface.

It’s a little bit like the tulips in Sylvia Plath’s poem of that title.  The painfully red tulips in her hospital room recall her to life, remind her of her commitments, of the emotional “baggage” of “husband and child,” whose “smiles catch onto my skin, little smiling hooks,” drag her back from drowning in the white sea of obliviousness, and for that she resents them as much as Eliot does April.

It is probably no coincidence that both Eliot and Plath, standard-bearers of modernist poetry, suffered emotional breakdowns around the times they were writing these poems. Indeed, one could say that the psyche peering into the abyss of emotional breakdown, paralyzed and overwhelmed by the equal and opposite forces of desire for and fear of human contact, became to a large extent the default for the human condition under modernism. Is such a default determined by conditions of modernity or by the simple fact that anti-depressants were unavailable to most 20th-century poets? Or is the development and ubiquitous use of anti-depressants a self-fulfilled prophecy, the final concrete expression of emotional numbness as the norm for the modern condition? I have no idea. Decide for yourselves. I was only trying to say why April is the cruelest month.

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11 thoughts on “Why April is the cruelest month

  1. Psychiatric illness as a source of inspiration for art? Almost certainly. Reading Kafka, I wonder if his strange world view is an absurdist vision, or simply the result of a condition like autism.

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    • Great call on Kafka! Although his “Letter to my Father” is near-universally read as a damning indictment of his father, I’ve often wondered if it might say more about all the neurotic wheels within the wheels of Kafka’s psyche and less about the historical personage of his father. Also, I find Kafka’ strange world absolutely compelling, which says [fill in the blank] about me.

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  2. What a thought. What a critique! I like the multiple choice notions we have to ponder. You could add Anne Sexton, who was a friend of Plath’s, into that genre of modernist poetry that also committed suicide and frequently visited mental hospitals. I wonder often if the use of anti-depressants would have affected the ability these people had to express emotion in written form and so symbolically??

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  3. I’m embarrassed to say that what I’ve read of Sexton is little and long ago, but from what I recall your tip seems like a good one. I have to guess that raw angst is probably better for art than angst treated with anti-depressants. I could see pot or LSD stimulating the creative juices, depending on the artist and the spot of time, but anti-depressants seems a harder sell.

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  4. I think for many of us, exposing our pain, and letting the light shine in, is where we express ourselves best. Using these types of metaphors is a special joy of mine, personally I see many parallels in the ‘seasons’ of our lives. Interesting background on both of these extraordinary poets. I agree about anti-depressants being over-prescribed for people simply dealing with the human condition. There is nothing wrong with feeling, and expressing those feelings. We’ve gotten away from that, in this quest for modern-day conformity.

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    • “Exposing our pain and letting the light shine in” is very, very well put, Elizabeth. It’s where “healthy” meets “deep.” The greatness of Eliot and Plath, in my mind, is that they go one step beyond “healthy” in their attitude toward existential pain. It’s like we’re all at the edge of the abyss, and they show us what it’s like for that first second after you’ve fallen over the edge. (Of course, your “greatness” is on the “healthy” side of the equation — luckily for all of us!)

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      • Thank-you Gary for this clarification. I am not well studied in their works, I do know of Plath’s death, but not the extent of Eliot’s mental illness. I am glad you do not believe I have yet reached that level of insanity! Bright light up ahead… 🙂

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  5. I believe the writer’s analysis misses the whole point and should have been suspicious when they wrote: “For T.S.Eliot, it’s simple”.
    Nothing is simple when it comes to Eliot’s meaning.
    Before you can get the imagery/symbolism of the month of April you need to think about the actual month of April, weather-wise, in England. April doesn’t actually usher in Springtime, with its re-birth of Nature and that season’s fecund fertility. It merely reminds that Spring is on its way, giving a teasing taste but not delivering the delights of true Spring. It gives us the Memory of Spring without giving us Spring. This is painful and cruel- to stir up the memory of and desire for a thing without actually giving the thing itself. This is a metaphor for Life itself as one grows older, as Desire grows cold and memories of it are cruel. Why? Because one can remember the intensity of feeling and desires that youth brought but remembering only serves to haunt us, reminding us as the years slip by that the intense Desire and Passion of our youth is gone, never to return. It is cruel to be feel the dull stirrings of Desire that don’t deliver this vitality and Desire but only remind us that such Desire is gone forever from our lives.

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