30 April 2020

Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’
and coffee … but is April
‘the cruellest month’?

‘And went on in sunlight, … And drank coffee, and talked for an hour’ … coffee and TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ in the Rectory garden on Poetry Day Ireland (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2020)

Patrick Comerford

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ was published in 1922. It is a masterpiece of modern literature and one of the greatest poems in the English language. Its opening lines are often quoted, even by people who have never read all five sections and 434 lines of the poem.

But is April the cruellest month?

It may yet have been the cruellest month we know in this part of Europe, in the way Covid-19 has taken a grip on our lives, forcing us to keep unnatural distances from one another, leaving many people isolated, and stealing the lives of so many people of all ages and backgrounds.

We have a new vocabulary that includes phrases like social distancing, cocooning, and self-isolation.

The opening stanzas of ‘The Waste Land’ refer to the blooming of flowers and the coming of spring, but in gloomy tones. Winter is recalled nostalgically, with snow keeping us warm.

‘The Waste Land’ was published in October 1922 in Eliot’s The Criterion and as a book in December 1922, the same year James Joyce published Ulysses. Well-known and oft-quoted phrases in ‘The Waste Land’ include ‘April is the cruellest month,’ ‘I will show you fear in a handful of dust,’ and the mantra in Sanskrit, ‘Shantih shantih shantih.’

The poem draws on the legend of the Holy Grail and the Fisher King and on the thoughts of Saint Augustine and Dante, shifts between voices of satire, prophecy and judgment, and constantly changes speaker, location and time.

The poem has long been read as a statement on the post-war atmosphere, although Eliot claimed it was not. He wrote most of ‘The Waste Land’ in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world.

Between 1918 and 1920, as many as 100 million people around the globe died from the Spanish flu, far more than were killed in World War I. In England, a quarter of the population was infected with the disease, and more than 200,000 people died.

Eliot and his wife Vivienne caught the Spanish Flu in December 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery. Literary critics are only beginning to explore the profound influence that the global pandemic had on ‘The Waste Land.’

Eliot’s case of influenza was not a serious one, but he recorded that he was ‘very weak,’ Vivien noted that afterwards he was haunted by the fact that ‘his mind is not acting as it used to do.’ The heavy death toll did much more than even war to shape this masterpiece.

The first section, ‘The Burial of the Dead,’ introduces the diverse themes of disillusionment and despair. Re-reading ‘The Waste Land’ in the light of that pandemic a century ago sheds new light on lines such as:

Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,

With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
There I saw one I knew, and stopped him, crying “Stetson! “You who were with me in the ships at Mylae!
“That corpse you planted last year in your garden,
“Has it begun to sprout? Will it bloom this year?
Or has the sudden frost disturbed its bed?
“Oh keep the Dog far hence, that’s friend to men,
“Or with his nails he’ll dig it up again!
“You! hypocrite lecteur!—mon semblable,—mon frère!”

If Eliot did not have the pandemic in mind as he wrote these lines, he certainly evokes the atmosphere of the time, and the sense that the dead were so plentiful that they overflowed the boundaries of the living, while the physical and emotional senses could believe the living were only the walking dead.

But, by the end of ‘The Waste Land,’ we catch a glimmer of the faint possibility of hope. By 1930, the glimmer of hope becomes a bright flare in ‘Ash Wednesday’ (1930), Eliot’s first long poem after becoming an Anglican and described as his conversion poem. Even when April seems to be the cruellest month, pandemics end, rain falls again, and Spring rains renew the earth every year.

Today is Poetry Day Ireland (30 April 2020), and the theme is ‘There will be time.’ As I went out into the garden this morning, between the April showers of rain, I took with me a cup of coffee and ‘The Waste Land,’ and re-read Eliot’s lines:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.

‘A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many, / I had not thought death had undone so many’ … a panorama of bridges in London (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

No comments: