April is the cruellest month,
breeding Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
memory and desire, stirring dull roots with spring rain.
An excerpt of T. S. Eliot’s
“The Wasteland” (1922)
“I, The Burial of the Dead”
I don’t know what T. S. Eliot was so upset about. April might not be the greatest month of the year, but I really cannot see why he was so inalterably down on it. I have a theory, though.
It may have something to do with the fact that his last name is spelled with only one “L,” and the kids at school probably gave him a hard time. The fact is that Eliot’s dad was not very well off, and he had to sell of some of the extra letters in the family name to make ends meet.
The final result is not so much of a tragedy for the younger Eliot, because before his father started pawning off the family alphabet, his full name was actually Takhomasak Sacajaweeya-pocohontas Ellliothausen. That’s not widely-held knowledge, and I’m not sure where exactly I heard it, but I think I recall it – I’m sure it’s on the Internet. In any case, it doesn’t fully explain his problem with the month of April and that is the focus of this discussion.
I know what you’re probably thinking: wouldn’t it be easier to look it up, or to just take an English literature teacher to lunch? After all, libraries are full of encyclopedias and English literature teachers are required to study the poetry of Eliot in every class, with the possible exception of “Medieval Limericks and Bawdy Rhymes: an Introduction.”
So, couldn’t I look it up in a book? Well, to take an unequivocal position on the matter, I say, “yes” and “no.”
As an American, I don’t expect to have to look things up since there will probably be a PBS special on it this weekend. It may be the subject of a “shocking ‘20-20’ lead story, coming up after these important messages.” I believe that if you sit quietly in front of the TV, all of your questions will eventually be answered.
The problem is that you also get the answers to a lot of questions you never asked and never wanted to ask.
You don’t even associate with the kinds of people who want the answers to those kinds of questions. TV is a cornucopia of answers, but you must sort through a lot of corn to get to the copia that you desire.
The other alternative is to take an English teacher to lunch. This is an equally impractical approach, because an English teacher will invariably want to talk about the last book they read.
This wouldn’t be so bad, except that they will also tell you how it should have been written and how they would have written it if they didn’t have to go to so many faculty meetings and grade so many horrible essays from their students. They blame the parents. So do I.
Thus, in the tradition of “American Manhood,” I choose to figure it out for myself. American men seem to prefer this pioneer-like approach, even when the instructions are right there in the box or the plumber is only a phone call away. A hammer usually helps. Frankly, it is hard to see Eliot’s point. April might be called “cruel” because one warm day can easily by followed by a cold rain.
Pleasant weather can cruelly tempt the prisoners of a classroom to truancy, and April bears that most wretched of days: April 15. But, all in all, Eliot is just wrong. April is a lovely month. The lilacs, whether from “dead land” or a florist’s shop, are a treat for winter-dulled noses.
“Memory and desire” may stir “dull roots with spring rain,” but new memories are always made during pleasant afternoons and warm, ever-lengthening evenings.
Besides, if April comes, can commencement be far behind?
Column by Robert Valentine Senior lecturer of advertising