…however, April is the Cruelest Month. Well, which is it? In this Service, we will explore the divergent thought of two of the great English poets, Gerard Manley Hopkins, the Catholic, and T.S. Eliot, the Unitarian.
The first part of that poem is full of glorious imagery and poetic language, and especially the alliteration: “long and lovely and lush,” “with richness, the racing lambs”; “rinse and wring the ear,” laundry terms alluding to a divine cleansing of the world. Glorious. Earthy. Lusty. In the second part of the imagery connects the God of this poet’s religion with Spring.
Quite different is T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land:
Spring and the Pandemic
We now enter the second April in what amounts to a global quarantine. That is the dark irony of April that Eliot captured so brilliantly. These Aprils are the first in anyone’s memory where Eliot’s opening lines make sense.
To understand why April the “cruelest month” for Eliot, we need to understand that he is not making a general argument about Aprilness. April is not inherently cruel, but Eliot is ventriloquizing on behalf of the inhabitants of the world in his poem – a bizarre, high-Modernist fantasy realm called “the Waste Land” – a land that has been profoundly shaped by a global pandemic.
Eliot wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. He and his wife caught the Spanish Flu in December of 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery. Literary critics have just recently started to explore the profound influence that the global pandemic had on the post-war literature that we have long called “Modernist,” and on passages like this one from “The Waste Land,” in which Eliot intentionally overlays Dante’s Inferno onto the London cityscape:
This is a world of both history and myth. Historically, Eliot constructed his world out of pieces of London during and immediately after the Spanish Flu. Between 1918 and 1920, as many as one hundred million people across the globe died from the Spanish Flue, far more than were killed in World War I. Covid-19 has killed three million, of which 555,000 or 1/6 of the total are Americans. In England a hundred years ago, a quarter of the population came down with the disease, and more than 200,000 Britains died. The heavy death toll did much more than even the carnage of the war to shape Eliot’s masterpiece.
He was also recovering from the strains in his personal life. He was cut off from his family in America by the war; he was married to an unhealthy, demanding, and unstable woman. At the height of his creative and critical output, he had a nervous breakdown. He diagnosed his condition as aboulia, which is the condition of having enormous difficulty making decisions, and a general lack of will. Ennui, as the French say.
Eliot also 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 traced 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 bareness 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 meanings in their lives, humans faced something like a “wounded mythos.” This would be something like an existential crisis but with more references to water.
The Cruelty of Hope
So why is April the cruelest 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 that April hurts most of all by mocking us with possibilities that can never be realized. And not just in the Waste Land either. The more we read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more we read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more we realize just what a dangerous emotion the great theological virtue of hope can be. Cynicism and irony are safe, but to hope, one must open the door to disappointment, rejection, and unbelief. He wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. Eliot and his wife caught the so-called Spanish Flue in December of 1918, a month after the Great War ended, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery.
Perhaps the most important thing that we can say about The Waste Land though, is that it was the beginning of Eliot’s poetic career and not the end. By the end of “The Waste Land,” which was published in 1922, we catch a glimmer of the faint possibility of hope, a slight upturn in an otherwise thoroughly depressing piece of literature. By 1930, the glimmer of hope becomes a bright (if tenuous) flare in “Ash Wednesday.” And by 1939, he was (though he didn’t know it at the time) writing the lyrics that would become the musical Cats. Eliot, in other words, got better, but it took a decade or so to recover from the world that the Great War and the Great Pandemic created.
Pandemics ends. Rain falls again. Spring rains renew the earth every year. We do well to remember this, even as we gear up for another cruel April in the Waste Land.
I am indebted to writer Michael Austin for some of the preceding information which I editing and added to.
T.S. Eliot the Unitarian
T.S. Eliot was from the Unitarian, Boston Brahmin, Eliot family in St. Louis, a family which included a number of Unitarian minister, including his great-uncle Thomas Lamb Eliot, minister of the grand Unitarian church in Portland and founder of Reed College there.
The Waste Land is considered the first great poem of the modernism literary movement. Eliot is also known for The Lovesong of J Alfred Prufrock, Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats, and also Murder in the Cathedral, about the slaying of Thomas a Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.
The Waste Land begins:
It is a non-celebration of Spring and renewal because the world had gone to hell, it seemed, from war and pestilence.
But The Waste Land is, surprisingly about rebirth and new life we expect from the season we are now entering. There’s nothing wrong with April, it’s only that we expect “all this juice and all this joy” at this time of the year. In Eliot’s mind, the Great War had devastated everything, so that nothing could grow. This idea is related to the Fisher King of ancient legend, a King who was rendered impotent by a self-inflicted sword wound, and his kingdom suffered in harmony with its king, and so was likewise in a state of bareness. Thus, a Waste Land. Part of that was the heroic search for the Holy Grail, drinking from which would repair the king’s flaws and sins, and was the only way the curse on the king could be lifted from him and the land.
Eliot likened the postwar world, and the post-pandemic world was the result of our flaws and sins, and ever since Sir Galahad found it and lost it again, everyone is still looking for the Holy Grail. The King was not saved, the land remained barren. The myth reflects Eliot’s depression, but we know that hope springs eternal, partly because we know or remember that despair is something to overcome, not give in to. In fact, the land did heal, and when WWII came, we had learned something so we were better prepared, and much less delusional, much less foolishly romantic about war, and the world, and so there wasn’t a second, WWII version of the Great War’s spiritual depression.
Our pandemic is passing and will pass, as all pandemics have throughout history. Here in the U.S., we also escaped four more years of attack on our liberal democratic institutions. Blessings often come in great disguise. We can say, however grudgingly, that the pandemic helped us escape a new authoritarianism, and the deep depression that would accompany it. Hail spring, and rebirths of all kinds.