Friday, June 18, 2010

Sibling Assignment #128: April is the Cruelest Month

Silver Valley Girl gave another assignment using the theme of April. "In T.S. Eliot’s poem “The Burial of the Dead”, Eliot refers to April as the cruelest month.

Read the poem, and write about Eliot’s thoughts on the month of April."

"The Burial of the Dead" is the first section of the much longer poem The Waste Land.

InlandEmpireGirl's reflections are here.

The Burial of the Dead

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 turbers.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
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.

Well, to start, I'll have an English teacher moment (yawn) and point out that Eliot, with a self-conscious knowledge of his own irony, echoes the opening of Chaucer's Prologue to The Canterbury Tales as he opens The Waste Land. In modern English, here is Chaucer's prologue:

Here begins the Book of the Tales of Canterbury
When April with his showers sweet with fruit
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed each vein with liquor that has power
To generate therein and sire the flower. . . .

Eliot takes Chaucer's celebration of the coming of spring, the promise of "showers sweet with fruit", and makes the coming to life of lilacs and the stirring of dull roots a cruel thing.

What's Eliot up to?

I'm not sure I know, but I'll give it a shot, a brief shot.

I'm not sure who the speaker of Eliot's poem is and I'm not sure if it's an individual speaking or if it's some kind of collective voice.

Whoever is speaking this poem wants to remain asleep, unaware, unstirred, dead, unconscious "warm" under "the forgetful snow".

I experience this poem metaphorically, as developing an image of the slumber or life of human consciousness or awareness, what, to me, is the human spirit.

Dead, finding being stirred, finding memory and desire awakened to be cruel, this is the basis for the collective spiritual condition in the early 20th century that Eliot regards as a waste land.

I wrote about Eliot's impact on me when I was much younger, here, and, in some ways, Eliot's fingerprints mark my recent post "On Being Raymond Pert".

I wonder now, and I never did wonder this when I was younger, if sometimes it's a good thing to let things that happen or have happened go unnoticed, ignored, if sometimes I need to hibernate in the "forgetful snow" and not think I'm a living waste land if I'm not entering into the suffering of what surrounds me.

My education at Whitworth College (now University) put a high premium on engaging, in whatever way we could, with the injustices locally, nationally, and internationally. My education at Whitworth was, in many ways, organized around combating ignorance, forgetfulness, unawareness. It was the antithesis of the waste land.

I loved it, deeply appreciated it. I also believed that with awareness would come meaningful change, that being awake to difficulties, whether in my marriage or in another part of the world would be a prelude to improving things.

I thought no one would want injustice and conflict to continue once aware of its damaging power.

Well, I was wrong.

I haven't figured out how to live with how wrong I was.

Even though at my age I should be over it, I'm not. Willed and purposeful cruelty bothers me a lot and what I face every day is the question of how much do I want to know, how much do I want to "stir dull roots with spring rains" and how much do I want to sleep, turn a blind eye to the world I live in?

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