Looking at one of the many calendars I keep (it’s March 31st as I type this) and realizing that tomorrow will be the first day of April, I took down my copy of The Waste Land, which I purchased so I could feel smart and cultured, off of its shelf, and began to read:
“April is the cruellest month…”
Why? – I asked myself – Why is April the cruellest month? What did April ever do to anyone, or to T.S. Eliot for that matter? Why does he spell it with two L’s like Cruella de Vil? Having so many important questions, but only one day until this cruelest month began, there was no time to read his biography or go back to school for my Master’s in English, so I just had to continue with the book in front of me…
“April is the cruellest 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.”
I’ve seen too many romcoms to not know that flowers always mean something. The azalea means ‘may you achieve financial security.’ The lily means ‘I dare you to love me.’ Lilacs, on the other hand, represent the first emotions of love. They’re coming out of the dead land, which makes April’s true cruelty lie in her ability to make us move on, to start all over again, even after things haven’t worked out for us before.
April is a pusher – she pushes people, mixing memory and desire, which let’s be honest, can be a more lethal combination than red wine and tequila. The dull roots want to stay put where they are, underground – no need to stir them, or buried feelings, up. The snow is a security blanket, it keeps us warm and helps us forget. Tubers allow plants to reproduce asexually – and we’d be fine on our own too if it wasn’t for cruel April and her insistent lilacs.
And that’s about as far into the poem as I can get without help from the English TA I had a giant crush on in college who explained this poem to me in the first place. It requires a wealth of knowledge I do not possess, switching languages, referencing history, literature, popular music from the era. But the challenge was also the appeal.
There is an elitism to it, a depth. Understanding The Waste Land was inherently to acquire some of its cultural currency. It was a secret language I wanted to speak.
The poem isn’t that long, about 15 pages with footnotes, but my Norton copy spans 283 pages with background and criticism. Even Virginia Woolf’s initial reaction is one of confusion – “It has great beauty & force of phrase: symmetry; & tensity. What connects it together, I’m not so sure.” It was a mind game meant to stump even the greatest minds of the time.
Why do we play mind games to begin with? Is it a mere form of entertainment, an escape from our own boredom? Does it stem from a need for attention? Do we enjoy the manipulation and control? Or is it something deeper?
Do they feed the parts of our ego that inflate when we are able to understand, to say I know what this means, the parts that insist on things having any meaning at all? Or do they speak to the depths of our hearts that secretly long to be understood, that admit we’re lonely, that we yearn to connect with someone outside of our own selves?
Because what is the purpose of a poem that only makes sense to the poet? A mind game is only satisfying if we are able to understand it – if there is someone to understand our own games in return. It takes two to play.
April may be cruel, but she comes once a year. She is a part of life. We cannot avoid her any more than we can avoid ourselves, although we certainly may try. She may feel like a push or a shove, but she is that inherent pull we all have towards others, towards something outside of and bigger than ourselves.