In this week’s Dispatches from The Secret Library, Dr Oliver Tearle analyses the meaning of T. S. Eliot’s famous opening words to his greatest poem
‘April is the cruellest month’ is the opening line to T. S. Eliot’s 1922 poem The Waste Land. There are, actually, two things I could say in response to the statement I’ve just typed. One of them is that ‘April is the cruellest month’ is not the opening line of The Waste Land (all will be explained in a moment). The other is that it depends on which version of The Waste Land we’re looking at. In the original draft of the poem, the somewhat less memorable opening line, introducing a section describing a night out on the town in the United States, was ‘First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place’.
Okay, now let’s take that first statement: that is, ‘April is the cruellest month’ is not really the opening line of Eliot’s poem. Surely it is? Anyone who’s read or studied this landmark work of modernist poetry knows that, right?
Well, it isn’t. And not because there are numerous textual paraphernalia which we are confronted with before we reach Eliot’s April reference (the epigraph from Petronius’ Satyricon about the Sibyl at Cumae hanging in a cage and wanting to die; the dedication to Ezra Pound along with the accompanying quotation from Dante, ‘Il miglior fabbro’, i.e. ‘the better craftsman’; and the title of the opening section, ‘The Burial of the Dead’). All of these acts of textual throat-clearing precede the first line proper of Eliot’s poem. So why isn’t ‘April is the cruellest month’, strictly speaking, the opening line?
It comes down to the simple fact that everyone – or virtually everyone – forgets, and leaves off, the final word of the full opening line. For the opening line of The Waste Land is not ‘April is the cruellest month’, but ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’. Then, that ‘breeding’ carries us over into the second line, until we get to the word ‘mixing’, which then runs us on into the third line, and so on.
Here, the swirling energies of Eliot’s lines – made possible by his repeated use of enjambment – suggest the worrying new life that is being brought into being with the arrival of spring. There is something about the incessant use of run-on lines turning on the present participle -ing words which unnerves us.
There is also something extremely important about that word, ‘breeding’. It’s central to the poem. For The Waste Land, it is often claimed, is a poem about sterility of all kinds – bodily, spiritual, geographical – and how post-war Europe has become a kind of waste land after the horror and destruction of the First World War.
And as John Fuller points out in his hugely informative book of poetic puzzles, Who Is Ozymandias?: And other Puzzles in Poetry, it’s important to remember the other thing that everyone forgets about Eliot’s poem, namely that its title is three words, not two. A ‘waste land’ is a land laid waste; ‘wasteland’ is simply land that has not been built on. Eliot’s point is that London, a once-great capital, has degenerated into moral and spiritual decay.
But this seems to be a misreading of the poem. What The Waste Land is really about is fear of fecundity or fertility amidst that waste: the curious ways in which life continues to propagate and breed in such unpromising spiritual and social surroundings. I have written a whole book about the modernist long poem, The Great War, The Waste Land and the Modernist Long Poem, and naturally The Waste Land figures in a large part of the analysis, alongside lesser-known but fascinating poems of the 1920s by other modernists, including female modernists: poems such as Hope Mirrlees’ Paris: A Poem and Nancy Cunard’s Parallax, both of which were published by Virginia Woolf’s Hogarth Press.
These poems are often more hopeful (even if cautiously hopeful) about the post-war world, but in Eliot we find a bleaker vision. And waste or sterility is often not the problem, but what is growing amongst it. For instance, the marriage of Albert and Lil in ‘A Game of Chess’, the second section of the poem which I have analysed here, is anything but sterile: she’s had five children already, as the speaker tells us, nearly died giving birth to the fifth, and had to take pills to ‘bring … off’ the sixth. Similarly, those ‘hooded hordes swarming’ in ‘What the Thunder Said’, the final section of the poem, represent abundance and overcrowding rather than the opposite, and the bankers’ sons who have been fraternising with those ‘nymphs’ at the beginning of ‘The Fire Sermon’ have presumably ‘left no addresses’ behind because they are trying to avoid paternity payments.
When read with these instances in mind, Eliot’s opening line – the full opening line, ‘April is the cruellest month, breeding’ – is, as is often said, a riposte to the opening lines of Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, but not because it doesn’t depict fertility and growth but because it takes the opposite view of that fertility and growth:
Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licóur
Of which vertú engendred is the flour;
Whan Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the yonge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours y-ronne …
‘The Ram’ is Aries, the star sign, but also a reference to the frolicking farm animals during mating season.
In The Poems of T. S. Eliot Volume I: Collected and Uncollected Poems (Faber Poetry), edited with masterly rigour by Christopher Ricks and Jim McCue, a further source for the opening section of Eliot’s poem is provided: a letter Rupert Brooke wrote about the outbreak of the First World War, published in 1916.
A youth ran down to them with a telegram: ‘We’re at war with Germany. We’ve joined France and Russia.’
My friend ate and drank, and then climbed a hill of gorse, and sat alone, looking at the sea. His mind was full of confused carnages, and the sense of strain. In answer to the word ‘Germany,’ a train of vague thoughts dragged across his brain. The pompous middle-class vulgarity of the building of Berlin; the wide and restful beauty of Munich; the taste of beer; innumerable quiet, glittering cafes; the Ring; the swish of evening air in the face, as one skis down past the pines; a certain angle of the eyes in the face; long nights of drinking, and singing, and laughter; the admirable beauty of German wives and mothers; certain friends; some tunes; the quiet length of evening over the StarnbergerSee. Between him and the Cornish sea he saw quite clearly an April morning on a lake south of Berlin, the grey water slipping past his little boat, and a peasant-woman, suddenly revealed against apple-blossom, hanging up blue and scarlet garments to dry in the sun.
Ricks and McCue go on to quote a letter Eliot wrote to the critic Cleanth Brooks in 1947, in which Eliot acknowledged that he may have read Brooke’s letter and it’s possible it was at the back of his mind when he wrote the opening section to The Waste Land. However, Eliot also believed that the more immediate source for his opening lines was his own recollections: certainly Eliot was in Germany (in Marburg) when war was declared in 1914.
Perhaps, somewhere in his mind, he conflated his own German memories with Brooke’s letter? The latter’s reference to the ‘StarnbergerSee’, in light of the reference to it in The Waste Land, is certainly suggestive.
Next week: why ‘Call me Ishmael’ isn’t the opening sentence of Herman Melville’s Moby-Dick (because it isn’t).
Oliver Tearle is the author of The Secret Library: A Book-Lovers’ Journey Through Curiosities of History, available now from Michael O’Mara Books, and The Tesserae, a long poem about the events of 2020.