People are always quoting well-known lines from literature without having any clue what those lines actually mean.  Take the reference to lawyers in Shakespeare’s Henry VI.   My personal most-hated example is Robert Frost’s “good fences make good neighbors” from “Mending Wall.”  Plug the line into Google and you’ll pull up all sorts of blogs, articles, and honest to God journalism using the line as a springboard for property disputes, neighbor hatred, psychology, blah blah blah.  It’s irony, you fools.  The poem is a dialogue between TWO PEOPLE, one of whom is muttering about the pointlessness of the exercise. 

And poor old Thomas Stearns Eliot.  He gets abused endlessly, with Cats representing only the tip of the iceberg.  So, here we go.  It is April.  Someone’s always dragging out the “April is the cruellest month” line from  “The Waste Land.”   Type that into Google and you’ll get all sorts of crap about spring showers, the end of basketball season and, for me at least, an article on Chinese medicine and acupuncture. 

Now there are a lot of people much smarter than I am who devote themselves to studying Eliot, and I won’t venture to speak for them.  It isn’t an easy poem, and Eliot was a master of the oblique allusion.  But the opening lines of the poem are pretty clearly about the contemplation of mortality.  Why is April cruel?  Because during the spring nature births itself anew (“breeding/ lilacs  out of the dead land”), while we, who grow only older, do not.  We can hide from this reality during the winter, which “kept us warm, covering/ Earth in forgetful snow ….”  But April confronts us with the evidence that the Earth will go on without us. 

The cycle of youth, fecundity and death is a theme of many of the world’s religions both ancient and modern.  The Egyptians had Isis, Osiris, and Horus; the Norse the story of Baldur; the Indo-Europeans and Mediterraneans their Mithras.  It is no accident that several of the world’s great modern religions celebrate high holidays in the springtime. 

The narrator of “The Waste Land” is Prufrock-like, a man in rumpled overcoat with trousers rolled, perhaps now seated on a park bench rather than strolling through half-deserted streets.  There is a gentleness there.  But when women do the telling, the story is often more sharp-edged.  Perhaps we, who in Welsh mythology were formed from flowers, are more resentful of the fresher petals.


Brushing out our daughter’s brown
silken hair before the mirror
I see the grey gleaming on my head,
the silver-haired servant behind her. Why is it
just as we begin to go
they begin to arrive, the fold in my neck
clarifying as the fine bones of her
hips sharpen? As my skin shows
its dry pitting, she opens like a moist
precise flower on the tip of a cactus;
as my last chances to bear a child
are falling through my body, the duds among them,
her full purse of eggs, round and
firm as hard-boiled yolks, is about
to snap its clasp. I brush her tangled
fragrant hair at bedtime. It’s an old
story—the oldest we have on our planet—
the story of replacement.

35/10, Sharon Olds, from Strike Sparks: Selected Poems 1980-2002 (Alfred A. Knopf, 2004)