As an idealistic English major, I studied poet T.S. Eliot and his epic, “The Wasteland.” Reading “The Wasteland” was more an exercise in reading footnotes, utilizing a German dictionary, and seeing how much of Dante and Shakespeare we could recall.
Most people recognize the famous first line, “April is the cruelest month . . .” and apply it to tax season or the anniversaries of Waco and the sinking of the Titanic. The month of April is also “Disaster Preparedness Month.” Malicious practical jokes start the month off on a bad foot; and let’s not forget that Adolph Hitler was born in April. Of course we will forever remember this April as one of quarantine, social distancing, and the cruel, cruel virus that robbed us of Easter celebrations and other joys.
But none of these things matter when you’re a romantic student of poetry.
At the end of the semester of Eliot, my friend and fellow English major Mary Catherine and I stayed on campus to work odd jobs. It was pleasant to have the place to ourselves, even if we were sanitizing bathrooms and shampooing carpets. Mary Catherine and I carried handwritten copies of “The Wasteland” in our pockets as we cleaned. Our goal was to memorize the 400-plus lines of the poem before studies resumed in September.
In class we had listened to a scratchy recording of T.S. Eliot reading the poem himself. He pronounced the word “cruelest” as “crellest.” Mary Catherine and I tried to imitate his intonation as we practiced, sounding more like Boris Karloff than T.S. Eliot.
Over the sounds of flushing toilets and whirring vacuums we shouted,
Summah surprised us, coming ovah the Starnbuhgahsee
With a showah of rain . . . .
“Hey, MC, what’s a Starnbergersee again?”
“It’s a thing in Germany, I think.”
One afternoon, I heard Mary Catherine’s voice around the corner, trying to get just the right emotion in its recitation.
“…und yahr HAY-ah wet … I waz nye-thah living nor ded …”
The words faded away.
“… and I knee-ewe … nothing … nothing … noth….”
I listened, thinking she was digging the now soggy scrap of poetry from her pocket to double-check Eliot’s unconventional word-order. But she didn’t continue. I found her leaning her head against the door of the bathroom stall, tears in her eyes.
“It’s so sad, Caroline,” she said. “How can we live with such misery?”
We didn’t know then that the grief of poetry was preparing us for life’s misery. Our lovers would betray us. Children would grow and leave. Parents would die. We would watch sons go off to war, floods wash away cities, planes bring skyscrapers to the ground, and invisible viruses shut down our world.
I will show you fear in a handful of dust!
If I recall, Mary Catherine and I didn’t get very far in our memorization. We realized we could work much faster if we were blasting U2 or Duran Duran from a borrowed radio.
Nevertheless, I still remember the opening lines of the poem and understand them more as I get older.
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….
It was an April morning, the Friday of Easter week, when my first child was born. From my own body came six pounds of contradiction which we wrapped in pink flannel. We named her Kathleen, purity from sin, lilacs from dead land. I pitied Mr. Eliot then, who (until his conversion later in life) missed the message of hope when lilacs burst from their frozen tomb.
Our Christianity doesn’t promise a life of ease or freedom from sorrow and suffering. But we have a greater promise, one of eternal life, of everlasting joy. We can emerge from the confessional renewed, remade. There is no need to stay in the tomb of winter, in the hopelessness of Eliot’s Wasteland. We arise in the morning with the Dawn, rejoicing in God’s mercy.
For behold, the winter is past, the rain is over and gone . . .
The flowers have already appeared in the land;
Arise, my darling, my beautiful one, And come along!’
My beloved is mine, and I am his; He pastures his flock among the lilies.
Song of Solomon 2:11,12, 13, 16