Saturday, April 02, 2005

April is the Cruellest Month

From The Wasteland:

APRIL is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.


Unreal City,
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.

The Wasteland is far too vast to quote at length, or to excerpt in any way that conveys its meaning. In fact, I challenge you to find its meaning without Eliot's own footnotes.

Still, it has some very picturesque language, evocative of a certain despair at (modern) life. I remember as an undergraduate identifying with the stanza beginning "Unreal City." It reminds me of Bascom Hill in the winter, where a pedestrian foot bridge extends over Park Street, and in the winter or early spring, you can see an ambling river of cold undergrads, looking at their feet, shuffling aimlessly across the bridge and up the hill. There's even an old church, converted to a music building, with a bell that chimes the hours.

I would love to discuss the poem with someone, but I don't expect that many outside of college English departments have really read it. On the other hand, isn't that the great virtue of the blogosphere? I'm off to find Eliot-bloggers!

UPDATE 1:We have our first winner! Miss Education is talking about her strategies for teaching Prufrock to high school students. She analogizes Eliot to Soundgarden, surprisingly aptly I think, and points out that Eliot was evoking the same "ominous feelings of emptiness" that preoccupy every teenager. Good stuff!

UPDATE 2: To get a second hit of any substance on The Wasteland, I've already gone back in the Technorati search to January. Luke Brewster says "I read part of The Wasteland tonight and found myself wanting to know the meaning and at the same time feeling sick for trying to discover it." Yes, well, welcome to the nightmare of every English major. He goes on:
It was almost as if the ambiguous words and phrases were of more enjoyment to me without a connecting theme or driving purpose. Knowing why the author wrote what he did would seem to destroy the magic of the very words: make them too real, too linked to reality. I liked them as they were: unknown, disconnected from everything real–simply words meant to inspire hazy visions of nothing certain.

He had me until the end. I think Eliot wanted to evoke that feeling, but I don't think he wanted it to become the poem's whole meaning or for that feeling to subsume the poem's narrative. If that were the case, he wouldn't have published give or take 50 exhaustive footnotes to help people understand that he was using a retelling of the grail narrative to say something about the post WWI world.

UPDATE 3:This poor/lucky English student had to read The Wasteland, Prufrock, and Eliot's essay "Tradition and the Individual Talent" all for one class! The number of pages is not that daunting, but oh, the density!

UPDATE 4: Like anyone is still reading this. This English student writes:
"In the third part of the poem, the Fire Sermon, Eliot describes sexuality and how it is shameful. He views fertility as disgusting and unbearable. I feel that Eliot uses this to portray that sex is irresponsible and only for the uneducated."

Slow down, Jamie. There's little doubt that Eliot was pretentious (listen to his recitation of the Wasteland some time, where the St. Louis boy adopts a prissy English accent), but it's never a good idea to conflate the poet and the speaker in the poem. The speaker(s) in the Wasteland is nebulous, at best, but an easier example of the principle is Robert Frost, who often wrote poems which had a woman speaker.

In this case, one of the themes of the Wasteland (being a grail-narrative), is that true Spring can't come unless the grail is found. In the grail narrative, the King is sexually maimed, and this maiming extends to his Realm, which is similarly infertile. Grail narratives always have to do with the rebirth of the world in Spring (and come from the ancient vegetation god myth, whether you call it Osiris, Baldur, Adonis, or Jesus Christ).

In The Wasteland, the world is still in the grips of the lost grail, which itself relates to the desolation caused by World War I. I think it's possible that the speaker seems to disparage fertility because of despair that real Spring will ever come. Think of a political analyst in 1980 and his beliefs about the Cold War: there was no end in sight, even though it would end a scant ten years later. Of course, the Cold War is itself a nice winter/rebirth metaphor: think of all the discussion of spring and a thawing of relations in the aftermath of Yeltsin's rise.

UPDATE 5: Oops, wrong Frost poem above. Blech. I was thinking of Wild Grapes.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

i am an undergrad student doing my thesis on eliot's prufrock...i have never "blogged" before...i was digging for some info for a cumming's poem that i was trying to explain to someone who (yes, they do exist)does not like poetry. anyway...i love eliot (and april is pretty cruel)

8:07 PM  
Blogger Matthew said...

Well, if you want to know anything about Prufrock's state of mind...

I basically am Prufrock. I often wonder 'Do I Dare?' and, 'Do I Dare?'
Do I dare disturb the universe?

8:13 PM  

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