sighs, short and frequent, were exhaled

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

I thought of the opening of the “Waste Land” during an international Zoom call with a dozen lovely people, as they described how spring is breaking in their respective countries during this pandemic year.

If your mind turns to extraordinarily famous classics at such moments, you may be both pretentious and unimaginative. Then again, sometimes a new situation provokes a new look at a canonical text that has become a cliché from too much repetition.

Both T.S. and Vivienne Eliot contracted the Spanish ‘flu during the global pandemic. That experience, along with the First World War, might be in the background of his 1922 poem. Rereading it during a respiratory epidemic prompts new interpretations of passages like this one:

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.

Even the phrase “Madame Sosostris, famous clairvoyante, / Had a bad cold …” has new implications when read during COVID-19.

As for the opening, the combination of “memory and desire” seems apt for our moment, when many familiar experiences have become distant memories that we yearn to repeat. Lilacs look and smell lovely, but their springtime “breeding” may be a painful process. Each of the first three enjambed lines splits a participle from its object, creating a series of false starts. Are we moving again?

Eliot is surely responding to the cheerful opening of the first great long poem in English:

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 ...

However, the opening of “The Waste Land” depicts rebirth as cruel.

Later, Roethke will ask …

This urge, wrestle, resurrection of dry sticks,
Cut stems struggling to put down feet.
What saint strained so much,
Rose on such lopped limbs to a new life?
 -- Theodore Roethke, from "The Lost Son and Other Poems" (1948)

Eliot’s entitles his whole first section “The Burial of the Dead,” referring, perhaps, to that rite from the Anglican Book of Common Prayer. The Anglican prayer emphasizes peaceful rest followed by joyous resurrection: “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord …” In contrast, I think Eliot’s narrator adopts a tone of metaphysical pessimism, as in classical Buddhism, Schopenhauer, or Silenus’ Greek phrase: “for humans, the best is not to be born at all, not to partake of nature’s excellence; not to be is best.”

This does not mean that pessimism is the spirit of the whole poem, which deliberately presents many voices and perspectives as Eliot portrays a metropolis in the aftermath of trauma.

In fact, it’s worth recovering an alternative to pessimism from the same poem. Apparently, the sequence Datta, Dayadhvam, Damyata (quoting an Upanishad) means: “be self-controlled, be charitable, and be compassionate.” Eliot presents that advice in a passage that is liquid, when most of the poem is bone-dry, and calm, when most of it feels tormented:

Damyata: The boat responded
Gaily, to the hand expert with sail and oar
The sea was calm, your heart would have responded
Gaily, when invited, beating obedient
To controlling hands.

And the whole work ends with the mantra “Shantih. shantih. shantih” (or “peace. peace. peace.”) So may it be.

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About Peter

Associate Dean for Research and the Lincoln Filene Professor of Citizenship and Public Affairs at Tufts University's Tisch College of Civic Life. Concerned about civic education, civic engagement, and democratic reform in the United States and elsewhere.