Literary Shelf

A Century Since April Became 'the Cruellest Month'

A peep over the wall at TS Eliot’s The Waste Land

For a hundred years now no literature buff anywhere in the world could have thought of April, a comely period at the height of the spring season, without that superlative adjective attributed to it by T S Eliot, “the cruellest month.”

And even a century after he did so in The Waste Land  ( published in 1922), it is not certain how or why the poor month warranted such an uncharitable sobriquet from one of the greatest poets of all time.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.....

begins the 434- line poem that became, arguably, the most talked about and the most influential poem of the 20th century.

It was during the 1960s when we were pursuing undergraduate and postgraduate studies in English Literature that Eliot and his iconic poem descended on us, literally causing us much disquiet. Sure, we were in great awe of the poet who had the reputation of transforming the literary landscape of the times through some bold, unconventional strokes. But did we like the poem then? I doubt.

I for one found The Waste Land as the most coded of all poems we came across in our literature class. And it was difficult, nay impossible, to decode it to our satisfaction, making us understand what the poet meant by a  word here, a  phrase there and quotes in plenty in between, from nursery rhymes to The Divine Comedy, from Italian and German to Sanskrit, from  Wagner's opera  to India’s Upanishads. It was indeed a hard task, in spite of the supremely grand efforts by our teachers.

That was the time when we did not have the fingertip wonder of Google Search and to understand an allusion and imbibe its spirit we had to go from pillar to post, that is from the class room to our College Library, and from there to the University Library, the British Library and the American Library, still finding that our search was as futile as in the story of the blind man searching in a dark room for a black hat which was not there. Eliot’s enigmatical allusions, for sure, often eluded us.

It was much later that I came to like more of the poem, though in parts, not as a whole. For instance, there were many lines that all of us in the class liked. Apart from the judgemental opening line on April, there were other lines like

Your shadow at morning striding behind you
Or your shadow at evening rising to meet you
I will show you fear in a handful of dust”

“Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow”

“When I count, there are only you and I together
But when I look ahead, up the white road
There is always another one walking beside you,..”

There were, however, many parts, many passages that were really hard to crack. It was one thing to see the reference source and understand the context, but quite another to realise its literary significance. Therefore, the question that we often found ourselves asking was: Why is he bringing it here, for what purpose? Why such a plethora of dramatis personae  ( bi-gender Tiresias, Madame Sosostris the clairvoyant, Phlebas the Phoenician, Coriolanus, the Hangecd Man, the Smyrna Merchant  etc ) are made to abruptly come in and abruptly go out, adding to the confusion and bewilderment of the reader?

Obviously, these were futile questions as The Waste Land as we see and read today was not only written by Eliot, the pioneer of modernism, but re-moulded and refurbished by a literary product designer of impeccable credentials, Ezra Pound.

Without Pound’s surgical intervention ( he even described it as a caesarean operation done on the poem with him as a male-midwife) in Eliot’s original manuscript, the poem would not have been as popular and as path-breaking as it turned out to be. When asked to edit Eliot’s poem, Pound went at it not only with a surgeon’s scalpel for some careful pruning and  cutting, he obviously carried with him a butcher’s knife for possible larger amputations.

And amputation was the first thing he did on Eliot’s 19-page poem, originally titled “He Do the Police in Different Voices,” which in fact was a quote from Charles Dickens’ novel Our Mutual Friend.

Pound at first sought to make some changes in the first page, which was Part I of the poem with the sub-title Burial of the Dead, its first stanza drifting like this:

First we had a couple of feelers down at Tom’s place
There was old Tom, boiled to the eyes, blind,

(Don’t you remember that time after a dance
Top Hats and all, we and Silk Hat Harry

And Old Tom took us behind and brought out a bottle of fizz,
With old Jane, Tom’s wife; and we got Joe to sing

‘I am proud of all the Irish blood that is in me,
There’s not a man can say a word against me’).

Pound naturally thought there was no point in tinkering with the passage. He simply cut out the entire first page of 54 lines, making the 55th line as the grand, dramatic opening line of the poem:

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land........

This was not the only cut that Pound made in the poem. He removed 72 lines from the third section The Fire Sermon and 83 lines from the fourth, Death by Water. He went at the poem thoroughly, making changes everywhere, reducing the fatty 19- page poem that Eliot gave him to a prim 13-page poem of everlasting impact. Along with Pound, Eliot’s first wife Vivienne also made significant inputs into the poem, especially in the famous pub scene.

If Pound did not have his pound of flesh Eliot’s “He do the Police....” would probably have remained in relative literary obscurity. (And how I wish Pound did not stop with his pound of flesh, but went in for a kilogram or more!)

No wonder Eliot called him  il miglior fabbro (the Better Craftsman) in his remarkable Dedication.

(il miglior fabbro, incidentally, was used for the first time by Dante to pay homage to Troubadour poet Arnaut Daniel who was described so in one scene of Purgatario in his Divine Comedy. Pound himself used it as the title for his chapter on Arnaut Daniel in his 1910 book of literary criticism, The Spirit of Romance).

It was towards the close of the poem, in the section 'What the Thunder Said,' that Eliot turned to eastern spirituality, perhaps in a bid to redeem the lost world that he had been describing  all along The highlight of the section, definitely, was his reference to one of the most important tenets of Hindu spirituality as contained in the  Brihadaranyaka Upanishad, the teaching of Damayatha, Datta and Dayadhwam. Key words in the second Brahmana of the firfth chapter of that Upanishad, they told the story of  what advice Lord Brahma the Creator gave to  groups of Devas, Humans and Asuras, all his children, who met him separately seeking Vidya and proper guidance for carrying on their life missions. Brahma's advice to each group was  one word, DA. He asked them whether they understood it and  they said they did. The Devas understood it as Damyatha, or self-control, the Humans understood it as Datta,  meaning giving others what you have, and the Asuras understood it as Dayadhwam, meaning kindness and compassion for others. And these were obviously the qualities of character that Eliot would prescribe for the redemption of the world.

Eliot chose to end the long poem with the 'shanti mantra' with which many Upanishads begin and end. 'Om Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.' Om is an integral part of the mantra, but Eliot's end line was just  'Shanti, Shanti, Shanti.' Did he forget to put the invocatory word Om or deliberately drop it for his own poetic reasons ?

As The Waste Land  is gearing to celebrate its centenary, I do hope that by now some intrepid researcher or other has tracked every allusion and cracked every conundrum in it,  giving lucid explanations vital for the  easy understanding of the poem.

Even then will it help us to read the poem leisurely and without strain, and savour it as a comprehensive whole? Or will it continue to appear like a collage of allusions and a fractured narrative as I found it in the class six decades ago?


You have made my comment, such as it is, easier and funny. I have liked to bandy about Eliot and I have got away with inflicting his inscrutabilities on guileless lovers of plebeian verse. Your review of a century of The Waste Land is as instructive as it is useful in helping them make sense of it or its lack.

I make bold to quote your two sentences. You round off your scholarly article with this interrogative line: "...Or will it continue to appear like a collage of allusions and a fractured narrative as I found it in the class six decades ago?" Earlier, while discussing how Ezra Pound and Eliot's first wife Vivienne gave the celebrated poem its present shape, and probably sense, you observe: "(And how I wish Pound did not stop with his pound of flesh, but went in for a kilogram or more!)"

Like most of us The Waste Land poet knew it would dazzle the pretentious readers if an aphorism from the eastern canons from the dead lingo are hurled at them. His erudition struggled for expression when he drew upon the shanti mantra in context or out. You have elaborated with due reverence his quote from the Brihadaranyaka Upanishad. There is no way to know whether Pound added to Eliot's text some more eastern wisdom, or edited some out.

In sheer conceit I feel Pound or Vivienne or Eliot could have used ‘Nasadiya Sooktam’ which may dazzle the reader most, for a pedantic show, I may say. It covers questions of life and beyond, being and nothingness. no one knows a thing about it. Perhaps the one who is up there, holding court, knows, or, even he may not know. So who knows? The poet? The product designer? Or my worthy friend who ruminates on a century of The Waste Land?

All in all, it is fun throwing Eliot around. I know about him little, or less. But I know I need to show of my familiarity with him to pretend I can recognize someone who defines modernity when I see one. Such people need not necessarily make literal sense of what they say or find their instant way to the lips of the literary masses. Yet they will be the icons of their age. Ulysses, it is now beginning to be confessed, is difficult reading but Joyce stands between the old literary order and the new.

You have cleverly touched upon certain elemental, if elementary, questions of life and letters. It must set fire to the thoughts of those who know Eliot. For those who do not know, it will be mere fire, no thought. To quote Nasadiya again, one who presides over it all from up in the sky knows. Or he doesn't. – K Govindan Kutty

“I 've read with great pleasure your piece on Eliot's The Waste Land. It took me to my postgraduate days, back in the early sixties, when I was an avid reader of English Literature, wandering far beyond the boundaries of the syllabus. The modern poets they taught us then were Hopkins and Yeats, if, that is, they could be called modern.. The Waste Land hovered way beyond, but I read it-- and was perplexed and fascinated.  

I have since read the Eliot poem times without number, teased and tantalized by the numerous allusions, but fascinated by its strange beauty -- its turn of phrase, its music and its lyrical excellence. When the poem first hit the literary scene, many eyebrows were raised. Trollope asked Eliot whether he was trying to pull a fast one on the readers; many critics dismissed it as a crass attempt at literary joinery. But many discerning minds have found it a seminal poem transforming the poetry scene, as indeed the earlier The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock sought to do (Let us go then, you and I / When the evening is spread out against the sky/ Like a patient etherised upon a table).

Apart from his poetry, I have made an effort to study Eliot the man. I have been fascinated, and sometimes intrigued, by his personality. You may remember the poem I wrote on Eliot and Valerie, which we discussed at one of our monthly meetings. Uncharitable views have been aired about him. He was a lonely and unhappy man for the better part of his life; he had said that he knew happiness only during his childhood and the brief period following his marriage to Valerie. From what I could make out of his life (and his poetry), I am inclined to think that he was a good man. We have the testimony of Auden who said that in Eliot's presence you couldn't think of a bad thing. A biography has come out recently giving a balanced and objective account of his life. And I hope as more and more of his private papers are taken out of the sealed chests gathering dust in the various libraries and made public, he will be seen for the man that he was and his name vindicated.

You have done a splendid job, writing about The Waste Land so eloquently in the centenary year-- and that too in the month of April. The cruellest month? Mixing memory with desire, as the siren's song was supposed to do? Is it because he lost in the month of April the young doctor with whom he was staying in Paris, as one critic has insinuated? (It was alleged that Eliot had homosexual tendencies). Would it be far-fetched to think that April IS the cruellest month because it was in April that Jesus had to die on the cross? –

M Mohankumar


More by :  P. Ravindran Nayar

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