Why is April “the Cruelest Month”? T.S. Eliot’s Masterpiece of Pandemic Poetry
April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain
-T.S. Eliot, “The Wasteland”
As we enter the month of April in what amounts to a global quarantine, expect to hear a lot of people quoting TS Eliot’s poem “The Waste Land.” And by “hear” I mean “see memes on social media.” Because we don’t often hear folks say much of anything anymore. That is the dark irony of April that Eliot captured so brilliantly. This may be the first April in anyone’s memory where Eliot’s opening lines make sense.
To understand why April the “cruelest month” for Eliot, we need to understand that he is not making a general argument about Aprilness. April is not inherently cruel. But Eliot is ventriloquizing on behalf of the inhabitants of the world of his poem — a bizarre, high-Modernist fantasy realm called “the Waste Land” — a land that has been profoundly shaped by a global pandemic.
Eliot wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. He and is wife caught the Spanish Flu in December of 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery. Literary critics have just recently started to explore the profound influence that the global pandemic had on the post-war literature that we have long called “Modernist,” and on passages like this one from “The Waste Land,” in which Eliot intentionally overlays Dante’s Inferno onto the London cityscape::
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.
This is a world of both history and myth. Historically, Eliot constructed his world out of pieces of London during and immediately after the Spanish Flu. Between 1918 and 1920, as many as one hundred million people across the globe died from the Spanish Flu, far more than were killed in World War I. In England, a quarter of the population came down with the disease, and more than 200,000 people died. The heavy death toll did much more than even the carnage of war to shape Eliot’s…