Essay / Literature

April: An Argument in Poems

April is the cruellest month. So begins, famously, T. S. Eliot’s The Wasteland, a prophetic and incisive poem (albeit abstruse and alienating), capturing in word and image some of the losses and decadences that marked the modern world.

April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out the of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Winter kept us warm, covering
Earth in forgetful snow, feeding
A little life with dried tubers.

April’s villainies: breeding, mixing, and stirring. She won’t let the world stay asleep. The poet accuses the cruel month with his enjambments (the way he won’t finish the phrase at the end of the line). Breeding doesn’t seem like a bad thing. But “breeding lilacs out of the dead land” is a bit foul. Still, none of her activities are obviously cruel, until brought to comparison with those of winter. Winter sustains differently: keeping, covering, and feeding. Winter protects, April exposes. Winter forgets, April remembers. Winter pacifies, April excites. For the reader to concede to the narrator, she must be persuaded that wakefulness is not all it’s cracked up to be. She must recognize that desire in itself does not promise its fulfillment. So springtime, though evocative, doesn’t come through.

Another twentieth century poet, Edna St. Vincent Millay, offers a similar but more explicit April protest in her poem “Spring.”

To what purpose, April, do you return again?
Beauty is not enough.
You cannot quiet me with the redness
Of little leaves opening stickily.
I know what I know.
The sun is hot on my neck as I observe
The spikes of the crocus.
The smell of the earth is good.
It is apparent that there is no death.
But what does that signify?
Not only under the ground are the brains of men
Eaten by maggots.
Life in itself
Is nothing,
An empty cup, a flight of uncarpeted stairs.
It is not enough that yearly, down this hill,
Comes like an idiot, babbling and strewing flowers.

The poem, I think quite deliberately, leaves little room for imagination. The reader has no way around the crassness of the imagery of death, which provides a stark alternative to the pretty play springtime stages. The speaker’s imaginative commitments to some sort of existential nihilism preclude alternate interpretations of even appearances, since April makes it seem “that there is no death.” Since April can say nothing to explain herself, since she can do nothing but decorate death, since the world has already made its meaninglessness apparent, the speaker exposes and accuses. Earth is not a womb but a grave. April has no real power and the speaker protests her senseless, though pretty, attempt at a cosmic cover-up.

Both Eliot’s and Millay’s poems resist the more conventional springtime associations with the perpetuation of beauty and rebirth. It is well worth entertaining doubt, critique, and exposure when convention becomes crusty and superficial. And twentieth century literature is a treasure trove of such voices. I remember my relief and gladness at the discovery of these particular poems in what was probably a crucial season in my own development.

But this spring I find myself turning to other poetic renderings of April. Perhaps because I garden, perhaps because I hope for the resurrection of the dead, perhaps because I have grown tired of my own cynicism what I am really drawn to today is a happier poem about April, one that delights and celebrates and is itself bountiful like spring.

(Let me say, it took me, once an adult reader, a little while to take e. e. cummings seriously. Since “no caps” is so much the rage that my church’s logo is in all lowercase letters and since it takes some of my honors students four years to learn comma rules, the power of his transgressive originality is fairly lost on me. If you have similar objections, I sympathize. And, I offer you this poem with hope that it will change your mind.)

when faces called flowers float out of the ground
and breathing is wishing and wishing is having-
but keeping is downward and doubting and never
-it’s april (yes, april; my darling) it’s spring!
yes the pretty birds frolic as spry as can fly
yes the little fish gambol as glad as can be
(yes the mountains are dancing together)

when every leaf opens without any sound
and wishing is having and having is giving-
but keeping is doting and nothing and nonsense
-alive; we’re alive, dear: it’s (kiss me now) spring!
now the pretty birds hover so she and so he
now the little fish quiver so you and so i
(now the mountains are dancing, the mountains)

when more than was lost has been found has been found
and having is giving and giving is living-
but keeping is darkness and winter and cringing
-it’s spring (all our night becomes day) o, it’s spring!
all the pretty birds dive to the heart of the sky
all the little fish climb through the mind of the sea
(all the mountains are dancing; are dancing)

My favorite of this poem’s accomplishments is its bringing together bounce and bounty and spring and sprung all under the auspices of gift. Spring is generous. Cummings captures this even in the poem’s rhythm. He uses stress meter (where rhythm is kept by stresses but not syllables, like a nursery rhyme not a sonnet) so that the poem has a consistent pulse but lines are variously thick and thin with words. The pattern is less formulaic but deeply reliable. I hear in this poem some response to the earlier protest poems: Spring is fulfilling, not in our consumption of its benefits (which do, of course, pass away), but in love-giving and life-giving and self-forgetting abandon.

(Another of my favorite springtime poems is Gerard Manley Hopkins “Spring.” It is as least as celebratory and much more Christian than Cummings’s, but refers to May instead of April, so doesn’t fit the post. But you should definitely read it!)

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