In observance of National Poetry Month, every Friday of April Micah Mattix will be examining one great line of verse. -Ed.
The famous first line of T. S. Eliot’s The Waste Land was almost certainly not written in April but in January. In a letter on January 23, 1921, Eliot refers to the nascent poem as “the first writing of any kind I have done for six months.” Two weeks later, he showed the completed first section “in 4 parts” to Wyndham Lewis. (Eliot would add a fifth part in May, which he placed at the beginning of the poem, but he would later remove it at Ezra Pound’s suggestion.) These details, along with other material evidence, show, as Lawrence Rainey has argued in Revisiting “The Waste Land,” that the poem was most likely begun in January and completed sometime in December 1921.
What makes the line great is its concision and ambiguity.
As in mathematics, where formulas are reduced to their simplest, most “elegant” form, we find the economy of expression inherently pleasurable. This pleasure might be explained in neo-Darwinian terms. The economical sentence reflects our mostly economical world in which everything that exists has evolved because of its usefulness. In Why Lyrics Last, Brian Boyd argues that the economy of expression (as well as patterned language) developed as a means of more effectively holding the attention of hearers, which, of course, is a useful skill for survival.
This may or may not be true, but whatever the root of concision, the second attribute—a ambiguity—cannot so easily be explained in causal terms. In his classic Seven Types of Ambiguity, William Empson notes how ambiguity expresses a meaning that cannot be reduced to the denotative meaning of words alone. One type is when two ideas seem not to agree. This is the type we have in Eliot’s line, where “cruel” seems not to agree with the idea of spring (expressed in the metonymical “April”), which we associate with the positive attribute of life. For Empson, such ambiguities can be chalked up to the complexity of reality, the conflicted psyche of the poet, or error of expression.
For Boyd, ambiguity evolved for the same reason that concision did: to develop our capacity for attention. But this is far from convincing. There’s no doubt that ambiguity requires us to focus our attention on a particular problem (in this case, the meaning of the ambiguous line), but the question is what is the problem we are focusing on and why does it produce in us such a profound fascination. After all, ambiguity is not only a key characteristic of poetry but of all art.
This is hardly novel, but it seems to me that ambiguity is an attempt to “name” spiritual or immaterial realities (love, goodness, God, the soul) that are expressed through the material world but that cannot be reduced to it.
In this view, Eliot’s “April is the cruellest month” is not so much about his conflicted response to spring (rooted in some forgotten childhood trauma) or about creating a linguistic puzzle to help us develop our skills of attention but about hope.
What makes April cruel in the poem (among other things) is that the hope of new life that spring evokes is, at least for Eliot at the time, always temporal. Unfulfilled hope is the worst sort of pain, and the speaker of the poem initially claims that it is preferable to live in winter, covered in “forgetful snow.” Yet the rest of the poem is largely an act of remembering, as lines, characters, and scenes from the Bible, The Divine Comedy, Metamorphoses, Les Fleurs du mal, Augustine, Spenser, and Shakespeare are trotted out in an effort to temporarily recapture something of what Eliot considered the West’s vibrant (Christian) past.
So we discover, if hope is always temporal, it is also inescapable. As sure as April returns every year, we cannot cease to hope. There is something in us that pushes us to hope in some final consummation, some final life in which there is no winter, no death. Thus, hope in an eternal spring is a fact of the human mind, and this fact either points to nothing, which makes us the most miserable of all the animals; or, as Eliot would later believe, it is a fact that corresponds to a spiritual reality, no less real for having no exact material equivalent.
In short, ambiguity affirms the reality of something we otherwise might see every reason to reject as nonsense according to the “grammar” or constraints of the material world but cannot. This is, as Geoffrey Hill put it, part of the “witness” of poetry.
Micah Mattix is an assistant professor of literature at Houston Baptist University.