By Heidie (Raine) Senseman
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 Waste Land
Let’s begin with a brief lesson in literary interpretation.
When T.S. Eliot wrote of April’s cruelty in his five-part, 434-line poetic masterpiece, he wrote with a mixture of irony and sincerity. Ironic: that April’s renewal and life strike us as more nurturing than cruel. Sincere: that the liveliness of April seemed to mock the death and illness ravaging post-WWI Europe — the scene in which Eliot wrote.
Over a century later and on the other side of the Atlantic ocean, I can’t relate to Eliot’s immediate historical context. I don’t have personal memories of the Battle of Arras or the Spanish flu to taint my perception of spring.
However, on a much smaller scale, and for much pithier reasons, I can say amen to April’s cruelty.
I provide the following evidence to support my claim:
I stepped outside my apartment yesterday and was struck by my neighbor’s welcome mat. The wind — the type that makes me fear cross-country runners will be whisked into the clouds like Elijah — lifted their mat from the pavement and to my right shoulder in a torrent. I survived.
I’ve witnessed other victims of spring’s climate, too. Last week, when it was raining so hard that the rain appeared to be jumping vertically out of the sidewalk, I counted six umbrellas turning inside-out by the force of the wind. That’s a sight that inspires pity. You watch your peers, helpless, wet and getting wetter, wield this massive, awkward baton with an inverted canopy that pulls them as it catches in the gusts. The poor creatures.
I also helped a friend restore her umbrella in a damp vestibule that day. We stepped on its rusted joints until they popped back into place. What a useful tool, the inverted umbrella.
My hatred of rain enhances my distaste for spring weather. I am one of those ailed individuals who wear glasses, and glasses are not equipped with windshield wipers like modern vehicles. Thus, when it rains, I either remove my glasses and stumble around like a dolt, or I allow raindrops to contort my vision. Neither makes me feel particularly charitable toward the spring storms.
Other spring features: Snow! Thunderstorms! Tornado warnings! I spent two hours in the library basement a few weeks back because it pleased God to make the winds circle that afternoon. My husband called me moments after the warning sounded to ensure I took shelter because he knows my midwestern heritage means I regard tornado warnings about as seriously as the summer breeze.
But it would be unfair of me to deny the intermittent sunshine that peeks through March, April and May. I’ve gone on a handful of nice walks this spring. This past Sunday, I walked from campus to the Cedarville park and sat on the swings for a bit. My only complaint: the puddle-oceans pooling atop park grass because the water table is so desperately saturated. Those puddles turned my shoes into portable swamps.
Yes, I understand the ecological benefits of spring — that the brown stuff turns green, that flowers open up, that rabbits and groundhogs nose out of their cold naps into daybreak. But why should people like spring? Why isn’t it a knock-down argument when Eliot calls April cruel?
I try to weigh questions like that. I’ve listed some potential answers below:
- We’re suckers for a good build-up. When ice melts (even just for a day), and when rain gutters spill over, we get a sense that the hard ice ground is thawing out. It isn’t warm yet, but we remember that the days weren’t always freeze-outs. That anticipation carries us through tax season and final exams.
- I have an Irish theology professor who argues that his ancestors produced some of history’s best literature because Ireland was always too nasty for its citizens to step outside and, say, play cricket or dig a hole. I tend to think he’s right. When your sky is gray and wet, it’s more fun to invent a new one in whatever draft is open on the dining room table. Thus, bad weather = more good books.
- I will admit, and I mean very sparingly, that there’s a little bit of magic in watching a dead world come alive again. And it’s not mocking. And it’s not infernal. It’s a sort of peculiar hope, whispering in leaf buds, whispering in the title of a poem my great-grandfather who I never met wrote when he realized cancer was soon to swallow him whole. “There’s always another spring,” he wrote, and his words return to me each April more profoundly than the last.
Heidie (Raine) Senseman is a senior English major with a concentration in creative and journalistic writing. When she isn’t drafting her capstone paper, she likes drinking La Croix and reading Brian Doyle essays.