"April is the cruellest month"

22 Jan 2020 4:12 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)

Writing to Hale on April 12, 1932, Eliot reflects on the unkindness of April, in a paraphrase of himself that would be considered an embarrassing journalistic cliché from anyone else. This remarkable letter weaves echoes of the opening lines of The Waste Land together with language and motifs of the as-yet unwritten “Burnt Norton” and “East Coker.” The smells of early spring and late fall disturb him, he tells her; they bring to mind memories that lie dormant in winter and summer. Mostly he lives as if underground, but then sometimes he comes up with a sudden recognition of the meaningfulness of the present, past, or “what might have been” (“Burnt Norton”).

Less frequently, when he surfaces, he glimpses a pattern of which he is a part. The possibility of self-transcendence in a larger design motivates his efforts to help other people, not necessarily those to whom he is close. Small acts may be significant because of how they fit into this design. Eliot elaborates his idea in language eerily similar to “a lifetime burning in every moment” and “the pattern is new in every moment” (“East Coker”). The goal is to move upwards gradually, though not towards happiness; echoing The Waste Land again, he identifies the goal of life as “the peace that passeth understanding.

Eliot continues these reflections on April 20, again observing that the smells of early spring flowers and the rotting organic matter of fall disturb his emotions. Do other people have such feelings? Then he wonders if he has made any progress on the upward movement he mentioned in his earlier letter. Has he, like the man in Plato’s cave, fixed his attention on an illusion rather than on the reality? 

Halting here at the “frontier of metaphysics or mysticism,” I will just note the likely biographical through-line Eliot draws in these letters between the aching “memory and desire” of The Waste Land and his qualification in “Burnt Norton”: “Desire itself is movement/ Not in itself desirable.” 

With apologies to my readers, now that classes have started, I may not be able to post every day.


  • 22 Jan 2020 5:18 PM | CR Mittal
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  • 22 Jan 2020 5:31 PM | Tracey Holt
    I enjoy reading this post every day, have always been curious about the contents of these letters. They are a treasure. Hope you will be able to continue!
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    • 23 Jan 2020 9:00 AM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
      Thank you, Tracey! I will definitely continue, probably on a M/W/F schedule.
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  • 23 Jan 2020 7:01 AM | Jonathan Morse
    About the "embarrassing journalistic cliché," it has been pointed out (by whom I don't remember -- in a TLS essay long ago) that at <em>The Criterion</em> Eliot had a weakness for poets who wrote imitation Eliot. If the epigone included words like "rock" and "dry," he had a pretty good chance of getting his poem published.
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  • 24 Jan 2020 12:20 PM | Frances Dickey (Administrator)
    I changed this post to correct the date of Eliot's letter, which was April 12 not April 1; I mistranscribed the number in my notes due to the lightness of Eliot's worn-out typewriter ribbon.
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