April is the cruellest month, breeding
The opening line of this poem is one of its most famous. It’s an allusion to the opening line of Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales, in which Chaucer expresses the hope, sensuality, and spiritual renewal associated with April:
Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour…
(When April with his showers sweet
The drought of March has pierced unto the root
And bathed every vein with such liquor
Of which virtue engendered is the flower…)
Eliot chops and screws the Chaucer quote, setting a dark, elegiac tone that persists throughout the poem.
April serves as a good way to open the poem, as it comes from the Latin aperire, which means to open. The line has also been noted as a reference to WWI, with spring (April) being a popular time among military commanders to launch new offensives — this meant making men charge into no-man’s land to be mowed down by machine gun fire. A month of new life becomes a time of death. Finally, April is most often the month when Christians celebrate Easter, which ties into Eliot’s themes of rebirth through sacrifice, i.e. with the Fisher King later in the poem.
The cruelty in April lies not only in its showers (raining all the time!) but also in its generative capacity: the living dead in the Waste Land don’t like to be reminded of hope, life, sensuality, etc.
The last words of the first three lines (and lines 5-6)— “breeding,” “mixing,” “stirring,” etc.—lend a sort of driving narrative rhythm to the start of the poem.
Why does Eliot’s poem begin with a reference to Chaucer’s “The Canterbury Tales”? Possibly so as to acknowledge the latter as the beginning of a tradition of English poetry, as well as an accomplished innovation in its time.
How does the first line of “The Waste Land” relate to “The Canterbury Tales”? April in the latter is the month of pilgrimage to a sacred shrine. It can be said to be the cruellest not only because it ‘pierces’ the drought of March, but also because the pilgrims in “The Canterbury Tales” told stories of romance that were full of cruelty and violence. They were also related to ‘breeding’, as all revolved around the themes of marriage, infidelity, desire or adultery.
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