Having read T. S. Eliot as an adolescent, I always regretfully found his poetry lacking in something ever afterwards as I became older. I don't know Eliot's importance now as a Poet or whether it actually matters to know that. I read Eliot so much then, including his Plays and Literary writings that I felt his achievement was unique. However, I fail to relate to his poetry now, as if it has not been written for me. In other words, the poetry is still great but it does not do me any good.
Auditory imagination as a concept that Eliot talked about is really fine. That is how I coped with poems like Gerontion, Prufrock etc, having never myself walked such streets or been etherized upon a table. I still believe that the Four Quartets are well written though pretentious. It is to the first few lines of the Waste Land that I wish to draw attention to. The first four lines are so etched in my memory, engraved in a way, that when I read them for the first time or now, the thrill is not lost.
April is the cruellest month, raising lilacs out of the dead land
mixing memory and desire
stirring dull roots with spring rain.
With the passage of time, I have always taken liberty with the April of the first line and replaced it with time in general. I give to these lines what they might not apparently mean. Thus, the general becomes specific and the words become a totem for me, written for me, this being the hallmark of great poetry.
Cruellest month.....therefore other months are also cruel. But April is the cruellest.....why? Let us try to find out. It is raising lilacs from the dead land, mixing memory and desire.
what is memory? I find that there can be no memory without a longing or a plea for returning back. Any good memory is an oxymoron. Memories bring pain because they convey loss. Memory is going back in time. Since it has been lost, thus it cannot be regained. But here April is raising lilacs out of the dead land. In this movement, there must be some hope.
However, Eliot says mixing......memory and desire. I personally feel, for what it is worth, that they are the same things. Hence, there cannot be any mixing. Desire for the past and memory from the past are almost the same. The swing in memory that has stopped, the chain from the past that has fallen away, the unretrievable twist in the rope of time........memory and desire, desire and memory. The same.
Stirring dull roots with spring rain.........I will not pretend to forget that the speaker of the lines has borne out a winter, a warm winter, where the earth was covered with forgetful snow. For myself, the warm winter is always the days in the past, lost, lost. However, my memory cries for a specific loss or losses, when I did not know that there could be a forgetting in the memory process.
Naively, memory seemed a shelf from which books could be picked up and facts restored. However, memory has lost its face becuse I have forgotten, I have got covered with forgetful snow. And now, what I think I remember is a mixing either of memory and desire or one of these. And all this is unbearable, all of this brings pain. Hence the cruellest month.
I know that the speaker of Eliot's lines reads much in the night and goes south in the winter. But that is only a way to escape. Yet, there is no escape. We are prisioners of our memory, prisioners of desire. We must pray for snow, forgetful snow.
If these lines have other symbolism, Oedipal, sexual etc, I do not want to know. For me, these words are a swing back in time, to that garden where a magnolia bloomed, where the smells of April had taken over the forgetful snows of winter. I can see all that now, but whether it is desire or memory, I do not know. All I know is that it is quite painful and very cruel.