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Lines 1-7 Summary
"April is the cruelest month ... with dried tubers." The first seven lines of the poem are uttered by the prophet narrator, Tiresias, who was a hermaphroditic "seer" attached to king Oedipus court. He gives us a graphic picture of what is apparently a natural waste land scenario, which focuses on the deadness of nature. However, at a deeper level, this picture of a desert landscape also refers to a mental and spiritual waste land, which brings only sterile desires and futile memories.
Eliot, in these opening lines strikes an ironic contrast between the modern waste land and that in remote and primitive civilizations. Ancient societies celebrated the return of spring through the practices of their vegetation cults with their fertility rites and sympathetic magic. These rituals demonstrate the unique harmony that then existed between human cultures and the natural environment. But in the 20th century waste land, April is not the kindest but "the cruelest month," as it merely breeds "Lilacs out of the dead land." It stirs "memory and desire to no fruitful purpose, apparently. There is no quickening of the human spirit. Sex here becomes sterile, breeding not fulfillment in life but mere disgust and vague apprehensions.
Line 1, "April ... month" is a fine poetic echo of the opening lines in Chaucer"s Prologue to the Canterbury Tales (1400): "Whanne that Aprille with his shoures soote". There Chaucer celebrates the return of the joyous season of spring and its refreshing rains that instill vigorous life into the roots of plants and engenders the birth of a new cycle of natureís fecundity. But in Eliotís "waste land," there seems little hope of renewed life as the early spring rains manage to stir only "a little life" in the "dull roofs" and "dried tubers" that await their renewal each spring.
Lines 2-8, "Dead land ... dull roots ... dried tubers ... forgetful show": Usually, Easter Sunday, which commemorates Christís resurrection, falls in April. But Eliot ironically comments here that April is the "cruelest month" as the stirring of natural life and the spiritual resurrection symbolized in Easter fill humans today not with hope but fear and apprehension, if not despair. This is clearly suggested in the phrases "dead land," "dull roots," "dried tubers" and the bleak picture of earth covered in "forgetful snow."
These four phrases suggest the bareness of earth and vacuity of life today. In ancient fertility cults, spring was celebrated as the propitious season, which brought back potency to the Fisher King and fertility to his land.
Line 2, "Breeding lilacs...": According to traditional vegetation myths, Lilacs symbolized fertility. But Eliot links up the lilacs referred to here to the "hyacinths" of line 35. Both these flowers have poetic associations of meanings with death - the lilac for its purple color of mourning and exquisite beauty were perhaps celebrated by Whitman in his elegy for Lincoln "When Lilacs last in the Doovyard Bloomíed" (See note on Hyacinths Line 35)