April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Seeming to begin with one of Eliot’s unaccountable metaphors, the poem actually starts off with a particularly bleak assessment of life itself, for it is April when life starts, and it is the start of life, its beginnings, which is its most cruel aspect, as far as Eliot is concerned: would we not be better off if we never had existed? The opening rhyming couplet (and then triplet) is not allowed to strike the reader with any resonance owing to the effective caesura and strong enjambment of both opening lines, so there is no rhythm carrying the lines on, no music, but a steady beat, like the ringing of a funeral bell, which strikes the reader, reinforcing the title of this section: The Burial of the Dead. Indeed, it is the present participles (the –ing words) which seem to bang out this rhythm, setting up a strong pattern as though they themselves were the starting point of each line, and then, once they set this pattern up, they run on to the shorter line in the end which pulls the reader up short, with “spring rain” striking the reader as something altogether malign, as opposed to having he positive connotations it would normally have: for a poem concerning itself with the absence of water, and thereby the absence of nourishment, particularly spiritual nourishment in this meaningless modern world, the real nourishment which begins the poem leaves the reader at something of a loss: something is missing from this world. But then, Eliot refers to the “dead land”, an almost oxymoronic description in the context of this land seeming so fertile, and that the lilacs are bred “out of the dead land” as though pulled out is counter to how we would normally think of growth: why is Eliot defamiliarising such a common life process, if not to set up this poem’s central theme: life itself, in the early twentieth century, is corrupt. “Memory and desire” are presented through the metaphor of “mixing” as things in the ground as opposed to neutral abstract concepts: they seem stained by association with the dead ground, and then with the “dull roots” as though these things, memory, desire, or life itself, is not really growing. What Eliot is giving us here is a warping of the traditional view of life and its profusion being universally good.
Under the brown fog of a winter dawn,
A crowd flowed over London Bridge, so many,
I had not thought death had undone so many.
Sighs, short and infrequent, were exhaled,
And each man fixed his eyes before his feet.
Flowed up the hill and down King William Street,
To where Saint Mary Woolnoth kept the hours
With a dead sound on the final stroke of nine.
It is the long vowel sounds of the opening few lines that give them their especially mournful tone, but it is the particularly short opening line which sets up what is to follow, apparently an explanation of or description of this supposedly “unreal city”, which is the early twentieth century London where Eliot decides to set this poem examining the hollowing out of modern life. There is something essentially alienating and unnatural about the city scene, especially as Eliot describes it in his early poems. But it is also its anonymity, the state which it enforces on its flowing “crowd”, that Eliot seems to be foregrounding here. But it is in his manipulation of the steady ten syllable lines that he sets up, where the second syllable of “many” on both lines is a syllable too many, thereby making this word stand out, thereby drawing attention to the sheer number of people. Of course, the line is taken from The Divine Comedy, and the reader will see Eliot’s equating the crowds of clerks on their way to a day’s work in London with the spirits in purgatory who knew neither good nor evil when they were on earth. Eliot is getting the reader to see London, as the place representative of modern life, the city, as somehow purgatorial. The grim imagery of the line of “And each man fixed his eyes before his feet” seems to stress this part of the poem’s somber tone, but then the strong rhyme which follows it, end-stopped too, takes that away in a well timed touch of bathos: there is nothing tragic about this, Eliot is saying. There is nothing poetic or lyrical about man’s purgatorial existence, it simply lacks all meaning: that meaning provided of old by the rhythms of the land or the old traditions and ceremonies. We have been cut adrift in this modern world; all we are left with are the seemingly random and meaningless street names “King William Street” and church names “Saint Mary Woolnoth”, names which no longer retain the meaning of old. That the “dead sound” and the “final stroke” land on the seemingly harmless hour of nine, has an echo of the opening image: it is that starting into this life that is the most heartrending, not the going out of it. But we will soon be confronted by the end of this day, the nighttime, from which we can expect no comfort either.
With an odd collection of faltering rhythms and faint dissonances Eliot sets up a disquieting vision of the modern world. Nothing sits well or follows neatly.
Along the reaches of the street
Held in a lunar synthesis,
Whispering lunar incantations
Dissolve the floors of memory
And all its clear relations
Its divisions and precisions.
Why does a random end-stopped line begin the poem?
Why does Eliot have the first line clearly signify anything? Noon or midnight?
What tone is established by the decidedly unpoetic opening line?
Why does Eliot use the definite article, as in “the street”, rather than the indefinite article, as in “a street”?
Apart from mention of “the street” why does Eliot only give us only abstractions that the reader can’t really grab hold of?
Who or what is doing the holding, as in “held in a lunar synthesis”, or the “Whispering”, or the dissolving, as in “Dissolve the floor of memories”? Why does Eliot hide or deny any agent or agency?
What is the effect of a lack of character or person in the opening of the poem?
What could be meant by “lunar incantations” or “the floors of memory” if anything?
Why does Eliot’s use such unfathomable images?
What is the effect of the series of internal and end of line rhymes “incantations”, “relations”, “divisions”, “precisions”?
Does Eliot manage to establish a dominant tone in the opening of the poem? Does he want to?
To what “divisions and precisions” is the poem referring?
The repetition of the word “lunar” might well establish an atmosphere for the reader: what is it?
How does Eliot make this such a peculiar start to a poem?
How are the reader’s expectations shaped by Eliot?
Does the rhyme that the poem eventually stumbles across appreciably affect the rhythm? The tone?
Every street lamp that I pass
Beats like a fatalistic drum,
And through the spaces of the dark
Midnight shakes the memory
As a madman shakes a dead geranium.
How might the sudden appearance of the first person affect the reader?
The image of a street lamp beating “like a fatalistic drum” is an odd one? How can the reader make sense of it?
Though we have finally been introduced to a person who has some agency, in that he passes – “I pass” – is this agent asserted strongly against the midnight, which “shakes the memory” or the street lamp that “beats like a fatalistic drum”?
What of the sudden appearance of “a madman”?
Might the appearance of “the madman” create a story or scene that was becoming too coherent or tangible for Eliot’s purposes?
What is the effect of the almost ridiculously strong rhyme of “drum” and “geranium”?
If the “geranium” could be seen as a most unpoetic of flowers – if only because of its comical sound – why does Eliot use it? Why not a rose, a lily, or a daisy?
The image of “Midnight shakes the memory / As a madman shakes a dead geranium” is one of Eliot’s most outlandish and difficult, if not impossible to process: what is he trying to do with it then?
How is the reader to feel by the end of the first stanza?
The street lamp sputtered,
The street lamp muttered,
The street lamp said, “Regard that woman
Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door
Which opens on her like a grin.
Why does Eliot persist with the precise references to time, which once more begin a stanza?
What is the effect of the repetition of “The street lamp” at the opening of three succeeding lines?
Once more Eliot gives inanimate objects agency – the street lamp sputters, mutters and then says. Does this do anything other than render the world of the poem strange and alien?
With the imperative “Regard” the poem introduces the second person, which it then labels with the second person pronoun on the following line: why does Eliot drop the second person in now? can this second person be anyone other than the reader?
Why does Eliot choose to give voice to the street lamp as opposed to any other character who the reader might seek to ascribe characteristics, feel familiar with, and even identify with?
Now that something seems to be happening – “that woman / Who hesitates toward you in the light of the door” – will the reader get caught up in a narrative and involved with the poem’s strange world?
However, instead of “you” or “that woman” doing anything now, it is the door – “Which opens on her like a grin” – what of “that woman” and “you”? are they incapable of meaningful action?
The malevolence which is manifest in the final line seems to come out of nowhere: what is the modern world of Eliot’s imagining?
You see the border of her dress
Is torn and stained with sand,
And you see the corner of her eye
Twists like a crooked pin.”
We are getting more concrete images now – “the border of her dress / Is torn and stained with sand” – does Eliot succeed in getting the reader to picture a particular scene?
Why does Eliot begin the third line with the seemingly redundant conjunction: “and”? Why ruin any rhythm that the poem begins to build up here? And why give the reader the false impression that they are being told a coherent story?
The final image is striking – but just what is the effect on the reader of being presented with such an image compared to what’s gone before?
If the final image is the most effective, what does this say about Eliot’s view of modern man and the conditions in which he exists?
Considering the poets lexical choice here – “torn”, “twisted”, “stained” – and elsewhere, what could you imagine his purpose is?
What might this random woman, who is poorly drawn and only dimly imagined, symbolize in Eliot’s view of the world and man’s place in it?
The memory throws up high and dry
A crowd of twisted things;
A twisted branch upon the beach
Eaten smooth, and polished
As if the world gave up
The secret of its skeleton,
Stiff and white.
The recurrence of the word “twists” / “twisted” must strike a certain resonance for the reader. What is the exact effect Eliot is hoping to produce?
The memory reappears here, once we have fallen back outside of what is ascribed to the street lamp’s voice: is this poem about the memory? If so, what is Eliot saying about this theme?
The idiomatic “high and dry” seems out of place in such a poem; why does Eliot lapse into such a pointedly conversational tone at this point? Is he undermining a previously established tone?
Most of these lines are weak run-on lines, except for “As if the world gave up” – which is quite a strong run-on line; what is the effect of this on the poem’s rhythm? And how does this enhance or detract from the meaning?
There is quite a strong and graphic image of a skeleton carefully constructed in these lines, until the skeleton itself is mentioned towards the end: why is Eliot drawing the reader’s attention so strongly to this image? Is the skeleton to serve as a symbol? If so, what for?
Again it is abstract concepts or inanimate objects that act: the “memory” “throws up”, or the sea eats, polishes, and gives up secrets; where is our protagonist? Where is man?
A broken spring in a factory yard,
Rust that clings to the form that the strength has left
Hard and curled and ready to snap.
This whole stanza lacks a person – first, second or third –any kind of human protagonist at all: what does this tell us about what Eliot is trying to do in this stanza?
By presenting the reader here with a random scene of urban decay, what is Eliot trying to achieve? Is it the arbitrariness of the collection of images that strikes the reader, or the images themselves, each in turn?
The street-lamp said,
“Remark the cat which flattens itself in the gutter,
Slips out its tongue
And devours a morsel of rancid butter.”
The specificity of the time is continued as though it was a motif, has its significance changed for the reader?
Is Eliot attempting to make a character, or distinct voice, out of the street lamp? If not, why does he continue to attribute speech to it? What could be the possible purpose?
We are given yet another strong and fairly malevolent image; does the very strong, almost harsh, rhyme of “gutter” and “butter” serve the image or undermine it? Is this an example of bathos on Eliot’s part? If so, why? Why at this point in the poem? Why with this particular image?
The imperative “Remark” implicitly brings back into play the second person who has already appeared in the poem – how does this affect the poem’s development?
So the hand of the child, automatic,
Slipped out and pocketed a toy that was running along the quay.
I could see nothing behind that child’s eye.
I have seen eyes in the street
Trying to peer through lighted shutters,
And a crab one afternoon in a pool,
An old crab with barnacles on his back,
Gripped the end of a stick which I held him.
How does this reversion to the first person strike the reader?
How might the reader account for this profusion of pretty stark images?
Has Eliot’s accumulation of random images amounted to anything definite yet, or just a general feeling of loneliness, meaninglessness, and alienation?
Is it too much to consider the crab gripping “the end of a stick which I held him” as some kind of symbol for modern man’s condition?
And what of the recurring motif of the eye? An “eye” is referred to twice here, and the word “peer” is used: in this poem who is looking and who is looked at? And how might that tie in with Eliot’s themes?
The lamp sputtered,
The lamp muttered in the dark.
The lamp hummed:
“Regard the moon,
La lune ne garde aucune rancune,
She winks a feeble eye,
She smiles into corners.
She smooths the hair of the grass.
The moon has lost her memory.
Time moves relentlessly on: how is this significant for Eliot’s overall meaning?
The repetition of “The lamp” and each time followed by a dynamic verb in the past tense is a very strong pattern: how does it affect the poem’s tone?
If the street lamp addressing us isn’t unnerving, what of the moon, referred to as “she”, winking, smiling, and smoothing “the hair of the grass”?
Again memory is invoked, how is this instance different to what has gone before, and what might Eliot be saying about memory as a theme?
The absence of a human person is made up for here by the use of the third person to refer to the moon: what is this world that Eliot imagines for us?
“The moon harbors no ill-feelings” – why would it? Why should it? And what of the person, the “I” or the “You” or even the odd appearance of a human third person? Where is the protagonist? Where is the poet? Where is the poem’s voice?
A washed-out smallpox cracks her face,
Her hand twists a paper rose,
That smells of dust and old Cologne,
She is alone
With all the old nocturnal smells
That cross and cross across her brain.
She? Has the poet lapsed into considering a particular woman? Might the reader be expected to think so? Or is it still the moon that the poet is anthropomorphizing?
Has the poem approached the sad and tragic nature of our existence, as explored by a great deal of poetry, but from an odd angle?
The inescapable sound pattern of “cross and cross across her brain” seems to almost assault the reader, to what end?
The reminiscence comes
Of sunless dry geraniums
And dust in crevices,
Smells of chestnuts in the streets,
And female smells in shuttered rooms,
And cigarettes in corridors
And cocktail smells in bars.”
Are we being rescued by memory? Or does memory fail to provide even the most rudimentary of consolations?
Falling back into cold description, is Eliot making the poem less personal here? More cold and bleak?
The geraniums are back. What of it?
The strong rhyme once more, this time with geraniums might be a hint of mockery, but what is being mocked? The poet’s efforts themselves? Is even poetry to be seen as futile?
Is this futility?
The lamp said,
Here is the number on the door.
You have the key,
The little lamp spreads a ring on the stair,
The bed is open; the tooth-brush hangs on the wall,
Put your shoes at the door, sleep, prepare for life.”
Is this what we have been building up to? A pathetic scene of a loveless and hollow sexual relationship?
The anonymity of “Here is the number on the door” seems to hint at a casual sexual encounter: is this to stand for the deterioration of the human condition?
The image of “the tooth-brush hangs on the wall” cannot but be terribly sad and pathetic. But how has Eliot done this to us? We don’t, can’t know where we are, but have we ended up at the emptiness at the heart of modern society?
If the poem has been building up to this point, then how have we been prepared for it?
“Memory!” Are we to take it that memory yet again proves useless – have we nothing meaningful to remember as well as nothing meaningful to participate in?
How are we to validate our existence in a world full of such meaningless encounters as that which is being sketched here? Is this Eliot’s point?
“Mount.” How are we to take this bald imperative?
Are we being commanded to confront the meaninglessness of our existence in this modern world?
The utter lack of rhythm to end the poem seems to hint at even the gloss of previous passages being lost; is this the unvarnished truth which we are being presented?
The last twist of the knife.
This final line, with the internal rhyme of “last” and “twist” seems to offer some kind of conclusion or resolution or explanation. But does it?
If what we had just previously been presented with, the scene of the numbered door in a cheap hotel and a tooth brush on the wall, is to be considered as “the last twist of the knife”, then what does that imply about the poet’s intentions?
And so, how are we meant to take the rest of the poem’s accumulation of images? Have they all been adding up to this?
Do you judge a book by its cover? It seems that most of us do, if authorMaureen Johnson’s astute observations about gendered book coversare anything to go by. Book covers are generally how we sound out a book’s quality, yet the cover of is rarely the author’s choice. “I do wish I had a dime for every email I get that says, ‘Please put a non-girly cover on your book so I can read it. – signed, A Guy’”, she wrote. “A man and a woman can write books about the same subject matter, at the same level of quality, and that woman is simply more likely to get the soft-sell cover with the warm glow and the feeling of smooth jazz blowing off of it.”
Within minutes, an internet meme was born, whereby Johnson’s readers digitally remastered some literary favourites in order to show the inherent ridiculousness of gendered marketing. Hence we saw Neil Gaiman’s Stardust transformed into what looked like girly romantic fiction, complete with tagline – “love is the greatest magic of all”, and Stephen King’s Carrie revamped as a Nicholas Sparks-esque all-American smushfest, complete with Southern belle.
And yet none of these jarred so much as some of the real-life attempts that I’ve seen produced by genuine designers, some of which are so far off the mark that you wonder whether they had read the book at all. And, unlike publishers such as Pulp the Classics, which recasts classic novels in a pulp style, these designs were actually intended to be taken seriously. Such as:
The Bell Jar
Last year, Faber’s revamping of Plath’s nom de plume sparked internet outrage. This paper called its chick-lit cover “laughably inappropriate for a work tracing a descent into near-suicidal depression”, and they’re not wrong. The whole thing looks like a right old girly romp. Battle with mental illness, attempted rape, and harrowing electric-shock therapy? Pfft, girl problems.
Pride and Prejudice
Way to debase and trivialise a literary classic, Headline. Rebranding Austen’s searing social satire as a romantic novel arguably misses the mark, especially as there’s nowhere near enough snogging for it to qualify as part of the genre. It also contains such profound reading group questions as “Did you initially find Mr Darcy attractive?” possibly encouraging a whole new generation of women to grow up fancying fictional characters, something which I know from bitter experience rarely brings fulfilment. Speaking of which …
By cashing in on the popularity of Twilight, you could argue that publishers are bringing the gothic novel to a brand new, young audience, but if these readers are expecting a tedious virgin of female protagonist Cathy then they’ll be sorely disappointed. Yes, there’s Sexy Heathcliff, but despite a spot of possible necrophilia, there isn’t a vampire in sight, though I did always imagine him as having rather pouty lips.
Great Classic Series
It’s no wonder this defunct line of books has something of an internet rep, and I genuinely couldn’t choose which one of these was my favourite. Is it the fantasy-inspired Frankenstein or the anachronistic Scarlet Pimpernel cat in a briefcase? Or maybe it’s the literally interpreted Turn of The Screw? No, I think it has to be this bizarre sci-fi rendering of Elizabeth Gaskell’s Cranford.
Anne of Green Gables
Redhead Anne was mysteriously transformed into a blonde bombshell with “bedroom eyes” for this reissue of the classic novel, causing so much consternation that the book had to be withdrawn. “This book is supposed to be Anne of Green Gables, not Anne does Green Gables”, wrote a reader. Quite.
Magic Under Glass
Bloomsbury USA, the publishers of Jaclyn Dolamore’s young adult fiction novel, came under fire for illustrating the novel, which is about a “dark-skinned” girl from the “Far East” with a cover that very clearly showed a white woman. Perhaps even more crass was the fact that this was not the first time that Bloomsbury had come under fire the previous year for whitewashing, having given Justine Larbalestier’s Liar, a novel about a short haired black girl, a cover featuring a light haired white woman.
Charlotte Perkins Gilman’s 1915 novel about a utopia composed entirely of women has been done the disservice of many a bad book cover. This ultra-pink, sickly monstrosity has been pipped to the post (but only just) by puiblisher Tower Books’ effort, which seems to depict a parallel universe of radioactive Bond girls gone rogue.