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.