April is the Cruelest Month

The first section of T.S. Eliot’s epic poem, The Waste Land, published in 1922, is entitled, “The Burial of the Dead.”

close up photo of purple lilac flowers
Photo by Irina Iriser on Pexels.com

That is the title of the funeral service from the Church of England’s Book of Common Prayer during Eliot’s time as it is the title of the service in The Episcopal Church’s Book of Common Prayer today.

The Rite for the Burial of the Dead seems an appropriate place to start under the circumstances in which we are currently living. There are likely going to be lots of funerals in the days and weeks to come. Some for people we know, love, and have lost.

Eliot’s poem then opens with the following lines:

April is the cruelest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.

Each of the first three lines of Eliot’s poem starts in darkness and moves to life-giving activity: breeding, mixing, stirring.

By ending each line with a word that brings the reader out of darkness into light, from death into life, Eliot takes the reader into the future—a future that is more abundant than the past.

This April will surely be remembered as one of the cruelest of all time for our country and the world. We are told that we are now in the midst of the darkest hours of the COVID-19 Pandemic here in New York City, with heartbreaking death rates. Even as I write this, unending ambulance sirens pierce through the silence of the traffic-less streets below my window.

And, at the same time, we must hold onto the knowledge that we will come through this moment. As Eliot’s poem shows, darkness will give way to light, death will be vanquished by life. Breeding, mixing, and stirring will prevail. Lilacs will bloom out of dull roots.

This April, as dark and as cruel as life around us may seem, look for the lilacs blooming out of dull roots. They’re there

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