Explain the line in the first section of The Waste Land: “April is the cruellest month.”

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thanatassa eNotes educator| Certified Educator

The opening line of Eliot's Wasteland recalls to the reader the opening of the General Prologue to Geoffrey Chaucer's Canterbury Tales:

Whan that Aprill, with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;

In this, Chaucer is portraying the month of April as a time of hope and renewal when the pilgrims travel to Canterbury to than the saint for blessings given. Traditionally, in the vegetative rituals to which much of the Wasteland refers (Eliot explicitly mentions Weston's From Ritual to Romance in his notes), the spring is the time the crops rise from tyhe ground and the dead gods are reborn.

In Wasteland, however, rather than bringing renewl, April brings despair. The Greek question "What do you want, Sybil? ... I want to die." suggests that rebirth and renewal are not always joyful, and that birth eventually brings sorrow and death.

For Eliot, the hope of the vegetative cyclke is broken by the fragmengtation of life and alienation of humanity from the divine within modern urban civilization, and thus spring no longer has the positive significance it did for Chaucer.