What is the meaning of the first stanza of "The Waste Land"?

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William Delaney | (Level 3) Distinguished Educator

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"The Waste Land" was published in 1922, only a few years after the First World War had ended. Europeans were shocked and horrified by what had happened. They had believed that they had attained a certain level of enlightenment, culture, civilization--but the war had killed off a generation of young men and had left the landscape barren and pocked with shell holes. Everyone in England has been touched by the war. It not only destroyed lives and property but  threatened to destroy their religious beliefs. Eliot suggests that people did not want to talk about the past or present and did not even want to think about it because it seemed terrifying in its meaningless horror. He begins by saying:

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

With the return of another spring, nature and humanity struggle to return to life. Spring arouses sexual desire and brings back memories of happier days. The poem will be full of fragments representing memories and desires. The first memory occurs within the first stanza, apparently to illustrate the kinds of memories that will appear throughout the remainder of the poem.

And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.

Memories are "cruel" because they are typically memories of a world that has been destroyed by war as well as memories of inhuman behavior on both sides. People had been behaving like madmen for years, using new inventions, including poison gas, to kill and maim soldiers and civilians. The archduke whom Marie remembers is probably dead. Desires are also "cruel" because they may be desires for people who died or they may serve to propagate a new generation of soldiers who will wreak even more destruction on the poor wasteland (which is what actually happened when Adolf Hitler came to power in Germany).

Eliot seems to equate the barbarism of World War I with the loss of religious faith which had been going on in Europe since at least the time of the French Revolution. Just as he believes that that loss of religious faith created the havoc of World War I, so Eliot suggests that the shells and bombs of the war destroyed the churches, literally and figuratively. He joined the Anglican Church in 1927. One of his biographers, Peter Ackroyd, wrote:

… the Church of England offered Eliot some hope for himself, and I think Eliot needed some resting place.

The opening lines of "The Waste Land" are strikingly beautiful as well as paradoxical. Spring should be a delightful time of the year, just as winter should be a period to endure. Yet, Eliot says:

April is the cruellest month

And:

Winter kept us warm . . .

 

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