Why does T.S. Eliot refer to lilacs in The Waste Land?
Eliot refers to lilacs at the very outset of his landmark modernist poem, "The Waste Land":
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain.
Eliot employs the conventional image of lilacs connoting sensuality or romance in other poems - earlier in "Portrait of a Lady" (published in Prufrock and Other Observations, 1917) and later, in "Ash Wednesday," (1930) - but in "The Wasteland" (1922), the image of lilacs he presents in a manner striking in its newness. For this reason, the image of lilacs - appearing as it does at the head of the poem (line 2) - acts as a kind of literary Rosetta stone to the complexities of the poem. The poet accomplishes this by his conscious allusion to the Walt Whitman poem, "When Lilacs Last in the Dooryard Bloom'd":
When lilacs last in the dooryard bloom'd,
And the great star early droop'd in the western sky in the night,
I mourn'd, and yet shall mourn with ever-returning spring.
Ever-returning spring, trinity sure to me you bring,
Lilac blooming perennial and drooping star in the west,
And thought of him I love.
Whitman's poem is a passionate elegy on the death of U.S. President Abraham Lincoln, assassinated in the spring of 1865 when the lilacs were blooming. In the poem's semiotic innovation lilacs - traditionally a symbol of the renewal of the earth in spring - are now connected with mourning, and anguish and death. In "The Waste Land", Eliot takes the semiotic innovation Whitman supplies, but then uses it, in the manner of a literary Rosetta stone, as a means to understanding the poem's complex allusions to the modern culture of death.