Why is April referred to as the cruelest month in "The Waste Land"?

Quick answer:

In The Waste Land, April is the cruelest month because it is a time of rebirth and new birth. April is thus a metaphor for the painful process of growth and rebirth that Western civilization faced after the horror of World War I. Growth will be hard, and the temptation is to stay asleep.

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Putting this quote in the context of what is being said in the opening part of the poem helps us understand Eliot's meaning:

April is the cruellest month, breeding

Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing

Memory and desire, stirring

Dull roots with spring rain.

Winter kept us warm, covering

Earth in forgetful snow.

April is the cruelest month because it is when the earth experiences its rebirth. Plants begin to grow and new life emerges. April and rebirth become a metaphor for an individual's or a society's growth and rebirth.

Growth is painful, as any psychologist will tell us. It takes work and facing up to unpleasant realities. It means having to make changes. As Eliot notes, "Winter kept us warm." It is easier to sleepwalk through life and forget the past and abandon trying to change. Death and stasis are always a temptation.

But more importantly, Eliot is speaking to Western civilization as a whole, and here, the dating of the poem is important. Eliot published the poem in 1922. World War I had ended a few years before. This devastating conflict shook most Europeans to their core, traumatically undermining their faith in progress and civilization.

Eliot is saying that it is painful to have to face the realities of that war and the need for change and rebirth in Western values and ways of thinking. Eliot is, in this passage, acknowledging the allure and comfort for a society of going back to sleep and trying to forget what happened after a painful incident—but that will not solve anything.

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