Thursday, 3 April 2008

That Time of Year Again (Spring)

I thought I would post a little on two of my favourite quotations in all literature. Being a simple fellow I have simple tastes, and you've probably guessed them already:

Whan that Aprille with his shoures soote
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote



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, feeding
A little life with dried tubers

(TS Eliot)

Everyone knows the first line of The Waste Land, but we often forget the lines which follow, whose distate and even disgust at the shifting, fertile soil are not only vivid but also quite strange. Why would springing life go into such a negative description? Well, for anyone reading in 1922 it might have snapped certain memory-tendons: "dead land", "forgetful snow" and the participles at the end of the lines, all suggesting movement and energy, which might have recalled the movement of troops and the churning of land with engines and explosions and bodies it created. You can also read the quotation psychologically, as meaning turnings and mixings of the mind in a much more private sense, not really related to the changing of seasons, but then again possibly stimulated by them: it's not so counter-intuitive to think that light, warmth, mud, messy growth, perhaps slow, frustrating growth, could create problems through allusion and connotation in someone, especially if they have staved off problems by focusing on keeping warm throughout the winter. It's also intended as a reference to Chaucer of course and as a marker of the borrowings and mixings and stirrings which this poem intends to keep up throughout its 5 parts. It's a warning, or a prophecy, of the changing nature of poetry and poetic forms. Chaucer's version is more straightforward but I often read it as if it were intended to refer to Eliot, so much are the two intertwined for me. Chaucer's view of the burgeoning year with its refreshing rains speaks to me of the kind of weather I love - as I've posted before, rain -of the non-torrential form we generally get here- is lifegiving and soothing and enriching. Burning sun or drought is not. There are other things you could say about Chaucer's versification here (ie "perced" - reference to Easter, crucifixion and resurrection) but it's easier to let it speak for itself and to suggest you go and read The General Prologue to the Canterbury Tales, in the original Middle English. It's not that hard if you have a decent edition and it really is excellent. In fact I wonder if it wasn't Chaucer, rather than Shakespeare, who created character in English...

And so here we are, at this time of year again, and the tv talk turns to whether we're having more floods or more droughts and it seems as though in fact we're longing for extremes, perhaps to make up for our dull lives. I must beware of pathologising the country, though, so I'll stop that train of thought and urge all of my readers to read Chaucer and TS Eliot.

Before climate change floods all the libraries/causes all the books to wizen and shrivel up in the heat.

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