A dunce cap for T. S. Eliot, who could not tell a lilac from a lollipop — and an explainer in images
In the internet tradition of putting out bird seed for each other — information for nameless, faceless strangers — this entry is mostly for those visitors revealed by our site traffic analysis to be doing their English Literature homework.
We would march in the streets to protect poetic licence, but a poet who cannot get his elementary facts about nature right cannot be trusted as a wielder of metaphors or teller of even strictly psychological truths. He is liable to be written off as a pretentious twit for ending a poem with, for instance, …
… London Bridge is falling down falling down falling down
Poi s’ascose nel foco che gli affina
Quando fiam uti chelidon—O swallow swallow
Le Prince d’Aquitaine à la tour abolie
These fragments I have shored against my ruins
Why then Ile fit you. Hieronymo’s mad againe.
Datta. Dayadhvam. Damyata.
Shantih shantih shantih
… as T.S. Eliot did The Waste Land (1922), if he had started it with these offences against accurate observation and common-sense botany:
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.
What dead land would that be? Year after year, we watch as lilac bushes close by bud, sprout, come into leaf, then give us a live demonstration of why ‘You’re blooming!’ can be a true and sumptuous compliment paid to a young girl in love. Year after year, we imagine students in places where no lilacs grow frowning over the complexities of Eliot’s best-known poem — with no idea that he had everything back-to-front in its opening.
Internet searching suggests that those of us acutely irritated by this are (or were once) amateur or expert gardeners. Hardly anyone else has remarked — like the Oxford historian and gardening connoisseur Robin Lane Fox, in a marvellous essay about gardens in literature — that
No gardener … would agree that April is “the cruellest month” and in no gardens or landscapes known to me does April breed “lilacs out of the dead land,” least of all on the American East Coast within range of the young T. S. Eliot.
Even non-gardeners in the northern hemisphere know that the cruellest month is August. The hot weather is at its most evil, then, in warmer parts of the globe. In cooler maritime spots with changeable weather, it is when the last hope of any summer at all can be cruelly denied.
There is nothing dead about the ground when lilacs begin to push tiny brown buds from brown canes — as in the first of this sequence of pictures (above and below). It is wriggly with riotous new life. And no, Mr Eliot, you cannot believably proceed from a warm winter — or even one keeping only you warm — that fed ‘a little life with dried tubers’, to earth that somehow had all life mysteriously drained from it as the days lengthened and the temperature rose, more or less steadily.
Yes, we know about metaphors, you Eliot-defenders out there. We ourselves have been known to excoriate the obdurately literal-minded for refusing to dance with a poet’s imagination. We know from experience what T.S.E. was trying to say about how painful spring breaking out all over can be for someone depressed, after the protective cocooning of the dark, burrowing months. But if he had to reverse the truth of lilacs coming into their season, why didn’t he say he was writing science-fiction poetry?
We are in deepest sympathy with Vladimir Nabokov, when he asked a college student sent to him for tips on a career in writing if he knew the name of a tree outside a nearby window. When the acolyte confessed that he did not, Nabokov said simply, ‘Then you’ll never be a writer.’ **
** ‘Remembering Nabokov’ by Alfred Appel Jnr., in Vladimir Nabokov: A Tribute, edited by Peter Quenell, 1979.