‘October, the cruellest month…’

‘April is the cruellest month…’, the opening line of TS Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’, is one of the most famous phrases in Twentieth Century poetry. It’s famous enough that it often escapes poetry’s sequestered colonnades and turns up in the popular culture. But for those of us in the southern hemisphere, the phenomenon Eliot was referring to is something we experience in October (‘if at all’) as a sort of seasonal affectivity, a dark irony rooted in the burgeoning Spring.

(There’s a similar seasonal reversal required for Ted Hughes’ ‘October Dawn’, another poem I’ve had a long attachment to (it’s mastery of half-rhyme), though it’s hard to find a correlative for Hughes’ ‘premonition of ice’ in the Australian autumn or winter.)

Michael Austin reflects on Eliot’s phrase, particularly in a time of pandemic, in a blog post from April this year, entitled: ‘Why is April ‘the Cruelest Month’? TS Eliot’s Masterpiece of Pandemic Poetry.’ Austin writes: ‘Eliot wrote his famous poem in the aftermath of the last global pandemic to shut down the world. He and his wife caught the Spanish Flu in December of 1918, and he wrote much of the poem during his recovery.’

He goes on: ‘In the Waste Land, nothing can be crueler than hope, since it can only lead to disappointment […] The more I have read the opening lines of Eliot’s great poem, the more I have realized just what a dangerous emotion the great theological virtue of hope can be. Cynicism and irony are safe. To hope, one must open the door to disappointment, rejection, and disbelief.

It’s a timely thought for those of us in our own ‘cruellest month’, as the beginning of the southern Spring this year coincides with the lifting of Australia’s most stringent lockdown. The attached video footage captures some essence of an October evening in Adelaide, a welcome relief after a particularly subdued winter. Look at all that glorious cruelty.