English Lesson 1: T.S. Eliot, and April
English Lessons is a new blog celebrating writing we love, and illuminating why we love it—and what we can learn from it. Poetry, fiction, editorials; Presidential speeches, classic texts, popular novels: English Lessons looks at how words used well can change the way we think about the world around us. This is not homework, or theory. It is, hopefully, something to reinforce things you already know about reading and writing. (More of the former compliments the latter, etc.)
Our First Lesson is from T.S. Eliot because when we think about April, we think about the first lines of Eliot’s “The Wasteland.” They are:
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.
Summer surprised us, coming over the Starnbergersee
With a shower of rain; we stopped in the colonnade,
And went on in sunlight, into the Hofgarten,
And drank coffee, and talked for an hour.
Bin gar keine Russin, stamm' aus Litauen, echt deutsch.
And when we were children, staying at the archduke's,
My cousin's, he took me out on a sled,
And I was frightened. He said, Marie,
Marie, hold on tight. And down we went.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter.
Eliot’s Modernism is everywhere here, and Modernism was a wake-up call to sleepy readers: do some homework. The poet did his. You needed notes when you read this if you wanted to parse the poet’s intentions. Yet intentions and translations aside, it’s the music in the lines that makes them memorable. Like his finest peers, Eliot seduced you with something easy to embrace (sounds) while refusing to reveal an easy meaning.
The Harry Ransom Center at the University of Texas at Austin has put David Foster Wallace’s description of a course he taught online. He stated his goal:
“English 102 aims to show you some ways to read fiction more deeply, to come up with more interesting insights on how pieces of fiction work, to have informed, intelligent reasons for liking or disliking a piece of fiction, and to write—clearly, persuasively, and above all interestingly—about stuff you’ve read.”
We will try to do something like this, for fiction and for other forms of writing. We hope it’s not boring. And we concede structural limitations. Wallace and Eliot were masters; each in his own way was relentless in the drive to perfect an idea—or a line. Blogs are not for depth, relentlessness, or perfection. But maybe this one can be a not horrible companion to things you are thinking about, or learning in school. Students and teachers, Welcome. Whoever you are, Welcome.
Political activism may get people invested in politics, and affect urgently needed change, but it comes at the expense of tolerance and healthy democratic norms.