I hope I am not alone in wondering why T. S. Eliot described April as “the cruelest month.” It was not ironic. It was not allergy-related either. From what clever literary scholars tell me (far cleverer than I), April mocks us with its new life. That’s what Eliot meant. We make the rounds of the seasons each year, and with each year grow older, until our lifetime also makes the rounds from spring to winter. But unlike the annual seasons, we don’t get an annual renewal at the end of life’s fall. We just get winter. Then death. So the “fall person” or the “winter person” is teased by the renewal of the ancient earth with its new life in cruel April. Cruel, that is, says Eliot.
I’m not at all convinced that springtime is cruel. There’s no intention to harm in the turn of the seasons or the seasons of life. It’s just life. Though I am certainly well into late fall myself (at sixty-five there’s no point in clinging to the label “middle aged” unless you plan to live to 130, or unless you are a Plantagenet), I still find springtime an explosion of joy, and wonder, and hope. And pollen.
Recently reflections on spring and Easter led me to re-read a poet whom I consider the finest writing in English today, Louise Glück; specifically I have been re-reading her poem, “The Wild Iris,” first published in 1992. Glück has won just about every prize you can imagine for her poetry, including the Pulitzer, and she is the former Poet Laureate of the United States. Her poetry draws on an unsentimental examination of her closest relationships, her own inner life, and her profound understanding of mythologies. The poem I want to share with you today is a meditation of the resurgence of life in an iris, from the point of view of the iris itself, or of the soul who becomes aware it is coming to new life in the iris.
The Protestant reformer John Calvin was far wiser than many of the theologians who followed him in allowing that God is revealed not only through supernatural means (such as the incarnation) but through nature itself. Glück is, as far as I know, not a Christian, much less a Calvinist (she may not be a religious person at all), but it is impossible for me to read this poem without feeling a deep resonance between the Christian belief in resurrection and the imagery she evokes. Whether the poem speaks of new life arising in an apparently dead bulb, or an iris growing from a grave, or any number of other possibilities, the image is rich and evocative, and worthy of reflection.
At the end of my suffering
there was a door.
Hear me out: that which you call death
Overhead, noises, branches of the pine shifting.
Then nothing. The weak sun
flickered over the dry surface.
It is terrible to survive
buried in the dark earth.
Then it was over: that which you fear, being
a soul and unable
to speak, ending abruptly, the stiff earth
bending a little. And what I took to be
birds darting in low shrubs.
You who do not remember
passage from the other world
I tell you I could speak again: whatever
returns from oblivion returns
to find a voice:
from the center of my life came
a great fountain, deep blue
shadows on azure seawater.
A few days ago I did the following watercolor sketch in reflection on Glück’s poem.