One of the things over which my wife Jane and I first bonded when we met some 25 years ago was English poetry, especially the verse of T. S. Eliot, preeminent modernist. Eliot was painfully aware of the emotional ambiguities of the coming of new life, and he expresses this attitude at the beginning of his best-known poem, The Waste Land. Always aware of the place of his individual talent in the English literary tradition, however, he communicates his attitudes by playing off the best-known (and arguably best) work of earlier English poetry, Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Canterbury Tales. While Chaucer celebrates the liveliness of the season, the natural resurrection of sex, joy, and passion in all living things, and of spiritual longings in people, Eliot talks about the mixture of longing for a lost past and an unpromising future with boredom and sterility in the present.
Here is Chaucer:
Whan that Aprille, with hise shoures soote,
The droghte of March hath perced to the roote,
And bathed every veyne in swich licour,
Of which vertu engendred is the flour;
When Zephirus eek with his swete breeth
Inspired hath in every holt and heeth
The tendre croppes, and the younge sonne
Hath in the Ram his halfe cours yronne,
And smale foweles make melodye,
That slepen al the nyght with open eye
(So priketh hem Nature in hir corages);
Thanne longen folk to goon on pilgrimages.
And here is Eliot:
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.
To the medieval poet the natural instinct for people is to “go on pilgrimage,” to get out after a house-bound winter, to have a drink at the Tabard Inn, to ride to Canterbury on horseback with a newly-met tour group, to renew their human soul by paying obeisance to a saint at the country’s holiest site. In the course of their trip, they rediscover and recalibrate who they are.
To the modernist, April is a pain, deeply and disturbingly. Human consciousness would rather stay asleep, anesthetized (Eliot’s term in an earlier poem). Better to sleep in late than wake up with renewed life and face the realities that made sleep so desirable in the first place. Sexual and spiritual urges alike are depressing because they remind those who feel them of past impotence of body and soul.
As a postmodern cyclist, I often find myself worried about whether I should be “just too busy” to take a ride, as I am feeling today when it’s gorgeously sunny and 65˚. Perhaps I should be more worried about being too busy to take those inward pilgrimages. Except that I often have time in the peace of an empty bike trail for some meditative moments. Bottom line, what moves me most is the anti-Nancy-Reagan Nike motto: “Just do it!” And I will . . . tomorrow.
©Arnold J. Bradford, 2013.