The Waste Land
by T.S. Eliot
The Waste Land Memory and the Past Quotes
How we cite our quotes: (Line)
April is the cruellest month, breeding
Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing
Memory and desire, stirring
Dull roots with spring rain. (1-4)
These opening lines strangely tell us that spring is an awful time of year. Sure, you might not like how wet the ground is, but isn't spring the traditional time of love and rebirth? Not so much for Eliot, because for him, all the spring rain does is stir "dull roots." These dull roots are connected to human memory and desire, which seem to be so dead in this opening scene that nothing will bring them to life. In this passage, Eliot connects memory to a feeling of longing that can never be fulfilled, just as the desire to return to the past can never be fulfilled. This would suggest that memory can only connect us to a past that is gone forever, so it only has the power to make us feel numb. Well, that's one way of looking at it, at least. Hey, we never said the guy was an optimist.
In the mountains, there you feel free.
I read, much of the night, and go south in the winter. (17-18)
You have to stare at these lines for a long time before they start making any sense at all, but after a while, you start to realize that they are spoken by the woman named Marie who has gotten old, and is no longer the sled lovin' child she was in her younger days. In these lines, we're told about present-day Marie, who only finds adventure by reading books in the night. Her tendency to travel south in the winter is important, too, since it contrasts with the exciting winters she once spent in the snow-covered mountains. Eliot might open the poem with this passage about Marie to show us that society as a whole is too removed from its innocent and playful days. Now, people might want to be too safe, and simply read books about the world instead of experiencing it.
You know nothing? Do you see nothing? Do you remember
An unknown person asks the narrator of the poem a bunch of really nervous, neurotic questions, which all seem to express doubt that the speaker (or even you, the reader) know anything at all. But if you double-check the lines, you find that they're actually asking if you "know nothing," which is different than not knowing anything. These lines ask if you remember nothing, as in the feeling of nothingness. Is this a feeling you know? Eliot is very curious to hear the answer to this, because if the experience of total spiritual nothingness is something you've experienced, you'll probably be able to relate to the depression of this poem in some way. This experience of knowing nothing(ness) is what comes out of having a lack of memory, and of remembering nothing. Throughout this poem, one of the greatest reasons for society's collapse is the general amnesia that many modern people tend to have about their cultural past.