Brow Beat

The Cruelest Lede

In the annals of bad ledes, beginning a column with “April is the cruelest month” is second only to a definition from Webster’s dictionary. But for some reason, the first five words of T.S. Eliot’s The Waste Land are difficult for journalists to resist. New York Times columnist Gail Collins, in her ongoing descent into Dowdism, was guilty of this sin today. Christopher Hitchens, writing in Slate this week , was, too.

The good news is that Eliot references appear to be on the decline. According to the inexact science of Nexis hits, the phrase was mentioned 76 times last April, down from 92 in 2007. In the past decade, 2004 was the worst offender with 105 mentions. Scanning those results, many refer to a stream of bad news from the Iraq war, then only a year old, and the consequences for Bush’s re-election odds. Writes the Newark Star-Ledger ‘s John Farmer: ” ‘April is the cruelest month,’ the poet said, to which John Kerry might add a solemn ‘Amen.’ ” (Note: Searches include Eliot’s original spelling, “cruellest.”) Ironically, Nexis inquires whether one meant “April is the careless month.” Full results below.

One can understand the line’s appeal. It’s among that register of quotes that require no attribution, up there with “News of [insert here]’s death was greatly exaggerated” and “There are no second acts in American lives.” It packs an exaggerated sense of literariness, an English-major inside joke that almost everyone is in on. Ripped from its context—and who really understands the context, anyway?—it’s glib and contrary. Who doesn’t love April? (Hitchens, when I asked him if he wanted to defend himself, helpfully pointed out that he’s even on the record calling The Waste Land “the most overrated poem in the Anglo-American canon,” specifically attacking the first line.)

I blame Eliot for committing the original sin. The phrase itself is a nod to the first line of The Canterbury Tales , in which April happily disturbs March’s drought. Eliot had a more dismal view of the month. If only he knew how dismal it would become.