A History of Smell.
Early spring is, famously, cruel. The bite of winter is still sharp, even “whan that Aprille with his shoures soote / the droghte of Marche hath perced to the roote” (“when that April with his sweet showers pierce the drought of March”). Chaucer’s famous opening lines of the Canterbury Tales emphasize the sensory contradictions of this time of year, especially its flowers. Spring is a botanical paradox, one as poetic as it is perfumed. It is a season of renewal and rebirth. And for many, including T.S. Eliot, it smells of lilacs.
Eliot’s “Wasteland” begins by echoing Chaucer’s opening lines, defining the “cruelty” of April through its “breeding” of lilacs “out of the dead land / mixing memory and desire / stirring dull roots with spring rain.” Eliot’s poem expertly crafts an elegy for the modern age out of poetry from the past, yet…
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