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 REFRACTIONS

BY HENRY PETROSKI

THINKING ABOUT APRIL

To engineers, it’s neither cruel nor bleak.


HENRY PETROSKI - While Eliot was writing of despair, indoor plumbing, electrification, and the automobile were improving lives.“April is the cruelest month.” These are the haunting opening words of T. S. Eliot’s famously difficult poem, The Waste Land.

When I first read those words in college, they made little sense. To me, then, months did not have attributes like cruelty; months were emotionless units of time, albeit imprecise ones that correlated in some pre-scientific way with the cycles of the moon. Besides, what was cruel about April, whose showers bring May flowers?

But I was thinking like an engineer, taking words too literally. I was reading poetry as if it unfolded like the derivation of a specific formula from a general principle, in which each line follows from the previous one with mathematical precision. Lines of poetry proceed one from another in nonlinear ways.

In fact, many poets have seen the months as more than chunks of time. In The Merry Wives of Windsor, Shakespeare writes of one character that “he capers, he dances, he has eyes of youth, he writes verses, he speaks holiday, he smells April and May.” And there was much to inspire poems of hope and romance, for the spring months were times when, according to Tennyson, “a young man’s fancy lightly turns to thoughts of love.”

But Eliot was neither a classicist nor a romantic; he was a modernist. He did not write verses inspired by spring; he, like so many other poets, wrote about the cruelty of time — and death. His contemporary Sara Teasdale opened her poem “I Shall Not Care” with, “When I am dead and over me bright April / Shakes out her rain-drenched hair.”

According to the literary critic Cyril Connolly, who wrote pseudonymously in The Unquiet Grave, April was called “the cruelest month” because “spring is a call to action, hence to disillusion.”

To Eliot, April was the cruelest month because it was “breeding/Lilacs out of the dead land, mixing/Memory and desire, stirring/Dull roots with spring rain.” April may bring rebirth, but as Eliot and his generation held high in their consciousness, an April would eventually come that had no such magical powers for them.

At least in the Northern Hemisphere, in most academic calendars, April is the cruelest month for other reasons. It is a time not only of beginnings but also of endings. Some hopeful college applicants get thin envelopes of rejection, dashing their dreams. On many campuses, classes end in April, term projects come due, final exams beckon — and there is not enough time. Seniors look ahead to commencement, when graduates will be called upon to act on their education and to make something of themselves.

But the call to action need not lead to disillusion. As pessimistic as some modernist poets may be, engineers are optimists. How else could they dream of hand-held computers, bridges of monumental proportions, super-tall buildings that pierce the clouds, and manned missions to the moon and back? Engineers not only dream of such things; they also work to achieve them.

Engineers understand that time eventually destroys all things, but rather than just lamenting the fact, they try to do something about it. Indeed, engineers have helped extend life expectancy by developing clean water supplies, sanitary sewage systems, and countless efficacious medical devices.

Much of what engineers do may be prosaic, but to people living while T. S. Eliot was writing of despair, improvements like indoor plumbing, electrification, and the rise of the automobile and airplane were like godsends. Some poetry may deal in dismal truths, but the vast majority of engineering adds considerably to the quality to life — however brief and whatever the month.


Henry Petroski is the Aleksandar S. Vesic Professor of Civil Engineering and a professor of history at Duke University.

 

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