April, wrote T.S. Eliot in his remarkable poem, The Waste Land, is the “cruellest month.”* And not merely because of the inclement and unsettling weather that seems to mix winter with spring in unpredictable doses. Nor for the necessity of filing one’s taxes before month end, always a painful chore.
I started thinking about April while watching the movie, 1911, about the Chinese uprising against the Qing Dynasty, in 1911 (saw it this weekend). Fascinating period of Chinese history that led to the first republic under Sun Yat Sen, but, I wondered, was it so interesting elsewhere? Yes, it seems so.
April is a month rich in history, with memorable events, births and deaths galore. Memorable, however, is not always pleasant, of course.
April comes from the Latin Aprilis, a word of uncertain origin. For those who know the “ides of March” from Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar, you may be surprised to discover that the ides didn’t always fall on the 15th day of the month. In April, it falls on the 13th. The Roman calendar was a complex thing.
April is the month to remember battles. Just to name a few: Culloden (Apr 16, 1746, when the Jacobite rebellion was broken), Vimy Ridge (9-12, 1917, famous to Canadians, so many of whom died there), Lexington and Concord (Apr 19, 1775, starting the American Revolution), Mollwitz (10 Apr, 1741 – the first battle Frederick II ever fought), Okinawa (began 1 Apr, 1945, the beginning of the end of the WWII in the Pacific), Tobruk (11 Apr-27 Nov, 1941), Berlin (20 Apr- 2 May, 1945, the beginning of the end of WWII in Europe), 2nd Ypres (started 22 Apr, 1915), Fort Sumter (Apr 12–14, 1861, beginning the American Civil War), Shiloh (April 6/7, 1862), Mapiu (5 Apr, 1818 – 1818 – decisive battle of the Chilean War of Independence), Guernica (Apr 26, 1937 – the town was attacked by German warplanes during the Spanish Civil War; the planes then machine-gunned fleeing civilians), the Falklands (Apr 2, 1982 troops from Argentina invaded and occupied the British colony, beginning the short Falklands War).
There were other significant historical events in Aprils past, including several I find interesting or significant:
- April 2, 1865: The Confederate capital at Richmond, Virginia was evacuated. president Davis and his cabinet fled from the city which surrendered to Union forces on April 3, 1865.
- Apr 4, 1949 – NATO, the North Atlantic Treaty Organization was created.
- Apr 6, 1896 – The first Olympics of the modern era was held in Athens.
- Apr 6, 1917 – The U.S. entered World War I.
- Apr 6, 1994 – The Rwandan genocide began: more than 500,000 persons massacred and two million flee.
- Apr 8, 1964 – From Russia With Love opens in New York, starting 50 years of James Bond films.
- Apr 9, 1865 – General Robert E. Lee surrendered to General Ulysses S. Grant, ending the American Civil War.
- Apr 10, 1942 – The Bataan Death March began.
- Apr 10, 1945 – The Nazi concentration camp at Buchenwald was liberated by U.S. troops.
- Apr 10, 1998 – An agreement ended 30 years of violence in Northern Ireland and also ended 26 years of English intervention.
- Apr 12, 1981 – The Columbia was the first space shuttle launched.
- Apr 14, 1828 – Noah Webster published the first American Dictionary, damning the country to centuries of linguistic isolation from and linguistic conflict with the rest of the English-speaking world.
- Apr 15, 1912 – The “unsinkable” luxury liner Titanic sank in the Atlantic.
- Apr 17, 1961 – The US-backed attempt to overthrow Premier Fidel Castro of Cuba failed disastrously at the Bay of Pigs, leading inexorably to the subsequent Cuban Missile Crisis.
- Apr 18, 1906 – The San Francisco Earthquake struck.
- Apr 18, 1593 – Shakespeare’s poem, Venus and Adonis, was published.
- Apr 18, 1942 – The first air raid on mainland Japan by American bombers.
- Apr 18, 1982 – Queen Elizabeth II signed the Canada Constitution Act, replacing the British North America Act of 1867.
- Apr 19, 1943 – Jews in the Warsaw Ghetto staged an armed revolt against Nazi troops.
- Apr 19, 1993 – Eighty two Branch Davidian religious cult members died in a fire following a 51-day standoff with federal agents, in Waco, Texas.
- Apr 19, 1911 – Francisco Madero’s troops besiege Ciudad Juárez during the Mexican Revolution.
- Apr 22, 1935 – Bride of Frankenstein released (the second in a long string of Frankenstein films).
- Apr 27, 1911 – The Huanghuagang Uprising in China against corrupt Imperial rule.
- Apr 24, 1950 – Jordan formally annexed the West Bank.
- Apr 26, 1986 – An explosion at the Chernobyl nuclear power plant in the Ukraine started the worst nuclear plant disaster in history.
- Apr 28, 1789 – Fletcher Christian led a mutiny against Captain William Bligh on the British ship Bounty.
- Apr 28, 1945 – Italian partisans shot former Dictator Benito Mussolini, along with his mistress, Clara Petacci.
- Apr 29, 1997 – the soundtrack for Young Frankenstein (my favourite film) is reissued on CD.
- Apr 30, 1789 – George Washington became the first U.S. President.
- Apr 30, 1948 – Palestinian Jews declared their independence from British rule and established the new state of Israel.
April contains the New Year for Thailand, Laos, Burma and Cambodia.
April is a month of births. Among the many: Hans Christian Andersen (Apr. 2, 1805), Japanese Admiral Isoroku Yamamoto (Apr. 4, 1884), Renaissance artist Raphael (Apr 6, 1483, he also died in April on his 37th birthday), the Buddha (Siddhartha Gautama, Apr 8, 563 BCE), Thomas Jefferson (Apr 13, 1743), Charlie Chaplin (Apr 16, 1889), Adolf Hitler (Apr 19, 1889), Vladimir Lenin (Apr 21,1870), William Shakespeare (Apr 23,1564: St. George’s Day. Curiously, he also died on Apr 23, in 1616), Guglielmo Marconi (Apr 25, 1874), Emperor Hirohito (Apr 28, 1901), Leonardo da Vinci (Apr 15, 1542), Elizabeth Alexandra Mary (Queen Elizabeth II; 21 Apr, 1926), Otto von Bismarck (Apr 1, 1815), Muddy Waters (Apr 4, 1915), James D. Watson (co-discoverer of DNA’s structure, Apr 6, 1928), William Wordsworth (Apr 7, 1770), Billie Holiday(Apr 7, 1915), W. C. Fields (Apr 9, 1879), Tiny Tim (Herbert Khaury, Apr 12, 1930), Nikita Khrushchev (Apr 17, 1894), Saddam Hussein (Apr 28, 1937), Samuel Morse (Apr 27, 1791 – he also died in April, 1872), Ella Fitzgerald (Apr 25, 1918), Alfred Butts (inventor of “Scrabble,” Apr 13, 1899), Clarence Darrow (Apr 18, 1857), Jesus (Apr 16, 6 BCE but variously dated in April between 6 and 4 BCE) and Anne McCaffrey (Apr 1, 1926; great scifi writer).
Shakespeare and the Buddha in the same month: auspicious!
April is also a month of deaths, far too many to list here, including 2,224 people drowned when the the luxury liner Titanic sank (Apr 15, 1912), and 168 in the terrorist bombing in Oklahoma City (Apr 19, 1995). Here are a few of the people who died in April these past few centuries, whose lives interested me or affected my own in some manner:
- 1204 Eleanor of Aquitaine, wife of Louis VII and Henry II;
- 1240 Llywelyn ab Iorwerth the Great, monarch of Wales;
- 1472 Leon Battista Alberti, author of the astounding Hypnerotomachia Poliphili;
- 1478 Giuliano de’ Medici – in the Patzi conspiracy, which the young Machiavelli would have experienced;
- 1483 Edward IV, King of England – murdered, which begins the reign of Henry IV (inspiring the plays by Shakespeare);
- 1492 Lorenzo I de’ Medici”il Magnifico,” Florentine ruler, whose death brings about the republic in which Machiavelli worked;
- 1498 Charles VIII, King of France; his campaign in Italy helped shape Machiavelli’s political views;
- 1502 Arthur, English crown prince/husband of Catherine of Aragon; his death led to the accession of Henry VIII and eventually Elizabeth I and Shakespeare’s world;
- 1590 Francis Walsingham, English Secretary of State and Queen Elizabeth’s spymaster;
- 1605 Boris Godunov, Tsar of Russia (protagonist of my favourite opera, by Mussorgsky);
- 1616 Miguel de Cervantes, author of the great novel, Don Quixote;
- 1616 William Shakespeare;
- 1731 Daniel Defoe;
- 1756 Jacques Cassini (discovered the rings of Saturn and is honoured in the name of the Cassini spacecraft currently orbiting Saturn;
- 1794 Georges-Jacques Danton; one of the co-leaders of the French Revolution, he was, guillotined by his fellow leaders for leniency;
- 1822 William Herschel, astronomer, discovered Uranus and two of its largest moons;
- 1828 Shaka, the great Zulu King;
- 1835 William Henry Ireland, forger of many Shakespearean manuscripts and covered in great length in the excellent book, Contested Will;
- 1865 Abraham Lincoln;
- 1872 Samuel Morse;
- 1881 Benjamin Disraeli;
- 1882 Ralph Waldo Emerson;
- 1912 Bram Stoker, whose 1897 novel Dracula, remains one of my favourite reads;
- 1917 Scott Joplin, ragtime composer who died much too young at 48;
- 1919 Emiliano Zapata, who might have taken the Mexican Revolution, and the nation, in another direction;
- 1931 Kahlil Gibran, whose work, The Prophet, was a bestseller in my hippie days;
- 1932 Hart Crane, whose novel, The Red Badge of Courage taught me the value of Classics Illustrated comics for book reports;
- 1945 Benito Mussolini;
- 1945 Adolph Hitler;
- 1950 Kurt Weill, German-born composer whose song, Mac the Knife, from The Threepenny Opera (a Marxist musical) became a pop hit for Bobby Darrin in the 1950s;
- 1955 Albert Einstein, whose work and life continue to fascinate me;
- 1962 Stuart Sutcliffe, first bassist of the Beatles;
- 1964 Rachel L Carson, whose book, Silent Spring, awoke my environmental awareness in the late 1960s;
- 1973 Pablo Picasso;
- 1975 Chiang Kai-Shek;
- 1980 Alfred Hitchcock, whose films I still love;
- 1983 Muddy Waters, whose blues gave strength to many American and British musicians;
- 1984 Marvin Gaye;
- 1989 Abbie Hoffman, whose career I watched in the 1960s. i still have one of his books on my shelf;
- 1990 Sarah Vaughan, whose music still moves me;
- 1992 Isaac Asimov, whose science fiction helped form my literary universe;
- 1993 Cesar Chavez, an inspiring labour activist;
- 1994 Roy Smeck, who was also a ukulele wizard;
- 1994 Richard M. Nixon, whose career I followed since his battle for the presidency against John Kennedy, and who was a crook;
- 1995 Burl Ives, whose folk music I learned to love before I was a teen;
- 1998 Carlos Castenada, hoaxster, writer of audacious and outrageous flim-flammery, who set a generation of hippies down the wrong path;
- 2007 Kurt Vonnegut, great writer who influenced me in the 60s and 70s;
- 2007 Boris Yeltsin, who led the perestroika movement and helped found modern Russia (and didn’t live to see it go to the gangsters and thuds now in charge);
- 2008 Albert Hofmann, who created LSD and, unknowingly, the Sixties.
So April is not necessarily Eliot’s “cruellest month” and in fact is interesting, rich in history and gives rise to the delights of spring and the promise of warm summers ahead.
* What Eliot wrote in his first few lines of the poem was,
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.
It’s a wonderful poem and one you owe it to yourself to read if you have not, and to read again if it’s been a while since you last read it.