'Murder in the Cathedral' - An overview

‘Murder in the Cathedral’ (a brilliant example of a poetic drama by T.S. Eliot) was written for the Canterbury festival in 1935. The play follows the event in Canterbury after Becket’s return in 1170. A chorus of women laments the absence of their archbishop and the people’s helplessness. In the schism between the Church and the State, it is announced that Becket is returning, the news is welcome but all, save the second priest, are fearful of King Henry II’s reconciliation with Becket and wonder if it is to be trusted. Becket enters determined to resolve the crisis, though he knows that it may cost him his life. In the long scene, in the play, the Four Tempters illustrate the conflict. His decision provokes within himself, the temptation to seek martyrdom is powerful. Becket realizes that the only course he has to follow is to offer his life to the law of God above the law of man. The Christmas morning sermon of 1170 makes the position clear. Four days later, four knights of the King arrived and charged him with rebellion, he is ordered to depart from England but he refuses and the abusive Knights warn him that they would come again. The Priest try to persuade Becket barricade himself in the Church but he refuses and orders them to open the door. They open it. The Knights return half-drunk and murder him. Then they address the audience in turns, with their justifications for their deed. After they withdraw the stage is left to the Priest to offer thanks to God for having given another saint to the Cathedral of Canterbury.
The basic plot concerns the death and martyrdom of Becket. The story of his life seems to hold great dramatic and tragic potentialities. The horrible deed which culminated is life involves persons who, though not directly related by blood ties, were suddenly bound by old ties of friendship and humour. Thus, the central theme of the play is martyrdom in the strictest sense of the word. From the long scene which follows the speech of Becket, we can hardly say he was to be tempted by the tempters “for a little time the hungry hawk/ will soar and hover circling lower/ waiting excuse pretence, opportunity/ end will be simple, sudden, God-given.” The last temptation is so subtle that it is a really impossible to judge whether or not, Thomas succumbs to it. Though he actually says at the conclusion of the scene:
Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain
Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
it may be assumed that Thomas died with pure will.
The second act of this poetic drama has no play at all. The martyr’s sermon plainly states: “A martyrdom is never the design of man” and martyrdom cannot be “the effect of a man’s will to become a saint.” Thus, Eliot is concerned with the quest for vision and despair of attaining it. This quest has been pointed in various contexts in the notes concerning every poem. The protagonist seeks a way to live up to his great mission, that is, martyrdom by divorcing it from his own ambition for fame and canonization. So he is less a man that an embodiment of an attitude. He is aware of what is happening to him. But if there is no action in the normal sense of the world, if the centre of the play is a state of mind, then the protagonist can be only self aware. This is exactly, the situation in the play as the protagonist is only self aware what the playwright attempts to accomplish the play with “Message”.
The chorus that represents ordinary people consists of onlookers or persons who are only passively concerned with futility of time and change. Becket is not related to them in any way; that he is in some physical changes, is apparent to them. But the idea that he might be on the verge of martyrdom or even death, is an idea that has no reality for them. In spite of the deficiencies the play is successful because of its emotional power. The real drama is formed where its greatest poetry lies, that is in the choruses. The fluctuations of the chorus, temporal changes which refer to the theme are real measure of Thomas’ spiritual conquest. While Thomas is the chief protagonist of the play, the chorus is the hero but an unconventional hero – one who does not physically participate in the action, one who is only an observer, isolated from the action.

Revival of Poetic Drama

According to Francis Fergussan, a poetic drama is a drama in which you “feel” the characters are poetry and were poetry before they began to speak. Thus poetry and drama are inseparable. The playwright has to create a pattern to justify the poetic quality of the play and his poetry performs a double function. First, it is an action itself, so it must do what it says. Secondly, it makes explicit what is really happening. Eliot in his plays has solved the problem regarding language, content and versification.
In the twentieth century, the inter-war period was an age suited to the poetic drama. There was a revival and some of the poets like W. B. Yeats and T. S. Eliot tried their hands in writing of poetic plays. This was a reaction against prose plays of G. B. Shaw, Galsworthy and others because these plays showed a certain lack of emotional touch with the moral issue of the age. W. B. Yeats did not like this harsh criticism of the liberal idea of the nineteenth century at the hands of dramatists like G. B. Shaw. So he thought the drama of ideas was a failure to grasp the reality of the age. On the other hand, the drama of entertainment (artificial comedy) was becoming dry and uninteresting. It was under these circumstances that the modern playwrights like T. S. Eliot, J.M. Synge, W. B. Yeats, W. H. Auden, Stephen Spendor and so on have made the revival the poetic drama possible.

Poetic Drama

The term ‘poetic drama’ became popular during the middle of the twentieth century. It was T.S. Eliot who revived this drama/term as a reaction to the drama of ideas popularized by Galsworthy and G. B. Shaw under the influence of Ibsen. Even Shaw has written ‘The Quintessence of Ibsenism’, in which he gave his manifesto and showed the influence of Ibsen. As a critic T. S. Eliot has written essays like ‘Poetry and Drama’ and ‘Possibility of Poetic Drama’ and so on. In ‘Poetry and Drama’ he points out that poetry and drama are inseparable from each other. Poetry mirrors the heart of the person which the reader cannot conceal. Poetic Drama, according to T. S. Eliot, has far reaching effects as it affects the emotions of person directly., as a practitioner of poetic drama, Eliot has written plays like ‘Murder in the Cathedral’, ‘The Cocktail Party’, ‘Elder Statesman’ etc. He has solved the problem of language, diction and dialogue. In ‘Murder in the Cathedral’ the subject is religious and it was written for the Canterbury Festival (1935). Even poets like W.B. Yeats, W. H. Auden have tried their hands at writing poetic drama.

In the next post I’ll be discussing Eliot’s ‘Murder in the Cathedral’.

Lines from Wordsworth's Immortality Ode

"The Clouds that gather round the setting sun
Do take a sober colouring from an eye
That hath kept watch o'er man's mortality;
Another race hath been, and other palms are won.
Thanks to the human heart by which we live,
Thanks to its tenderness, its joys, and fears,
To me the meanest flower that blows can give
Thoughts that do often lie too deep for tears."
(extract taken from ‘Ode: Intimations of Immortality from Recollections of Early Childhood )
I consider these lines penned by Wordsworth as one of the most precious literary jewels. How beautifully he has summed up the whole thing! It seems as if he has described a lifetime, and at the same time the whole generation of mankind – he refers to the Sun as “that hath kept watch o'er man's mortality”.

Ode: Intimations of Immortality by William Wordsworth


Apart from its philosophical aspect, the great Ode on the Intimation of Immortality is also in the nature of a personal document. It was written on the eve of his happy marriage with Mary Hutchison, when he was still at the height of his powers. But the poet felt that a great change had come over his relations with nature. The familiar objects of the external world were still there as usual. He could still find joy in nature, but could no longer perceive her appareled in celestial light as before. The poet was terribly shaken by the loss of ‘vision’ and asks the poignant question:

Whither is fled the visionary gleam?
Where is now, the glory and the dream.

The poem, in short, faithfully records a grave spiritual crisis and how it was overcome. The poet gradually realized that though he had lost one gift, “the divine vision”, other gifts had followed, which were sufficient compensation for the single loss. There was no cause for grieving, he could still live constantly in the company of nature; even the meanest flower could give him thoughts that lie too deep for tears. He had still the primary affections and faith in the future life of the soul in a blessed world, to console and strengthen him. In place of the earlier visions, he had the philosophic mind.
The ode also records how the boy Wordsworth was often haunted by a feeling that he was surrounded by unreality on all sides, and had sometimes to clutch at a wall or a tree to re-assure himself of the reality of things. He was thankful for those obstinate questionings:

Of sense and outward things
Fallings from us, Vanishings;
Blank misgivings of a creature
Moving about in world not realized.

For such questionings gave him “high instincts” – visions of an ideal world.
Thus, it becomes clear that Wordsworth’s poetry is a faithful record of his mind and soul. He was the most egoistical of English poets and he has used his poetry as an expression of his inner self. As an autobiographer, he is entirely faithful and sincere. No attempt is ever made to minimize his faults and weaknesses or to exaggerate his virtues.

‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ - R. L. Stevenson

Robert Louis Stevenson (1850 –1894) was a Scottish novelist, poet and a travel writer. He wrote a novella ‘The Strange Case of Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde’ that was first published in 1886. The book was a very successful one – it was an instant success. The novel is about the duality of human nature. There is an animal hidden inside the man – the evil side of our self. The human soul has been portrayed as the battleground of the good and the evil. The novel is an insight into the working of the subconscious mind.
The following is a paragraph quoted from the novel itself:
“It was a fine ... day.... I sat in the sun on a bench; the animal within me licking the chops of memory; the spiritual side a little drowsed, promising subsequent penitence, but not yet moved to begin. After all, I reflected, I was like my neighbours; and then I smiled, comparing myself with other men, comparing my active goodwill with the lazy cruelty of their neglect. And at the very moment of that vainglorious thought, a qualm came over me, a horrid nausea and the most deadly shuddering. . . . I began to be aware of a change in the temper of my thoughts, a greater boldness, a contempt of danger, a solution of the bonds of obligation. I looked down; my clothes hung formlessly on my shrunken limbs; the hand that lay on my knee was corded and hairy. I was once more Edward Hyde.”
He also writes: “All human beings ... are commingled out of good and evil.”
Jekyll in this novel asserts “Man is not truly one, but truly two”. Indeed he has voiced here a truth, which we might not accept about ourselves. No matter how honest and truthful we are, we have two sides of our personality. The case of hypocrites is another matter. But even according to psychology there is a difference between the individual and the group behaviour of a student. We see the violent behavior of a mob. But the same individuals when considered one at a time won’t behave in the same way as they did when in a mob. These are the two aspects of the human personality, according to psychology. Jekyll has portrayed the duality of human soul - good and evil - in the novel taking the help from science.

'Blow! Blow! Thou Winter Wind' - Shakespeare

The poem 'Blow! Blow! Thou Winter Wind' :
Blow, blow, thou winter wind,
Thou art not so unkind
As man's ingratitude;
Thy tooth is not so keen,
Because thou art not seen,
Although thy breath be rude

Heigh-ho! sing, heigh-ho! unto the green holly;
Most friends is feigning, most loving mere folly:
Then, heigh-ho, the holly! This life is most jolly.

Freeze, freeze, thou bitter sky,
That dost not bite so nigh
As benefits forgot: Thou thou the waters warp,
Thy sting is not so sharp As friend remembered not.
(Shakespeare, As You Like It, Act III, sc. ii)

The poem entitled ‘Blow! Blow! Thou Winter Wind’ is a song sung by the character named Amiens in the drama written by William Shakespeare. Amiens is one of the lords who have by their own choice come with Duke Senior, who had been banished by his brother. Amiens sings this song commenting upon the ways of the world, and human ingratitude which is more biting than the piercing cold winter wind.
The poet in the very beginning addresses the winter wind and says that it can blow as much hard as it likes because it is not so harsh and rude like man’s nature of being ungrateful. The attack of the winter wind is not so sharp because it is not visible although it is bitingly cold.
The poet asks the frosty sky to freeze because it won’t cause him deep pain as caused by his friends who forget his favours instead of being thankful. The poet says that although the waters are frozen they don’t cause sharp pain like one caused by his friend, who doesn’t even bother to remember him. Thus, the frozen faces of the world are more painful than the frozen waters.
We should always be singing throughout the year like ‘holly’ (an evergreen plant). The poet here says that the friendship is only a pretence and loving is nothing but absurdity and foolery. He again tells that life is very wonderful and should be fully enjoyed. It is like a song and should be sung.
The poet here projects a harsh reality through his song. The celebrated poet Shakespeare is known for his wise words. He is his same self here. His statements are weighty, pithy and precisely correct.