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Murder in the Cathedral ()

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T. S. Eliot's short play, Murder in the Cathedral, was originally written for the Canterbury festival and tells the story of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett (1118-70) by Henry II's henchmen.  It is essentially an extended lyrical consideration of the proper residence of temporal and spiritual power, of the obligations of religious believers to the commands of the State, and of the possibility that piety can be selfish unto sin.

Beckett is one of the more interesting characters from history.  Rising from a lowly birth in the Cheapside section of London, largely thanks to the patronage of Theobald, Archbishop of Canterbury, in 1154 he became both archdeacon of Canterbury and Henry's chancellor.  Theobald expected him to defend the prerogatives of the Church, but instead he became fast friends with Henry, partook of a sybaritic lifestyle, and extended the power of the State at the expense of the Church.  So when Theobald was succeeded by Beckett, Henry expected to have a compliant ally running the Church, but instead Beckett adopted an ascetic lifestyle and became a fearsome defender of the rights of the Church.  After dividing on many minor issues, matters came to a head when Henry tried exerting the authority of Crown courts to punish clerics who had been convicted by ecclesiastical courts.  Henry determined to reign him in, put Beckett on trial for misappropriating funds while serving as Chancellor, and Beckett was forced to flee to France.

The play opens as Beckett returns to Canterbury in December of 1170, after seven years in exile.  Four Tempters approach him, separately, and offer him reasons why he should cease to resist Henry.  The first Tempter offers the prospect of physical safety if he will go along to get along :

    The safest beast is not the one that roars most loud,
    This was not the way of the King our master!
    You were not used to be so hard upon sinners
    When they were your friends.  Be easy, man!
    The easy man lives to eat the best dinners.
    Take a friend's advice.  Leave well alone,
    Or your goose may be cooked and eaten to the bone.

The second offers worldly power, riches and fame in the service of the King :

    King commands.  Chancellor richly rules,
    This is a sentence not taught in schools.
    To set down the great, protect the poor,
    Beneath the throne of God can man do more?
    Disarm the ruffian, strengthen the laws,
    Rule for the good of the better cause,
    Dispensing justice make all even,
    Is thrive on earth, and perhaps in heaven.

The third offers him an alliance with the barons and the opportunity to work against the King :

                For a powerful party
    Which has turned its eyes in your direction--
    To gain from you, your Lordship asks.
    For us, Church favour would be an advantage,
    Blessing of Pope powerful protection
    In the fight for liberty.  You, my Lord,
    In being with us, would fight a good stroke
    At once, for England and for Rome,
    Ending the tyrannous jurisdiction
    Of king's court over bishop's court,
    Of king's court over baron's court.

The final Tempter, who may be the Devil himself, offers Beckett the chance to supplant the King, but with a caveat :

                Fare forward to the end.
    all other ways are closed to you
    Except the way already chosen.
    But what is pleasure, kingly rule,
    Or rule of men beneath a king,
    With craft in corners, stealthy stratagem,
     To general grasp of spiritual power?
    Man oppressed by sin, since Adam fell--
    You hold the keys of heaven and hell.
    Power to bind and loose : bind, Thomas, bin,
    King and bishop under your heel.
    King, emperor, bishop, baron, king :
    Uncertain mastery of melting armies,
    War, plague, and revolution,
    New conspiracies, broken pacts;
    To be master or servant within an hour,
    This is the course of temporal power.
    The Old King shall know it, when at last breath,
    No sons, no empire, he bites broken teeth.
    You hold the skein : wind, Thomas, wind
    The thread of eternal life and death.
    You hold this power, hold it.

    THOMAS :

                Supreme, in this land?


    Supreme, but for one.

And so Beckett resists this blandishment just as he has the others, but then the fourth Tempter cannily tempts him with his own dream, the desire for martyrdom :

    What can compare with glory of Saints
    Dwelling forever in presence of God?
    What earthly glory, of king or emperor,
    what earthly pride, that is not poverty
    Compared with richness of heavenly grandeur?
    Seek the way of martyrdom, make yourself the lowest
    On earth, to be high in heaven.
    And see far off below you, where the gulf is fixed,
    Your persecutors, in timeless torment,
    Parched passion, beyond expiation.

Here Thomas Beckett realizes the peril of his own soul :

    Now is my way clear, now is the meaning plain:
    Temptation shall not come in this kind again.
    The last temptation is the greatest treason
    To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

If he selfishly seeks martyrdom out of a personal desire for immortality, rather than selflessly accepting the risk of death while defending what he believes is right, then he will commit treason against the very Lord he is supposedly serving.

In Part Two of the play Beckett is confronted and murdered by Four Knights, acting at the behest, explicit or otherwise, of Henry.  Beckett had further antagonized Henry, upon his return, by opposing the coronation of Henry's son.  This prompted the King to his infamous utterance : "Who will rid me of this turbulent priest?"  On December 29, 1170, four knights of his court assassinated Beckett inside the Canterbury cathedral, turning an already heinous act into a cause celebre throughout Christendom.  Eliot uses this section of the play to explore the possibility that Beckett was actually wrong in his argument with Henry.

In their initial confrontation the Knights are quite worked up, but Beckett answers reasonably :


    You are the Archbishop in revolt against the King; in
        rebellion to the King and the law of the land;
    You are the Archbishop who was made by the King;
        whom he set in your place to carry out his command.
    You are his servant, his tool, and his jack,
    You wore his favors on your back,
    You had your honours all from his hand; from him you
           had the power, the seal and the ring.
    This is the man who was the tradesman's son : the back-
            stairs brat who was born in Cheapside;
    This is the creature that crawled upon the King;
        swollen with blood and swollen with pride.
    Creeping out of the London dirt,
    Crawling up like a louse on your shirt,
    The man who cheated, swindled, lied; broke his oath
        and betrayed his King.

    THOMAS :

    This is not true.
    Both before and after I received the ring
    I have been a loyal subject to the King.
    Saving my order, I am at his command,
    As his most faithful vassal in the land.

But is that "Saving my order" which sticks in the craw of royalists, the idea that Beckett owes a higher duty to the Church, on some things, than to the Crown.  Just as the Knights are about to strike him down they are interrupted by some priests and Beckett has time to prepare himself for the now inevitable end, though the priests urge him to hide :

    PRIESTS (Severally) :

    My Lord you must not stop here.  To the minster.
    Through the cloister.  No time to waste.  They are com-
        ing back, armed.  To the altar, to the altar.

    THOMAS :

    All my life they have been coming, these feet.  All my life
    I have waited.  Death will come only when I am worthy,
    And if I am worthy, there is no danger.
    I have therefore only to make perfect my will.

Beckett can now sense that he is approaching the proper attitude of selflessness, that he is truly accepting martyrdom in defense of the ideas and ideals of the Church, rather than selfishly seeking martyrdom for personal reasons of fame and glory.  So when the Knights return and the priests propose barring the doors, he says :

    Unbar the doors!  throw open the doors!
    I will not have the house of prayer, the church of Christ,
    The sanctuary, turned into a fortress.
    The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not
    As oak and stone; stone and oak decay,
    Give no stay, but the Church shall endure.
    The church shall be open, even to our enemies.  Open
        the door!

Indeed, so long as the Church stood for a higher set of ideals, separate from petty political concerns, it did endure and served a vital function in society.   This endurance depended on the willingness of men like Beckett to sacrifice their all for these ideals, eschewing political power and wealth and running the risk of offending the temporal powers.

Eliot, however, does not leave it at that.  He also allows the murderers to have their say, and they do so in a direct conversation with the audience :

    [The KNIGHTS, having completed the murder, advance
        to the front of the stage and address the audience.]

            FIRST KNIGHT :

        We beg you to give us your attention foe a few moments.  We know that you may be disposed to
    judge unfavourably of our action.  You are Englishmen, and therefore you believe in fair play: and
    when you see one man being set upon by four, then your sympathies are all with the under dog.  I
    respect such feelings.  I share them.  Nevertheless, I appeal to your sense of honour.  You are
    Englishmen, and therefore will not judge anybody without hearing both sides of the case.

As they put their case, it becomes clear that this murder is not self-serving either :

            THIRD KNIGHT :

                  We are not getting anything out of this.  We have much more to lose than to gain.
     We are four plain Englishmen who put our country first.  I dare say we didn't make a very good
    impression when we came in just now.  The fact is that we knew we had taken on a pretty stiff job;
    I'll only speak for myself, but I had drunk a good deal--I am not a drinking man ordinarily--to
    brace myself up for it.  When you come to the point, it does go against the grain to kill an
    Archbishop, especially when you have been brought up in good Church traditions.  So if we
    seemed a bit rowdy, you will understand why it was; and for my part I am awfully sorry about it.
    We realised this was our duty, but all the same we had to work ourselves up to it.  And, as i said,
    we are not getting a penny out of this.  We know perfectly well how things will turn out.  King
    Henry--God bless him--will have to say, for reasons of state, that he never meant this to happen;
    and there is going to be an awful row; and at the best we shall have to spend the rest of our lives
    abroad.  And even when reasonable people come to see that the Archbishop had to be put out of
    the way--and personally I had a tremendous admiration for him--you must have noticed what a
    good show he put up at the end--they won't give us any glory.

When we consider the unification of power in the hands of central authorities which the forging of the modern State required, few can argue with the point that the Archbishop and his defense of the Church courts did indeed need to be "put out of the way."  We may, we must, disapprove of their methods, but the Knights should be seen as just as much duty-bound as Beckett.

It is this kind of interplay and the confrontation between Church and State which informed society at it's healthiest.  It was men like Beckett and the Knights, willing to sacrifice even their lives in discharging their respective duties, who created the great Western institutions.  So long as there were men like Beckett for the State to reckon with, to stand as moral examples and human rebukes to the power of the State, there existed a serious counterbalance to the worst excesses of that power.  Indeed, such was the weight of Christian revulsion against this murder that Henry had to scourge himself publicly to atone for it.

Today we still have our King Henrys, trying to aggrandize power to the central authority, and we have many henchmen, willing to serve the all powerful State, though few will accept the consequences of their actions as willingly as did these Knights.  But we have virtually destroyed the countervailing institutions, such as the Church, which once made it possible to hold rulers responsible for their actions.  Pope John Paul II has tried mightily to restore the credibility of the Catholic Church as an institution of serious moral authority, but his own clerics and certainly the clerics of other denominations of Christianity have pretty much abandoned this mission.  Religion today is less about obedience to moral precepts than about social gathering, some kind of mushy spirituality and a bland liberalism which manifests itself in opposition to capitalism and support for huge government spending programs.

All of this came home to roost most graphically in the Clinton Impeachment unpleasantness.  In the absence of any accepted societal moral standards, the ruler had virtually no restraints on his behavior.  His henchmen defended him out of a simple interest in power, without having to consider the ethical consequences of his or their actions.  And there was no institution with sufficient moral credibility to call anyone to account for themselves, particularly after the Carvillians had finished smearing the Independent Prosecutor.  Meanwhile, on all sides, men succumbed to the soul-killing temptation which Beckett discerned :

    The last temptation is the greatest treason
    To do the right deed for the wrong reason.

Regardless of whether the President should or should not have been impeached when the issue is considered in the abstract, most people's opinions on the matter were driven by purely partisan concerns.  This is just one example of how timely this play remains.  It's not quite as good as Robert Bolt's Man for all Seasons (see Orrin's review), but I highly recommend it.


Grade: (A-)


T. S. Eliot Links:

    -Academy of American Poets: T. S. Eliot
    -Nobel Laureates: Thomas Stearns Eliot
    -Literature Online: Addison-Wesley's Literature Online--A site to support Kennedy & Gioia's Literature, 7th Edition.
    -T. S. Eliot Poems
     -Literary Research Guide: T. S. Eliot (1888 - 1965)
    -T.S. Eliot (Most Web)
    -FEATURED AUTHOR: NY Times Book Review
    -OBIT : T.S. Eliot, the Poet, is Dead in London at 76  (Tuesday, January 5, 1965, NY Times)
    -LINKS: American Modernism
    -ETEXT: The Hollow Men
    -ETEXT: Annotated
    -ESSAY: The Voice of This Calling: The Enduring Legacy of T.S. Eliot (Clint Brand|July 8th, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot on Economics and Education (Richard Gunderman, EconLib)
    -ESSAY: Reinhold Niebuhr, T. S. Eliot, and The Year of Our Lord 1943 (John Shelton, May 29, 2024, Providence)
    -ESSAY: Our Greatest Pilgrim Poet?: Not since the great Metaphysical Poets of the Elizabethan Age has there been such a flowering of creative genius as seen in the verse of just one 20th century poet, T.S. Eliot. (Regis Martin, 5/25/24, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: Permanent Things: T.S. Eliot’s Conservatism (Benjamin Lockerd, January 3rd, 2024, Imaginative Conservative)
    -AUDIO LECTURE: A Guide to Finally Understanding T. S. Eliot's Four Quartets (Audio Lecture) (Andy patton, November 2023, Rabbit Room)
    -ESSAY: T. S. Eliot’s still point: On the poet’s life & work. (James Matthew Wilson, April 2023, New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: Eliot’s Pitiless Brilliance: ‘The Waste Land’ (William H. Pritchard, March 1, 2023, Commonweal)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot: fame, frustration and love (Jeffrey Meyers, 2/12/23, The Article)
    -ESSAY: Thumbscrew and wailing wall: T.S. Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land’ (Jeffrey Meyers, 1/29/23, The Article)
    -ESSAY: That’s Not Typing, It’s Writing: How T. S. Eliot Wrote “The Waste Land”: “With me an unfinished thing is a thing that might as well be rubbed out.” (Matthew Hollis, January 9, 2023, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot as Conservative Mentor (Sir Roger Scruton, January 3rd, 2023, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: The Waste Land at 100 (James Matthew Wilson, 12/14/22, University Bookman)
    -SUMMARY: The Waste Land in a Nutshell (JOSEPH PEARCE, 8/26/22, Crisis)
    -ESSAY: The alienation of Eliot’s ‘The Waste Land,’ at 100, has come to feel like home: The December birthday ‘The Waste Land’ shares with Christmas foreshadows the Easter that is to come. (Karen Swallow Prior, 12/13/22, RNS)
    -ESSAY: Remembering T. S. Eliot (Micah Mattix|Apr. 1st, 2024, Chronicles)
    -ESSAY: T.S. ELIOT AT 101 (Cynthia Ozick, November 12, 1989, The New Yorker)
-ESSAY: On St. Louis’s T.S. Eliot and the Arrogance of a Poet’s Love (Ben, JANUARY 15, 2023, The Common Reader)
    -ESSAY: TS Eliot’s women: the unsung female voices of The Waste Land (Jude Rogers, 10/31/22, The Observer)
    -ESSAY: How T.S. Eliot’s Therapeutic Practice Produced The Waste Land: David Barnes on a Poet, His Doctor, and the Making of a Literary Masterpiece (David Barnes, October 24, 2022, LitHub)
    -ESSAY: How The Waste Land became the most quotable book of the last 100 years: With its many places, ages and languages, The Waste Land disturbed the piped music of modernity (Jeremy Noel-Tod, October 6, 2022, Prospect)
    -PODCAST: The Waste Land (The History of Literature Podcas)
-ESSAY: Help from Uncle Possum: Unpublished letters from T. S. Eliot about Omar Pound’s schooldays (Chris Jones, September 2022, TLS)
    -ESSAY: A People Without History: T.S. Eliot’s Critique of Evolutionary History (Benjamin Lockerd|August 21st, 2022, Imaginative Conservative)
    -ESSAY: T. S. Eliot and the Holy Grail: The Nobel Laureate drew on a centuries-old legend when he put the Fisher King in The Waste Land (Angelica Frey June 1, 2022, JSTOR Daily)
    -FOREWARD: to TS Eliot’s The Wasteland and Other Poems, 100th anniversary edition (Qiu Xiaolong, Asian Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Bob Dylan’s and T.S. Eliot’s search for truth: Eliot lingered in Dylan’s consciousness as he sought to answer the question “what is it?” (francesca Peacock, April 28, 2022, Spectator)
    -ESSAY: 100 years since poetry changed for ever with ‘The Waste Land’: T.S. Eliot began his career as a nihilist and ended it as a Christian. (Michael Cook, Jan 19, 2022, MercatorNet)
    -ESSAY: Eliot and the Follies of the Time (Russell Kirk, 08/01/08, First Principles)
    -LECTURE: The Politics of T.S. Eliot  (Russell Kirk, The Heritage Foundation)
    -ARTICLE : T.S. Eliot took pause when writing of cats (ARTHUR HIRSCH, Baltimore Sun)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot's Political 'Middle Way' (Michael R. Stevens, Religion & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: A craving for reality:  T. S. Eliot today (Roger Kimball, The New Criterion)
    -ESSAY: TS Eliot's Hollow Men (AMANDA J. WAGGONER)
    -ESSAY: What T.S. Eliot Almost Believed  (J. Bottum, First Things)
    -ESSAY : T. S. Eliot's Political "Middle Way" (Michael R. Stevens, Acton Institute)
    Nudge-Winking: a review of The 'Criterion': Cultural Politics and Periodical Networks in Interwar Britain by Jason Harding (Terry Eagleton, 19 September 2002, London Review of Books)
    -ESSAY: Pun and Games:  A New Approach to Five Early Poems by T. S. Eliot (Professor Patricia Sloane, New York City Technical College of The City University of New York)
    -ESSAY: T.S. Eliot: Poet and Critic as Historical Theorist (Scott Weidner)
    -ESSAY: Was T.S. Eliot a Scoundrel?  Although the poet's anti-Semitism is beyond dispute, its centrality to his work is open to question (John Gross, Commentary)
    -ESSAY : Shell Game: Clawing away at Eliot (Rick Perlstein, Lingua Franca, September 1997)
    -ESSAY : The Bones in Mr. Eliot's Closet : Rediscovering the patron saint of all the flawed and haunted seekers of modernity. (Michael R. Stevens, Books & Culture)
    -ESSAY : The Two Eliots : "To all appearances," a biographer writes, "Eliot was conventional, mild, decorous, yet the hidden character was daring and savage." (Jewel Spears Brooker, Books & Culture)
    -ONLINE STUDY GUIDE : Eliot's Poetry  by T. S. Eliot (Spark Note, Melissa Martin)
    -ESSAY : Words alone :  Denis Donoghue explains the genesis of his forthcoming book on T.S. Eliot (Irish Times)
    -ESSAY: T. S. ELIOT, CRIME FICTION CRITIC: Thoughts on Crime Writing From The Man Who Rescued Willkie Collins from Obscurity (CURTIS EVANS, 4/29/19, Crime Reads)
    -ESSAY: Beastly Clues T. S. Eliot, Torquemada, and the Modernist Crossword: Just a few years after The Waste Land appeared — a poem whose difficulty critics compared to some “pompous cross-word puzzle” — Edward Powys Mathers (alias: Torquemada) pioneered the cryptic: a puzzle form that, like modernist poetry, unwove language and rewove it anew. Roddy Howland Jackson reveals the pleasures and imaginative creatures lurking in Torquemada's lively grids. (Roddy Howland Jackson, January 12, 2022, Public Domain Review)
-REVIEW : of Words Alone: The Poet T.S. Eliot. By Denis Donoghue (Frank Kermode, Irish Times)
    -REVIEW : of Words Alone : The Poetry of T. S. Eliot by Denis Donoghue (Adam Kirsch, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW : of WORDS ALONE: THE POET T.S. ELIOT.  By Denis Donoghue (The Economist)
    -REVIEW:  Louis Menand: How Eliot Became Eliot, NY Review of Books
        Inventions of the March Hare: Poems 1909-1917 by T.S. Eliot and edited by Christopher Ricks
        The Waste Land, the 75th anniversary edition by T.S. Eliot
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT: A Study in Character and Style By Ronald Bush (Michiko Kakutani, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of ELIOT'S NEW LIFE By Lyndall Gordon (Denis Donoghue, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT. A Life By Peter Ackroyd (John Gross, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of T. S. ELIOT A Life By Peter Ackroyd (A. Walton Litz, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of  Louis Menand: Eliot and the Jews, NY Review of Books
        T.S. Eliot, Anti-Semitism, and Literary Form by Anthony Julius
    -REVIEW: The Letters of T. S. Eliot Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (MICHIKO KAKUTANI, NY Times)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT Volume I, 1898-1922 Edited by Valerie Eliot (Hugh Kenner, NY Times Book Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Collected Prose of T.S. Eliot (Joseph Epstein, WSJ)
    -REVIEW: of THE LETTERS OF T. S. ELIOT : Volume 9: 1939–1941: Eeyore reports for duty: The ‘devoted patience’ of T. S. Eliot, wartime correspondent (Seamus Perry, TLS)
    -REVIEW: of Robert Crawford’s Eliot: After The Waste Land (Erica Wagner, New Statesman)
    -REVIEW: of Eliot After “The Waste Land” by Robert Crawford (Anthony Domestico, The Baffler)
    -REVIEW: of Eliot after The Waste Land (Michael Thurston, The hudson Review)
    -REVIEW: of The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem by Matthew Hollis (Alex Clark, The Guardian)
    -REVIEW: of The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem, by Matthew Hollis (Edward Short, City Journal)
    -REVIEW: of Matthew Hollis’s The Waste Land: A Biography of a Poem (Nathaniel Rosenthalis, Common Reader)
    -REVIEW: of The Complete Prose of T. S. Eliot: The Critical Edition : 8-Volume Set Edited by Ronald Schuchard et al. (Ben Lockerd, University Bookman)
    -REVIEW: of The Hyacinth Girl by Lyndall Gordon (Paul Krause, Voegelin View)


    -FILMOGRAPHY: Four Quartets 2023 (Metacritic)

Book-related and General Links:

   -ENCYCLOPAEDIA BRITANNICA : Henry II : British Monarchs
    -REVIEW: of a Washington DC production 'Cathedral's' Critical Mass (Lloyd Rose, Washington Post Staff Writer, January 7, 1997)

THOMAS BECKETT (born 1118, Cheapside, London d. Dec. 29, 1170)
    -ENCYCLOPÆDIA BRITANNICA : Becket, Saint Thomas

    -REVIEW : of The Intellectuals and the Masses: Pride and Prejudice Among the Literary Intelligentsia, 1880-1939. By John Carey Hitler, Spam, and Modernism (Roger Kimball, First Things)
    -ESSAY: Dead or Alive? The Human Condition and Modernism
    -ESSAY: Thomas Becket: Formed for Freedom (William J. Haun, 2/09/21, Law & Liberty)
    -ESSAY: He being dead yet speaketh: Thomas Becket: murder and the making of a saint (Serenhedd James, 13 June, 2021, The Critic)
    -REVIEW ESSAY: Finding God and Self in “Becket” (Michael De Sapio, September 18th, 2021, Imaginative Conservative)