Tuesday, August 13, 2013

T.S. Eliot - Murder in the Cathedral

Murder in the Cathedral was my last reading assignment in English and my first exposure to T.S. Eliot - and wow.  I just wandered around like a zombie after finishing it because I just could not straighten out what I thought of it.  I liked it but I hated it, it was perfect but it was awful.  In short, it was a very conflicting play.  I get the feeling that most of Eliot's work is like this.

Naturally, the plot was very good, but as it is a true story, that is to be expected,  (For those who have no idea what the play is about, it's the tale of the murder of St. Thomas à Becket in Canterbury Cathedral.)  The atmosphere is what really got to me, though.  It was depressing and just really, really dark for most of the play.  I think it's just one of those books that you know is good, but is not comfortable, if that makes sense.  (Sort of like Gone with the Wind.) It's enjoyable, but one of those things you can't stay immersed in for too long.
The poetry has a strong cadence and almost reads like music; I love strong rhythms in poetry so I definitely appreciated that.  Especially in plays or epic poems a prominent rhythm is important, I think, because it makes it easier to get through the often unfamiliar experience of reading a story set in poetry rather than prose.
Now, many of us know that Eliot is often considered one of the fathers of modern poetry.  I, personally, am not fond of most modern poetry.  Therefore I had rather a bias against the man, fair or not; but while I could see that modernity and how it could have influenced poetry today, it didn't bother me too much - it was still very good.  Because of the leaning towards modern poetry, the lines are simpler, direct, and strikingly forceful.  BUT.  One can feel the taint of  it, not only in the poetry itself but in the overall feeling of the work.  If you pay attention when you read or listen to music you will probably know the feeling of modernity: a sort of empty, despairing taste it leaves in your mouth. It is well-mixed with other elements in Murder in the Cathedral and so was not so overwhelming, but I still detected its presence.

Now, the Chorus.  I usually don't really understand choruses in general (in plays, I mean), but this one takes the cake.  It's made up of the Women of Canterbury, and they seem a pretty miserable lot.  Also, I can't imagine how their lines are supposed to be said in a performance - are they supposed to be said naturally, or sort of chanted?  Especially since it's a whole group of women... If by chance their lines were chanted, it would make a pretty creepifying spectacle, because they provide a lot of the darkness of the play.  Imagine a group of female voices in unison, sort of deadpan-chanting the following lines:  
The agents of hell disappear, the human, they shrink and dissolve,
Into dust on the wind, forgotten, unmemorable; only is here
The white flat face of Death, God's silent servant,
And behind the face of Death the Judgement
And behind the Judgement the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell;
Emptiness, absence, separation from God; 
The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land,
Which is no land, emptiness, absence, the Void. 
I'll say this for Eliot: he knew how to create emotions. Only, the emotions he creates are mostly negative, like terror and fear and despair, so no credit for him, really.  Flipping through the book to find that passage, I found a word to describe the element combating the dreariness of modernity: richness.  Eliot's writing has a richness which, though not at all like the color-drenched richness of Chesterton or the spiritual richness of St. Teresa, is essential to the impact his poetry makes, and saves it from being entirely modern.  Modern poetry is generally too concerned with being abstract and pressing the "enter" button as much as possible to have any element of richness.

And do note that I chose the most depressing lines I could find to highlight my point in that excerpt.  There is much heroism and even beauty in the play, being as it is a very Catholic story, though T.S. Eliot himself was not a Catholic, as far as I know.  I find the interest of secular writers in Catholic martyrdom very intriguing - you have this, A Man for All Seasons, various movies made about St. Joan of Arc over the years, etc.  Perhaps it is simply the sensational element in martyrdom that appeals to them, but I like to believe it is something deeper. The Catholicity in Murder in the Cathedral is strongly present, from the perfectly-handled Tempters (and Thomas' refutation of them) to the lines of the Dies Irae in the Chorus to the Archbishop's last words: Now to Almighty God, to the Blesssed Mary ever Virgin, to the blessed John the Baptist, the holy apostles Peter and Paul, to the blessed martyr Denys, and to all the Saints, I commend my cause and that of the Church.

 It is a very true play, and is certainly worth taking the time to read.  It's a lot to process - so sorry if I have rambled unnecessarily here, especially about modern poetry!  As you may see, I have still not entirely made up my mind about it, though I am recommending it.  If you have read it, tell me about it so that we can discuss its relative merits and demerits.  It's the sort of book that must be discussed to be understood properly, I believe.

Recommended for ages 16+, unless you are especially mature. No star rating because I just can't decide!


  1. I remember that when I read this book, I couldn't make my mind up about it either. It's beautiful and some of the characters have a special depth to them; but at the same time, it's so dark and dreary. It seemed like there wasn't a single character that wasn't slogging through a pit of black misery and despair. No one seemed to find any joy or hope in life.

  2. 'Modern poetry is generally too concerned with being abstract and pressing the "enter" button as much as possible to have any element of richness.'
    My thoughts exactly...


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