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An Eliot masterpiece
by Thanos Kalamidas
Issue 9
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Murder in the Cathedral
Thomas Stearns Eliot
“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.”

In a special about religion, I could not resist writing something about one of T.S. Eliot’s masterworks Murder in the Cathedral.

T.S. Eliot’s short play was originally written for the Canterbury Festival and is all about the story of the murder of Archbishop Thomas Beckett by Henry II’s henchmen. The whole play is a lyrical consideration of the proper spiritual power, the obligations and the ties between Church and State, and the human side of superior priests of any church, in this case the Aglican Church.

Archbishop Thomas Beckett is the most interesting character of the play, not only as a role but as a historical figure as well. In 1154, the man became Archbishop of Canterbury and also King Henry’s friend and chancellor. King Henry was trying to extend his influence and control over the church, but found his own friend as his worst opposition. Quite oddly, their friendship was exactly the reason the king had chosen him for the position.

After dividing on many minor issues, matters became worse when Henry tried exerting the authority of Crown Courts to punish clerics who had been convicted by ecclesiastical courts. Henry was determined to rein him in by putting Beckett on trial for misappropriating funds while serving as Chancellor, and Beckett was forced to flee to France.

And that’s how the play starts, with Beckett returning 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 drama/poem unravels like a Greek tragedy.

In the second part 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 Canterbury Cathedral, turning an already hideous act into a cause throughout Christendom.

Oddly I find the play/poem working even today, where we have often the state interfere with church matters and vice-versa; I don’t want to show only the Christian church as an example but Islam has done the same, more often I would think than Christianity, especially over the last century with Iran as the best example.

T.S. Eliot is a master of the English language. I have read that it took him a long time to finalize the poem/play and reading it I can sense why; every verse is full of meanings and pictures. The fourth Tempter cannily tempts Thomas Beckett 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.”

And the Archbishop Thomas Beckett answers:

“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.”

Marvelous! Murder in the Cathedral is one of these poems I have always found my self using parts or sentences of it when I want to emphasize something in a conversation about politics or religion. To read a poem is not an easy thing, I know, and somehow I have always been cautious of people who told me that they read poetry but if you want to start then this poem/play is your best choice.

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