Themes and Meanings

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“Easter 1984” is at once a traditional devotional poem and a departure from the mainstream of religious poetry as it was written for much of the twentieth century. Most of this poetry, as typified by the work of T. S. Eliot or W. H. Auden, starts from a position of alienation or despair and then reaches a position suggesting wholeness or redemption. Murray, on the other hand, starts from the position that Christ’s victory has already been won and that the task of humanity is to understand the nature and terms of this victory.

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The Easter theme is explicitly elaborated in the poem, but why is it titled “Easter 1984”? Murray may simply have written the poem in 1984, but there seem to be larger reverberations. To most “literary” readers, “1984” is most likely to suggest George Orwell’s novel of that name (published in 1949), which depicts a Soviet-style totalitarian system in which Christianity, or any religion, has no place. Murray, writing from the vantage point of the “real” 1984, does not have so pessimistic a vision. Christianity, though hardly triumphant, has persisted and endured. This is the thrust of the mysterious “Three fell, two went on” line, which expands the poem from a consideration of the Crucifixion as such to include the course of Christian history. By going into the historic fate of humanity’s belief in Christ, Murray includes both the defeats and victories of Christianity on the worldly level.

Murray is a convert to Roman Catholicism, but this poem seems less an extension or application of religious dogma—which, characteristically, the zeal of the convert poet might produce—than an expression of religious feeling. Murray wishes to bear witness to the beauty and majesty of Christ’s resurrection, not to castigate those who are indifferent to it. His treatment of the theme of “humanity” is crucial. Human nature—human “meanness,” for lack of a better word—is what makes people refuse the challenge of the redemption Christ offers them. At the end Christ’s love becomes “the baseline of the human” instead of being completely above the here-and-now. Christianity is a higher humanism, so it can still have relevance to humankind, just as Murray’s references have made clear that Christianity is a force in human history as well as spirituality.

Murray’s Australian nationality may contribute to his unusually forceful exposition of the Christian theme. Unlike the United States, so long ideologically anchored by the Puritan vision of the “New Jerusalem,” Australia has had no founding or sustaining religious myth. Against this background, the function of religious poetry is somewhat different. Although Murray is very much his own person as a poet and should not be considered a part of a general Australian trend, his preference for testifying to Christ’s glory rather than proclaiming the authority of his dogma may well reflect his nationality.

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