Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 4413
In Eliot's "The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock" (1917) he presents a man on the verge of an emotional crisis who finds that his fear of humiliation and of committing a social faux pas prevent him from revealing to a woman the depth of his love for her. "There will be time," he remarks, "For a hundred indecisions, / And For a hundred visions and revisions," since he knows that he will change his mind a hundred times before doing anything so brave. He asks, "Do I dare / Disturb the universe" with his desire to be frank; since he is '"'no prophet—and here's no great matter," since he is "not Prince Hamlet, nor was meant to be," he sees himself as insignificant, "an attendant lord, one that will do / To swell a progress, start a scene or two." Terrified of acting, yet dissatisfied with the results of inaction, fearful of revealing himself, yet dying to "say just what I mean," Prufrock stands in sharp contrast to a later Eliot hero, Thomas Becket, as seen in Murder in the Cathedral (1935).
Becket is a man who does "dare disturb the universe" with his arrival in Canterbury and refusal to concede to King Henry's demands; he needs no time for a "hundred indecisions" since he sees that the path chosen for him by God is clear. He is "like a prophet"' and Prince Hamlet in that he serves the aims of a supreme, supernatural figure and sees himself as one faced with a task that can only culminate in his own death; unlike Hamlet, however, this knowledge causes him no great suffering of mind. While Prufrock's fear of rejection inhibits him from taking action, Thomas's determination to serve God prevents him from seeking asylum in a world governed by human law. Throughout the play, Eliot explores the ways in which Thomas's lack of "Prufrockian" fear allows him to answer his calling from God and how one who accepts such a call must do so at the expense of any and all temporal comforts. Rejecting this world in favor of the next may seem to Henry's Knights like the ultimate faux pas, but in doing so. Thomas renews his own spiritual life as well as the spiritual lives of the common people and the very world that martyrs him.
Eliot's original title for the play was Fear in the Way, and it is evident from the opening Choral ode that fear is a constant in the world of the play. The "poor women'' huddle near the cathedral not for spiritual comfort but because "Some presage of an act / Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet / Toward the cathedral. We are forced to bear witness." Already God is at work, "compelling" the women (and the audience) to attend to the drama at hand. Unlike the audience,
who by virtue of its position is intrigued, the women are terrified of any change in their lives: although they have "suffered various oppression" such as "various scandals," "taxes," and "private terrors," they have "Succeeded in avoiding notice, / Living and partly living.''
While a viewer might think that the intrusion of God into their lives would be welcomed as a form of deliverance from the "poverty and license" they describe, the women wish to maintain the status quo, which may be rife with "minor injustice'' but which is also predictable and, more importantly, understandable. To be called by God to do anything—even to "witness"—is too terrifying a task, especially when they learn that their Archbishop is returning:
O Thomas our Lord, leave us and leave us be, in our humble and tarnished frame of existence, lea ve us, do not ask us To stand to the doom on the house, the doom on the Archbishop, the doom on the world Archbishop, secure and assured of your fate, unaffrayed among the shades, do you realise what you ask, do you realize what it means To the smaE folk drawn into the pattern of fate, the small folk who hve among small things, The strain on the brain of the small folk who stand to the doom of the house, the doom of their lord, the doom of the world'
The Chorus has accepted the world's indifference to them and all of its concomitant troubles and wishes to "live among small things" rather than answer the call of God, who will obviously make greater demands. Only through Thomas's death (which is his own answer to his calling) will they come to understand the greatness and glory of God.
As if God were presenting the Chorus with an example of one who rejects the very fears they vocalize, Thomas enters the play as one who knows he may die but who accepts this as part of a larger scheme. He tells the Chorus and the Three Priests that there is an"eternal action, an eternal patience / To which all must consent" and that the "End will be simple, sudden, God-given." Already he is prepared to die for his return—but if he already knows this, why would Eliot write the play? In his The Third Voice: Modern British and American Drama, Denis Donoghue argues that an audience's knowledge of Thomas's death eliminates the dramatic force that his death may have. However, he seems to be missing the point that Ehot can use an audience's knowledge of Thomas's impending death as a way to refocus its attention. The viewer then becomes more attuned to the issue of how Thomas will meet his death instead of whether or not this death will occur—-and how Thomas struggles with the weight of martyrdom is Eliot's subject here.
Because a viewer knows Thomas will die, his thoughts on death and martyrdom take on an added significance, like when Henry Fonda's character in John Ford's film Young Mr. Lincoln walks into the sunset with "The Battle Hymn of the Republic" playing on the soundtrack. As Thomas explains to the Priests, "Heavier the interval than the consummation." The mental and spiritual processes leading to an acceptance of martyrdom and the means by which an individual gives himself completely to his faith are Eliot's concern here, and by having the audience know the end of the play before it begins (a function of its title), he is able to prod the viewer into becoming interested in the same things as himself.
Thomas's interaction with the Four Tempters allows Eliot to dramatize these very processes of denial and self-examination that a martyr must undergo if he is to remain true to his calling. The First, Second, and Third Tempters are easily spurned by Thomas, who knows that their promises of temporal power and comfort are "puny" when compared to those offered by God: "Shall I," he asks, "who ruled like an eagle over doves, / Now take the shape of a wolf among wolves?" Rejecting their insinuations that he can set right the world and its temporal problems, Thomas remarks, "Only / The fool, fixed in his folly, may think / He can turn the wheel on which he turns." Like Hamlet, Thomas believes "There's a divinity that shapes our ends" and will (again like Hamlet) "Let be," making the rejection of the Three Tempters a matter of course.
The Fourth Tempter, however, challenges Thomas on a much different—and more difficult— level. The strict meter of his verse attests to his potential bewitching of the future martyr.
As you do not know me, I do not need a name, And, as you know me, that is why I come. You know me, but have never seen my face To meet before was never time or place.
These figures have never met before because the "time or place" were not ripe with such a spiritual crisis, and it is the crisis of self-examination that this Tempter forces on Thomas. The Tempter asks, "But what is pleasure, Kingly rule" compared to "general grasp of spiritual power" and tells him that "Saint and Martyr rule from'the tomb"; Thomas should "think of pilgrims, standing in line / Before the glittering jeweled shrine" and "Seek the way of martyrdom." If he refuses, he will become a footnote and "men shall declare that there was no mystery / About this man who played a certain part in history.'' As Thomas admits, the Fourth Tempter has exposed his "own desires''; like Prufrock, who imagines himself "pinned and wriggling on the wall" with a "magic lantern" throwing his "nerves in patterns on a screen," Thomas must now discern his own motives in seeking martyrdom:
Is there no way, in my soul's sickness, Does not lead to damnation in pride' I well know that these temptations Mean present vanity and future torment. Can sinful pnde be driven out Only by more sinful? Can I neither act nor suffer Without perdition''
The Tempter's answer to this question is an almost word-for-word recitation of Thomas's opening speech to the Chorus:
You know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer. You know and do not know, that achon is suffering, And the suffering action. Neither does the agent suffer Nor the patient act. But both are fixed In an eternal action, an eternal patience To which all must consent that it may be willed And which all must suffer that they may will it, That the pattern may subsist, that the wheel may turn and still Be forever still.
For what reason does the Fourth Tempter answer Thomas with his own words? The answer becomes more clear if the audience considers this Tempter—like his three counterparts—as not an external figure but a part of Thomas himself. Finding no allure in physical pleasure and certainly no use (after his split with the King) for temporal government, Thomas can reject these ideas quite easily. This part of himself, however—the part of his soul that does, to some ambiguous degree, covet fame and glory—is more difficult to resist. If he is to be martyred, he must look deep within himself, listening to his own voice, in order to be sure that he is not the slave of vanity. Seen in this light, the Fourth Tempter is unlike Satan, who tempted Christ, but like a mirror into which Thomas must gaze if he is to know himself. The Forth Tempter is a counselor more than an enemy.
Because of the Fourth Tempter's "friendly advice,'' Thomas is able to determine that "The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason.'' But what has Thomas decided? To let himself be killed? This is decided by him before the play even begins. To reject martyrdom'' This is never an issue or possibility; Thomas wants to know if he seeks the "right thing'' for the "wrong reason" of his own pride, not whether or not martyrdom itself is "right" or "wrong." What Thomas learns here from his own words being thrown back at him is that"action is suffering."
It is worthwhile to pause here and consider the implications of these words. For Thomas, who earlier in the play says that the women "know and do not know, what it is to act or suffer," to "act" would entail inaction, i.e., not protesting his death by sword when it finds him. To "suffer" would entail physical suffering (in his time of dying) but the word also carries the more important sense of "to allow" or "to be the object of some action." This is the key to Thomas's decision, he will "act" (through inaction) not because of his own pride, but by allowing himself to "suffer" the presence and workings of God. Only by seeking a martyrdom grounded in spiritual obedience (rather than temporal fame) will Thomas remain undefiled and avoid the "damnation in pride" that he fears. He now "knows" that "action is suffering" but "does not know" the actual experience of it yet. When this time does come, however, he will "no longer act or suffer, to the sword's end," obeying temporal commands and threats, but will instead "act and suffer'' to obey the will of God.
Thomas's newfound enlightenment is offered to his congregation when he preaches to them on Christmas Day. Besides providing a dramatic fulcrum to the two halves of his play, the sermon allows Eliot to demonstrate the depth of Thomas's understanding of the nature of martyrdom. Christmas is, of course, the birthday of the ultimate martyr and Thomas uses this fact as a way to present the paradoxes inherent in martyrdom. For example, he speaks of the fact that they rejoice in the birth of one who died for their sins, explaining that"only in our Christian mysteries" can they "rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason." He also addresses the meaning of the word "peace'' in Christ's statement to His apostles, "My peace I leave with you, my peace I give unto you," concluding that Christ "gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives."
A viewer can see the extent to which Thomas' s sermon here is self-reflexive, since he too will soon find spiritual—rather than physical—peace. A final example of how the sermon reveals the working-through of the mysteries m Thomas's mind is found in his discussion of God's "first martyr, the blessed Stephen'' Thomas states that"by no means" is it an "accident'' that"the day of the first martyr follows immediately the day of the birth of Christ,'' so urging the congregation to ponder the "pattern'' of God's will as he has done. He concludes by indirectly asserting his own triumph over the thoughts presented to him by the Fourth Tempter, saying, "Still less is a Christian martyrdom the effect of a man's will to become a Saint, as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men.''
The true martyr has "lost his will in the will of God'' and does not even desire"the glory of being a martyr.'' Knowing that he is balanced on the knife's edge of divinity, Thomas pleads with the people to adopt his course of allowing God's will to work in their lives and to "suffer" His presence in Canterbury.
Part Two of the play presents the martyrdom that "Thomas awaits. As Part One examines the processes involved in the individual's acceptance of martyrdom, Part Two examines the ways in which others may view and consider the same. The nervous First and Second Priests speak of the possibility of God acting through Thomas "To-day," but the Third Priest knows that such anticipation is pointless:
What is the day that we know that we hope for or fear for? Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from One moment Weighs like another Only in retrospection, selection, We say, that was the day. The critical moment That is always now, and here, Even now, in sordid particulars The eternal design may appear.
Time is the mother of meaning (an issue raised in Eliot's poem "Journey of the Magi") and the Third Priest is now certain, like Thomas, that the "critical moment" may arise even in "sordid particulars." As if to respond to this statement, the Four Knights enter the play, much like Thomas's perfectly timed entrance in Part One. God's will is now hard at work, a fact acknowledged by Thomas when he enters and states, "However certain our expectanon / The moment foreseen may be unexpected / When it arrives." The Four Knights, however, have no interest in any discussion of"the pattern" or "the wheel" and demand that Thomas recant his former judgments to appease "The King's Justice" and "the King's majesty." Thomas's refusal to do so reveals the extent to which he has (as he stated in his sermon), "lost his will in the will of God": it is not "Becket who pronounces doom," he explains, "But the Law of Christ's Church." Theory has been converted into practice and no threat can weaken Thomas's resolve: he is "not in danger" but "only nearer to death."
The Chorus's reaction to Thomas's fearlessness marks their gradual understanding of what they were "compelled to witness" in the opening of the play. Stating that they have seen "subtle forebodings" of the "death-bringers" in such natural signs as "The horn of the beetle, the scale of the viper'' and the smell of"incense in the latrine," the women beg Thomas for forgiveness for voicing their original fears. Thomas's cult of personality is growing stronger with each moment he remains alive. Naturally, Thomas forgives them with the command "Peace" and explains, "Human kind cannot bear very much reality," an insight that is proven by the actions of the Four Knights and the previous lamentations of the Chorus: to Thomas, the only "reality" is that of God's will—all else is the vanity of temporal power and "toiling in the household "
The Priests, however, are still fearful and plead with Thomas to hide in the cloister. Thomas refuses, stating, "I have therefore only to make perfect my will." It is at this point that Eliot again highlights the mental process of martyrdom by making Thomas's actions here slightly ambiguous and hinting—but only hinting—at his previously rejected desire for fame. Thomas commands the Priests to "Unbar the doors! Throw open the doors!'' because he"will not have the house of prayer'' turned "into a fortress'': "The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not / As oak and stone." This train of thought is in perfect keeping with Thomas's earlier rejection of human law in favor of God's. When the Priests still insist on his hiding, however, Thomas flies into a rage less easily explained by a desire to remain solely an "instrument" of God:
I give my life To the Law of God above the Law of Man Unbar the door1 unbar the door1 We are not to triumph by fighting, by stratagem, or by resistance, Not to fight with beasts as men We have fought the beast And have conquered. We have only to conquer Now, by suffering. This is the easier victory. Now is the triumph of the Cross, now Open the door1 I command it OPEN THE DOOR.
Thomas's logic here posits that only by self-sacrifice ("I give my life") and allowing God to work his will through the Knights ("suffering") will God's will be made complete. But why must God work today? At this moment? (Recall the Third Priest's explanation of how only "retrospection" yields meaning.) Thomas never considers this point and Eliot never addresses it, making this rallying of the Priests' faith one of the most ambiguous moments in the play. A viewer could easily understand this speech to imply that Thomas fears his not being martyred and that there are still some remnants of worldly pride clinging to his vestments.
While this may be a more cynical way to read the play, the point nonetheless seems valid—but only if that same viewer forgets a simple fact about Thomas: for all his wisdom and strength, he is still a man and still subject to the same apprehensions and doubts as everybody else. It is not surprising, then, that the very human Thomas fears the Knights will be prohibited from entering, for he has already completed a grueling process by which he has prepared himself for martyrdom. "For my Lord I am ready to die," he states,' "That His Church may have peace and liberty." His resolve is stronger than any audience's doubts.
Thomas is killed onstage, so that the audience—like the Chorus—will be appalled by the event which God and Eliot have forced them to "witness." The women long for a time when the land was free from the "filth" they "cannot clean," found m the murdering Knights:
A rain of blood has blinded my eyes Where is England'' Where is Kent' Where is Canterbury' O far far far far in the past; and I wander in a land of barren boughs: if I break them, they bleed, I wander in a land of dry stones: if I touch them, they bleed. How can I ever return, to the soft quiet seasons.
Although they are terrified by the murder of their Archbishop, the women still do not understand that God's will is at work here: "We did not wish anything to happen," they cry, since their usual hardships "marked a limit to our suffering." Only later will they "know what it is to act and suffer.''
As they finish their ode and Becket dies, Eliot engages the viewer in the greatest surprise of the play: the Four Knights' direct address to the audience. In On Poetry and Poets, Eliot describes this device as "a kind of trick" added to "shock the audience out of their complacency,'' and the mock-inquest performed by the Knights serves several purposes in the total design of the play. First, the viewer sees the trivial nature of temporal power in The Second, Third, and Fourth Knights' sycophantic praise of the First Knight: "I am not anything like such an experienced speaker as my old friend Reginald Fitz Urse," states the Third Knight, while the Second Knight praises Fitz Urse for making his point "very well" and the Fourth Knight remarks that their"leader, Reginald Fitz Urse,'' has "spoken very much to the point."
The hollow rhetoric of the Knights, with their appeals to the "hard-hearted, sensible" people in the audience, heighten the sincerity and honesty that Thomas has displayed throughout the play. More importantly, the Knights' defense "shocks" the audience into understanding the degree to which the issues of the play are still relevant to modern life, as when the Second Knight explains,
No one regrets the necessity for violence more than we do. Unhappily, there are times when violence is the only way in which social justice may be secured. At another time, you would condemn an Archbishop by vote of Parliament and execute him formally as a traitor, and no one would have to bear the burden of being called murderer And at a later time still, even such temperate measures as these would become unnecessary But, if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, remember that it is we who took the first step. We have been instrumental in bringing about the state of affairs that you approve We have served your interests, we merit your applause; and if there is any guilt whatever in the matter, you must share it with us
The Second Knight looks forward to a future in which the Church's "pretensions" are subordinate to the State—a world very much like that of contemporary Western societies. But this is not a "message'' play and Eliot is too clever to allow all the previous action to congeal into a tidy set of remarks. Instead, the Second Knight raises the question of how much the Church—or spirituality in general—affects the political lives of a nation's citizenry and the extent to which those who put their faith in temporal power (like Henry and his Knights) will go to ensure that the State is always in charge.
In The Plays of T.S. Eliot (1960), David E. Jones calls the Knights' apology "the temptation of
the audience," and the Second Knight's remarks may seem tempting to one who wishes for no spiritual stake in the life of a nation. But who could be tempted by these "slightly tipsy" assassins with their fawning over earthly leaders and vocabulary of psychobabble ("render a verdict of Suicide while of Unsound Mind") that they use to cloud the issues? At most, they are like the first three Tempters in Part One: easily dismissable. Eliot has included their prose defense in order to show the gulf between men of politics and men of God—a contest in which Eliot never avoids revealing the side for whom he is rooting.
As a final way to illustrate the Knights' lack of understanding and as a way to illustrate the effect that Thomas's martyrdom has had on his world, Eliot closes the play with a Choral ode in which the women "Praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory" and describe their new understanding of the "pattern" and the "wheel":
For all things exist only as seen by Thee, only as known by Thee, all things exist Only m Thy light, and Thy glory is declared even in that which denies Thee; the darkness declares the glory of light Those who deny Thee could not deny, if Thou didst not exist; and their denial is never complete, for if it were so, they would not exist
The Knights' sophistry or twentieth century cynicism are no match for devotion of this depth. The Chorus has moved millions of spiritual miles since the beginning of the play: where they formerly asked God to let them "perish in quiet,'' they now beg Him to forgive them for their former blindness. They describe their former selves as "the men and women who shut the door'' and sat "by the fire''— seeking physical comfort—instead of as those who "fear the blessing of God." Any previous arguments raised about the depth of Thomas's devotion and spurning of pride are put to rest here, for the Chorus has been served by its Archbishop, regardless of the motives he may have had:
We now acknowledge our trespass, our weakness, our fault; we acknowledge That the sin of the world is upon our heads; that the blood of the martyrs and the agony of the saints Is upon our heads Lord, have mercy on us. Christ, have mercy on us Lord, have mercy on us. Blessed Thomas, pray for us.
The women now fully "know that action is suffering'' and will allow God's will to work through them. They have moved from Prufrockian doubts to BecketHan certainty and find solace in the presence of a Being that many moderns may be missing. Whether the modern age will produce more Beckets to assuage the doubts of the Prufrocks remains to be seen, but, as Hamlet says and Becket enacts, "The readiness is all."
Source: Daniel Moran, for Drama for Students, Gale, 1998. Moran is an educator specializing in literature and drama.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 768
When Carole M. Beckett observes that "the dramatic function of the women of the Chorus (in Murder in the Cathedral] is to comment upon the events which they witness,'' she, like others, skirts the perplexing critical question of why the chorus is composed solely of women What, in the design of the play, would necessitate an all female chorus?
The second priest in the play sees little use for the chorus of women:
You are foolish, immodest and babbling women. . You go on croaking like frogs in the treetops: But frogs at least can be cooked and eaten.
These women, however, do perform a vital function- they expand our understanding of martyrdom through a metaphor of birth. The female chorus reminds us that both women and martyrs give birth to new life. For a woman, it is the life of her child; for a martyr, it is the life of his belief. In the play, the women's chorus shows us how before giving birth, a martyr, like an expectant mother, must wait and suffer.
To introduce his metaphor of birth, Eliot first shows us that both the women in the chorus and the martyr are waiting. The women open the play waiting "close by the cathedral" where they acknowledge they "are forced to bear witness." As it turns out, they will bear witness to the birth of a martyr. At this point in the play, even though they are not consciously aware of waiting, intuitively they are expectant; they wait and wait. In fact, they repeat the word' 'wait'' eleven times in just this first passage. This repetition, as well as words such as "bear" and "barren," suggests a metaphor of birth. Similarly, Thomas' diction also points to a birth metaphor when he notes soon after he enters the play:
Heavier the interval than the consummation. All things prepare the event.
Like the expectant women, he too is waiting for the birth of the martyr. Ironically, that birth will come only with the ' 'event'' of his death.
The women in the chorus, however, do not refer literally to Thomas' death. Instead, they speak metaphorically about an unminent, ominous birth:
The air is heavy and thick. Thick and heavy the sky. And the earth presses up against our feet.. The earth is heaving to parturition of issue of hell.
The image of a round earth pressing up and the words "heavy" and "thick" suggest the physical appearance of women about to give birth. The word ' 'parturition'' itself literally depicts the act of childbirth. Later in the play, the women will repeat the image of a "heaving earth" as they again convey the metaphor of birth: "I have felt the heaving of earth at nightfall, restless, absurd."
Both the women and Thomas await the "absurd" birth described by the chorus, and as they wait, they suffer. The women agonize when they realize they await the death of Thomas. They fear the birth of which they speak because it will be a "parturition ... of hell"—the hell of their suffering when they experience the physical loss of their beloved Thomas. Like the expectant women, Thomas, too, suffers as he awaits his delivery. He suffers not only mentally through the temptations to his pride and power, but also physically through the pain of his death—the death that will deliver him into his heavenly birth.
Eliot uses the symbol of blood to link the suffering of the martyr and the suffering of the women. Just before he sheds his own blood, Thomas notes:
I am... ready to suffer with my blood This is the sign of the Church always The sign of blood.
Blood is not only a sign for martyrdom, it is also a sign for motherhood. The shedding of Thomas' blood frightens the women, who would naturally associate it with the pain of childbeanng, and their first reaction is to rid themselves of this sign of suffering:
Clean the air! clean the sky! wash the wind! take stone from stone and wash them.
They echo the birth metaphor a last time when, in the same speech, they refer to themselves as wandering "in a land of barren boughs."
If, as seems to be the case, Eliot wants to show the similarities between giving birth and the making of a martyr, then a chorus composed of women makes sense not only thematically, but also structurally. After all, it is women who know best how to wait, suffer, and give birth.
Source: Patricia Mosco Holloway, review of Murder in the Cathedral in the Explicator, Volume 43, no. 2, Winter, 1985, pp. 35-36.
Last Updated on May 6, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2040
In staging T. S. Eliot's poetic drama Murder in the Cathedral, one of the principal technical and artistic-interpretive problems involves the presentation of the choral speeches. Textually they appear as odes with no specific instructions to indicate differentiation of voices. But the first staging of the play set the precedent for assigning parts within the choral odes to individual voices or varying ensembles.
The decision is in part a musical one, involving an assessment of the voices available and an orchestration of those voices to produce a pattern of sound that enhances the aural effect of the language. Obviously, however, the arrangement of voices must also relate to the thematic development of the odes as well. We cannot separate sound and meaning. Thus, while the individual director has some freedom in designating parts of the choral speeches, the poetry itself places strictures on that freedom. What I seek to do here is to provide a reading of the choral odes which identifies the principal thematic and dramatic voices in them.
The choral ode which opens the play serves as prelude not only to the drama which follows, but also to the varying functions of the chorus and to the different voices which articulate aspects of those functions. The initial stanza is a full-voiced statement of the entire chorus speaking as "the poor women of Canterbury" and outlining their roles as harbingers of some danger which diey cannot comprehend and which they can neither impede nor hasten, and as reluctant witnesses to whatever consequences that danger may bring. "Some presage of an act / Which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet / Towards the cathedral. We^are forced to bear witness."
The second stanza takes up the theme of helpless waiting in a somber, yet strong, mellifluous voice (hereafter the first voice). The decline of "golden October" into winter, but not yet the wondrous winter of fresh snow and crystalline frost, rather the dead season of stubbled, muddy fields, sets the image of time suspended while ".. The New Year waits, destiny waits for the coming." In the chill of that mordant time the poor laborer from the fields seeks refuge before the fire, yet even in that refuge is not free: "and who shall / Stretch out his hand to the fire, and deny his master? who shall be warm / By the fire, and deny his master.
The question points up the reluctance with which the women are drawn to their witness The long third stanza opens with a querulous, almost whining voice which gives substance to that reluctance. Recognizing that the Archbishop Thomas had always been a gracious master, this second voice nonetheless regrets the possibility of his return. For the poor, what difference does it make who rules so long as things are quiet for them?—"we are left to our own devices, / And we are content if we are left alone." Left alone, they go about their business, keeping then: households in order, trying to accumulate what they can, working their bit of land, "... Preferring to pass unobserved," leading colorless lives. But that hope diminishes. A third voice, dark and husky, Cassandra-like, dispels it with a vision to match the voice: "... Winter shall come bringing death from the sea, / Ruinous spring shall beat at our doors, / Root and shoot shall eat our eyes and our ears... " The full chorus now returns, and in the wake of this sequence of voices, the women are more fearful, more pessimistic. They have absorbed the qualities of the separate voices and their sense of premonition sharpens: "Some malady is coming upon us. We wait, we wait, / And the saints and martyrs wait, for those who shall be martyrs and saints." As before, the first voice intervenes to give resonance to the choral cry, while also developing its particular motif—all that happens depends on destiny which "waits m the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen...." Confronted by that forceful affirmation of their own helplessness, the women conclude:"For us, the poor, there is no action, / But only to wait and to witness."
In the opening ode, then, we have three distinct voices standing out from the general chorus, each stressing a particular dimension of the choral function. The first with its recurrent .appeal to destiny emphasizes that the women are but passive witnesses; the second with its recitation of the mundane preoccupations of the poor emphasizes that they are drawn unwillingly to fulfill the role of witness; and the third with its darksome, surreal vision emphasizes the fatalism, the pessimism of their witness. The reiteration of these voices develops the tone and consciousness of the full choral voice toward the final revelation.
Thus, in the second choral ode which occurs following the arrival of the messenger who announces the return of Thomas to England, an interchange between the second and third voices impels the women to a sorrowful plea to Thomas to go back to France. The third voice opens with a vivid invocation of the evil that is in the air and an intimation of its consequences: "You come with applause, you come with rejoicing, but you come bringing death into Canterbury: / A doom on the house, a doom on yourself, a doom on the world." Then the plaintive second voice breaks in with a long recitation which, in effect, expands by specifics its earlier theme, though now in a more fretful, less certain fashion: "We do not wish anything to happen. / Seven years we have lived quietly, / Succeeded in avoiding notice, / Living and partly living." That refrain persists, a recognition that the life of the poor, even when they succeed in avoiding notice, is tenuous and drab. The voice finally takes on some of the darksome quality of the others:"We have all had our private terrors, / Our particular shadows, our secret fears." The third voice picks up this admission and intensifies it: "But now a great fear is upon us, a fear not of one but of many". That fear is a vivid intimation of the doom foretold in the opening stanza of this ode, and indeed it concludes with the refrain,"the doom on the house, the doom on the Archbishop, the doom on the world." This "dialogue" closes with the full voice of the chorus which now echoes the rhetoric of the third voice in a petition, partly a whimper, partly a prayer:"do you realise what you ask, do you realise what it means to the small folk drawn into the pattern of fate Thomas, Archbishop, leave us, leave us, leave sullen Dover, and set sail for France,"
The third voice returns in a brief speech which follows the appearance of the four tempters. The premonitory sense now assumes graphic physical form—a sickly smell, a dark green cloud, the earth heaving, sticky dew—engaging all the senses. Then the full chorus joins the priests and the tempters in an alternating sequence which, with mounting anxiety, reports the omens and portents that now multiply.
A choral ode follows. The second voice opens, now readier to admit the drabness and sorrow of the life of the poor which seems more partly living than living. A wiser streak of fatalism has diluted the querulous tone of this voice. The third voice follows, and the physical details of the portents become even more distinct, more surrealistic: "... The forms take shape in the dark air: / Puss-purr of leopard, footfall of padding bear, / Palm-pat of nodding ape, square hyaena waiting / For laughter, laughter, laughter. The Lords of Hell are here". With the atmosphere now charged with premonition, a sense of foreboding in every voice, the poor women of Canterbury cry out, "O Thomas Archbishop, save us, save us, save yourself that we may be saved; /Destroy yourself and we are destroyed." They have now realized, driven by the consciousness of fate and of their helplessness and of the impending violence, that they cannot be mere witnesses. However reluctant they are to watch, they must; however much they yearn to plow their fields, to tend their hearths, to let the princes and nobles rule, they know that the very act of witnessing draws them into the maelstrom.
The increasing anxiety of the poor women of Canterbury, which develops toward the final unison cry of fear that concludes part one, begins part two of the drama unabated, the interlude of Becket's Christmas sermon having done nothing to alleviate it. The full choral voice poses a series of questions which reiterates the pattern of part one, moving from mere anticipation ("Does the bird sing in the South?'') to anxious expectation ("What signs of a bitter spring?"). Hopefulness rapidly gives way to despair as, in response to each question, the resonant first voice consistently replies in gloomy tones, invoking the sense of destiny. This exchange concludes with a long rhetorical question that reaches the level of pain that tormented the last choral speech of the first part. This dialogue then is a reprise of the chorus's developing consciousness.
Having set the tone for part two, the chorus withdraws into the role of silent witness to the first encounter between Thomas and the four knights. When the knights depart with the threat to return armed, the dark and despairing third voice takes up the burden of the chorus in a long and gruesome ode. The shift from psychic to physical portents which characterized that voice earlier culminates here in orgiastic horror. The "savour of putrid flesh...", "Smooth creatures still living...", "Corruption in the dish ..." are no longer signs beheld but immediate experiences, horrors not merely seen but ingested. The "death-bringers" are here. Thomas's refusal to heed the cathedral priests' harried pleas to escape brings death itself into full view: "... The white fiat face of Death, God's silent servant, / And behind the face of death the Judgement / And behind the Judgement the Void, more homd than active shapes of hell; / Emptiness, absence, separation from God".
And so death comes to Thomas. As the knights murder him, the full chorus screams in agony, "Clear the air! Clean the sky! wash the wind! take stone from stone and wash them!" In frenzied succession the three distinct voices declare the maturation of their motifs. The first voice declares the desecration of England, of life itself, in blood: "Can I look again at the day and its common things, and see them all smeared with blood, through a curtain of falling blood?" The working out of destiny changes forever the world. The second voice, now perhaps older and wiser, yet retains its plaintive edge: the poor have known private catastrophe, have known suffering: "Every horror had its definition, / Every sorrow had a kind of end: / In life there is not time to grieve long. / But this,... this is out of time, / An instant eternity of evil and wrong." And the third voice proclaims the final agony and helplessness of the poor: "We are soiled by a filth that we cannot clean, united to supernatural vermin, / It is not we alone, it is not the house, it is not the city that is defiled, / But the world that is wholly foul." Again, the agonized full cry of the chorus: "Cleartheair! clean the sky! wash the wind!"
But man's avowal of helplessness and despair, calling from the depths, opens the way to the movement of God's grace. From the existence of evil comes the possibility of good, and from the violent death of the Archbishop comes a new saint, another saint for Canterbury, a source of solace and comfort to the poor. The concluding choral ode, delivered in procession while a choir sings a Latin Te Deum in the distance, is itself a Te Deum, a hymn of praise to God from those who, having watched, waited, and suffered, now celebrate the rebirth of hope through the martyr's blood. The ode is antiphonal with the strong vibrant first voice, now proclaiming like a celebrant the joy of God's destiny, while the full chorus responds, the interchange mounting in vigor and intensity until the concluding Kyrie.
Source: William J. McGill, "Voices in the Cathedral: The Chorus in Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral" in Modern Drama, Volume XXXIII, no. 3, September, 1980, pp 292-96.