Giving Your Life for Your Faith
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...
(The entire section is 4413 words.)