Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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How does Eliot use poetic elements in Murder in the Cathedral?

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T.S. Eliot was first and foremost a poet, and in this 1935 play, commissioned by George Bell, the bishop of Chichester, to critique Nazi abuses of power, Eliot writes primarily in verse. In fact, the only two parts of the play not written as poetic verse are Thomas's Christmas day sermon and the apologies the knights make for their crimes.

Eliot has both the play's chorus and its actors use poetic devices to evoke a mood of darkness, chill, expectation and foreboding. These devices include alliteration, repetition, and use of imagery.

We find alliteration, or using the same consonant at the beginning of more than one word in a line, when the chorus repeats "w" words in "... a waste of water and mud,/The New Year waits, breathes, waits, whispers ... "

Repetition occurs as both the chorus and the First Priest repeat the words "seven years:"

Seven years and the summer is over/Seven years since the archbishop left us.

Eliot uses poetic imagery throughout the play, for example, when he has Thomas say:

For a little time the hungry hawk/Will soar and hover, circling lower,/Waiting excuse, pretence, opportunity.

Here we can see the hawk in our mind's eyes, a predatory animal, circling and waiting for the kill, a metaphor for Henry II awaiting an opportunity to destroy Thomas, but also a timeless metaphor that can be applied to the Nazi quest for power.

Likewise, the chorus's images of how "golden October declined into sombre November" sets a tone of foreboding, both in terms of events that will unfold in medieval England with the murder of Thomas and the chilling events unfolding in 1930s Germany. 

Eliot's play is not primarily a realistic reenactment of the Archbishop of Canterbury's murder, though that was a real event in history, but a poetic meditation on the politics of evil across the ages. 

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