Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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What are the similarities and differences between Murder in the Cathedral and "The Waste Land"?

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Murder in the Cathedral was commissioned by George Bell, Bishop of Chichester, to critique a particular historic event: Hitler's Rohm purge, also known as the Night of the Long Knives. In this event, Hitler shocked the world when he broke the rule of law by having more than a hundred people who had become inconvenient to him murdered, including his former close friend, Ernst Rohm. Eliot's play focuses on a parallel event in British history, when Henry II in the twelfth century broke the rule of law by suggesting to his followers that he would like to be rid of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who had become inconvenient to him. The play focuses on the murder of the archbishop.

In contrast, The Waste Land describes with despair the decay of all of Western culture. If Murder in the Cathedral is meant to urge people to a principled and active response to the barbarism of Nazism or any similar barbarism, The Waste Land is a cry of mourning for the loss of Western civilization, which seemed, to Eliot, to be in shambles at the end of World War I.

Both works are alike, however, in being heavily allusive and drawing heavily on the past, using both the history and formal literary devices of prior cultures to tell a story about modern culture. Both lean into the Christian story and Christian theology.

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Murder in the Cathedral and Waste Land have some similarities, and many diffierences. It would be impossible to go through all of them. But one major similarity, which was prominent in much of T.S. Eliot's work, is his use of previously existing myths/stories to base his poems around, yet still making sure they were modern and applicable. Murder in the Cathedral is based on the 1163 quarrel between King Henry II and Thomas Becket, ending in the murder of Thomas Becket. Eliot uses this and infuses themes that were relevant at the time. He does the same with the Waste Land. The Waste Land is based on several myths and historical acts, most notably of course, the Holy Grail. Christianity, obviously, plays big roles in both Murder in the Cathedral, and the Waste Land.

One major difference, clearly is the structures of the two poems. Murder in the Cathedral is written in Verse Drama, a form that hadn't been used for hundreds of years. The Waste Land, conversly, is written with a modernistic twist, including foreign languages, disregarding any traditional approach to poetry. THe themes of the two poems are different as well. THe Waste Land speaks of disillusionment, where Murder in the Cathedral speaks of obedience.

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