Murder in the Cathedral

by T. S. Eliot

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"Human Kind Cannot Bear Very Much Reality"

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Context: This play concerns the murder of the Archbishop of Canterbury, Thomas à Becket, in 1170, presumably upon command of Henry II. When the play opens, Becket, having been exiled for seven years for his resistance to the king, is returning to his see. Apparently, however, the conflict between the king and the archbishop is unresolved, and those who have eagerly awaited Becket's return are now fearful for his safety. Immediately upon his arrival, Becket reaffirms his resolution to repudiate the King's principles of government and to execute the functions of his office without compromise or concession. In a sermon he tries to dispel the fears of his people philosophically. He emphasizes the fact, as exemplified in the death of Christ and of the martyrs, that a great and high good often resides in what seems for the moment to be an evil. Time will disclose the victory of self-sacrifice, in which we both mourn and rejoice at the same time. Having confronted the knights sent by the King and having refused to submit, now knowing that death is near, and wanting to comfort his people, he refers again to the theme of his sermon. "These things had to come," he tells them. He reminds them:

You shall remember them, droning by the fire,
When age and forgetfulness sweeten memory
Only like a dream that has often been told
And often been changed in the telling. They will seem unreal.
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.

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