I give my life
To the Law of God above the Law of Man.
Those who do not do the same
How should they know what I do?1
In T.S. Eliot’s later poetry and “Murder in the Cathedral” there is a tendency for the poet to focus on the human condition, especially as it relates to Christianity. This discussion will begin with the themes of life, death and Christianity in “Murder in the Cathedral” and then the later poems of “Ash Wednesday,” “Burnt Norton” and the “Ariel Poems. Other, more cynical works, such as “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,” “Gerontion,” “The Waste Land” and the satires will also be addressed, but with less emphasis on these themes.
“Murder in the Cathedral” is a play about the martyrdom of Archbishop Thomas Becket. Becket returns from France to England after seven years of exile and is confronted by four Tempters. The temptations take the form of alternatives from which Becket is obligated to choose. In confronting Becket, the First Tempter tells Becket to recover his favors with King Henry to restore the situation that existed before Becket’s disloyalty. The Second Tempter tells Becket to regain the Office of Chancellor and use its power for his own glory. Becket is asked by the Third Tempter to join forces with the barons to overthrow the King for the benefit of both the Church and the barons. The Fourth Tempter is the most important because he tells us,
“I am only here, Thomas, to tell you what you know.2
The Fourth Tempter tells the reader what is going on in Becket’s mind. His advice to Becket is to
Fare forward to the end.3
Becket listens to this Tempter because it is his own thoughts that confront him. The Tempter tells him,
But think, Thomas, think of glory after death.4
Becket’s reaction is negative,
I well know that these temptations
Mean present vanity and future torment.5
The last temptation is the greatest treason:
To do the right deed for the wrong reason.6
Becket decides that he must not let the possibility of receiving glory after his martyrdom affect his receiving that martyrdom. He must “no longer act or suffer”7 but lose “his will in the Will of God.”8 Destiny will take its course. This echoes the Chorus of Women at the beginning of the play:
Destiny waits in the hand of God, shaping the still unshapen…9
Becket, faced with the temptation and his own certain death, does the only thing he can do. He awaits destiny, the Will of God, his certain death, neither acting or suffering. It is a death with no thoughts of glory, for that would mean damnation. In his acceptance of death, Becket is free. It is his submission to the Will of God that sets him free.
A major theme begins when the Fourth Tempter tells Becket:
You hold the skein: wind, Thomas, wind
The thread of eternal life and death…”10
This theme is developed into a kind of paradox through which Becket defines his destiny – his martyrdom. Becket links the Christmas / Birth and Passion / Death together to express the full meaning of martyrdom. Eliot implies a great deal with the term “martyrdom,” most likely his own view of Christianity, when he has Becket say:
A martyrdom is never the design of man; for the true martyr is he who has become the instrument of God, who has lost his will in the Will of God, not lost it but found it, for he has found freedom in submission to God. The martyr no longer desires anything for himself, not even the glory of martyrdom.11
Martyrdom becomes a metaphor for Christianity in the play, or how a Christian should respond to God. Mr. Eliot is defining Christianity.
This martyrdom / Christianity, death / birth, Passion / Christmas theme is consistent in Eliot’s poetry after “The Wasteland.” It is stressed in the Ariel poems. In “Journey of the Magi,” the Magi looks upon Jesus’ birth, questioning the significance. Was it Birth, only? The Magi had seen birth and death before but had “thought them different.”12 When he sees the birth of Jesus, he is also aware of Jesus’ Death and that brings forth his awareness of his own death. His own “martyrdom” is made in his awareness of his death. When the Magi goes back to his kingdom, his life has changed – he is
…no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.13
The “old dispensation” echoes “Murder in the Cathedral.” The “old dispensation,” this “alien people” are the people Becket preaches about in the “Interlude” of “Murder in the Cathedral.” This “alien people” is the world which “cannot understand.”14
In “A Song for Simeon” this death / birth imagery is again prevalent:
Now at this birth season of decease,
Let the Infant, the still unspeaking and unspoken Word,
Grant Israel’s consolation
To one who has eighty years and no to-morrow.15
Simeon is a very important embodiment of this death / birth imagery since he is the one who
…would not see death until he had seen the Lord’s Messiah.16
Thus at one and the same time Simeon dies when he sees Jesus and lives through his acceptance of Jesus. He asks Jesus to “Grant me my peace.”17 “Peace” echoes in “Murder in the Cathedral” when Becket comments,
[Jesus] gave to His disciples peace, but not peace as the world gives.”18
Again the “old dispensation” of the world is echoed. Simeon gains peace through his martyrdom. In the Bible Simeon refers to Jesus as his Master. “A Song for Simeon reads,
Let thy servant depart,
having seen thy salvation.19
This is from “Animula:”
The heavy burden of the growing soul
Perplexes and offends more, day by day;
The pain of living and the drug of dreams
Curl up the small soul in the window seat
Behind the “Encyclopaedia Brittanica.”
Fearing the warm reality, the offered good,…20
The innocent child is perched perilously close to the corrupt history of the world, the “Encyclopaedia Brittanica (“…the world that is wholly foul.”21)
Eliot ends “Animula,”
Pray for us now and at the hour of our birth.22
The actual form of this prayer is
Pray for us now and at the hour of our death.
and can be found in this form in “Ash Wednesday.”23 The prayer of death is turned into the prayer of birth. Birth becomes something to fear. Eliot emphasizes the increasing influence of the world upon the child in “Animula.” The child is slowly, but surely, being thrust into the history and reality of man. The world will adversely affect the child.
Between birth and death is life – it is the unreal realm of time, the
Between un-being and being24
found in “Burnt Norton.” Life in the later poetry of Eliot is much like the stagnated existence of J. Alfred Prufrock. Life is
Wavering between the profit and the loss
In this brief transit where the dreams cross
The dreamcrossed twilight between birth and dying
This is the time of tension between dying and birth…25
Life is defined by time. Time is a human invention used to avoid the “still point” – the awareness of the moment. Consciousness is avoided through time. Eliot tries to do away with the concept of time in “Burnt Norton.” Endings precede beginnings. Contradictions exist side-by-side. Life becomes “a world of speculation.”26 Eliot sees man as trapped on earth in time:
In the small circle of pain within the skull
You still shall tramp and tread one endless round
Of thought, to justify your action to yourselves,
Weaving a fiction which unravels as you weave,
Pacing forever in the hell of make-believe
Which never is belief: this is your fate on earth….27
Eliot sees life flowing through man’s mind through time. But time produces unreality.
To be conscious is not to be in time….28
Escape time, the wheel that constantly turns around and around, continuously returning to the same place, and you escape unreality.
To escape time, you must escape the turning wheel to the “still point.” The still point is not-time. It is a moment of consciousness that cannot be defined temporally.
I can only say, there we have been; but I cannot say where.
And I cannot say, how long, for that is to place it in time.29
Eliot’s image of the still-point is directly related to Christianity. Eliot’s image for time is the wheel. At the axle of this wheel is the still point – a point which is still and does not move through space. An analogy can be drawn between this still point and Christianity. Time is measured BC and AD – in relationship to Jesus Christ. The still point of time is Jesus’ birth. However, Eliot refers to the cross of Jesus’ Passion as the “axle-tree.30” Eliot combines the Birth / Christmas and Death / Passion together into the still point. Out of this Birth and Death comes Jesus’ martyrdom – and the beginning of Christianity. Eliot’s still point is Christianity.
Human kind cannot bear very much reality.31
Time is an avoidance of reality. Only by reaching for the still point can a person become conscious.
The fool, fixed in his folly, may think
He can turn the wheel on which he turns.32
Man cannot avoid the present by looking into the past or future, for the past and future are inventions of man – the concept of time. The wheel is turning and constantly repeating, but the still point is stable.
Man is trapped in time:
Only a flicker
Over the strained time-ridden faces
Filled with fancies and empty of meaning
Tumid apathy with no concentration
Men and bits of paper, whirled by the cold wind
That blows before and after time,
Wind in and out of unwholesome lungs
Time before and time after.
Eructation of unhealthy souls
Into the faded air, the torpid
Driven on the wind that sweeps the gloomy hills of London
Hampstead and Clerkenwell, Campden and Putney,
Highgate, Primrose and Ludgate. Not here
Not here the darkness, in this twittering world.33
Near the end of Murder in the Cathedral the knights rationalize their reasons for killing the archbishop. The Second Knight says that they were totally disinterested in the murder, that they had nothing to gain by it. The Third Knight says that the state killed him, that everyone in the audience is partly responsible for his death. And the Fourth Knight maintains that the archbishop committed “Suicide while of Unsound Mind.” Eliot is using irony by having the Knights explain away the murder absurdly – they are “alien people” who “cannot understand.” This is their lives, full of dreams, untruths and absurd rationalizations. Becket’s comments to his Priest’s would fit the Knights just as well:
You argue by results, as this world does,
To settle if an act be good or bad.34
Eliot also describes Hell in “Murder in the Cathedral:”
The white flat face of Death, God’s silent servant,
And behind the face of Death the Judgement
And behind the Judgement, the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell;
Emptiness, absence, separation from God;
The horror of the effortless journey, to the empty land
Which is no land, only emptiness, absence, the Void,
Where those who were men can no longer turn the mind
To distraction, delusion, escape into dream, pretense,
Where the soul is no longer deceived, for there are no objects, no tones,
No colours, no forms to distract, to divert the soul
From seeing itself, foully united forever, nothing with nothing,
Not what we call death, but what beyond death is not death,
We fear, we fear.35
“The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock” perhaps depicts Eliot and his cynicism towards life without Christ. It is a depressingly dreary existence – one that would have been of more worth had it been the life of a crab crawling along the ocean floor. Time past is present as history in “Gerontion.” The “cunning passages” of history deceive man. History is nothing more that a record of man’s corruptions, his multitudinous falls and sins. Only the past is corrupt in “Gerontion.” In “Burnt Norton” all time, because it inhibits consciousness of the still point, is corrupt. Eliot’s dismay at the “True Church” from “The Hippopotamus” still exists in his later poetry. The “True Church” is the “old dispensation” of Eliot’s later verse. Even though Eliot is a Christian in his later poetry, he is by no means an ordinary Christian. He still separates himself from the “True Church” – his beliefs are unadulturated.
With “The Waste Land” comes what can be said to be Eliot’s martyrdom – his death, his total disgust for time and life. With “Ash Wednesday” Eliot is born again; he
Upon which to rejoice.”36