A Note on Historical Background

Note: In the following commentary, all page numbers refer to the Harvest Book (Harcourt, Inc.) edition of T. S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. Eliot's text makes many allusions to Scripture; this analysis quotes the Bible to help illumine the text. Unless otherwise noted, Scripture quotations in this analysis are from the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible, © 1989 the Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. While Murder in the Cathedral is set in December 1170 and alludes to various historical circumstances surrounding the death of Thomas Becket, Eliot's concern is not to teach history but to present an examination of power and faith in a poetic and dramatic form. Some factual knowledge about Becket, therefore, is necessary in order to fully appreciate Eliot's work. Thomas Becket was born in the house of his father, Gilbert Becket, in Cheapside, London, sometime between 1115 and 1120. As a young man, Thomas studied ecclesiastical law and served as a close confidante of Archbishop Theobald of Canterbury-Canterbury being the most important English "see," or seat of church authority-who ordained Thomas a deacon and appointed him Archdeacon of Canterbury in 1154, a post in which Thomas oversaw the see's temporal affairs. The next year, King Henry II, founder of the Plantagenet line (reigned 1154-1189), appointed Thomas as England's chancellor. "The king's chancellor in England during the Middle Ages was given a variety of duties, including drawing up writs that permitted the initiation of a lawsuit in one of the common-law courts and deciding disputes in a way that gave birth to the system of law called equity. His governmental department was called the Chancery" (West's Encyclopedia). Thomas thus wielded great political power as chancellor. He was a close aide to the king; indeed, according to the Dictionary of National Biography, "An extraordinary intimacy sprang up between him and his sovereign. Henry's policy was his own, and. Thomas was simply the chief instrument in its execution-[but] an instrument of such exceptionally perfect and varied capabilities that those who watched its operations well nigh lost sight of the hand by which it was directed." Thomas helped Henry quell a rebellion in Anjou, France in 1156; in 1158 he served as ambassador to France-an occasion on which he traveled in such majestic style that King Louis VII and his subjects are reported to have thought, "If this is the English chancellor, what must not the king be!" (Dictionary of National Biography)-and, in 1159, he levied an unfairly heavy tax on the church to fund King Henry's military campaign in Toulouse. In addition to his political power, Thomas possessed military might. "When all the great barons refused the task of securing the conquered territory [of Tolouse] after Henry's withdrawal, Thomas and the constable, Henry of Essex, undertook it, and performed it with signal success. Thomas afterwards defended the Norman border for some months with troops whom he paid at his own cost and commanded in person; he led several forays into France, and once unhorsed a famous French knight in single combat" (Dictionary of National Biography). After the death of Archbishop Theobald in 1161, Henry elevated a reluctant Thomas to the post. Thomas knew that his ideas about ecclesiastical authority would not be easily reconciled, if at all, to Henry's desire to consolidate the crown's control over the church. Very quickly, the two came into conflict. Thomas tried to reclaim property from Henry that the see of Canterbury had lost; he prohibited a marriage of Henry's brother because it violated church law; and he denied the crown's jurisdiction over criminal clerics. As

" They again bade him absolve the bishops. The Dictionary of National Biography recounts what happened: To the cry "Where is the traitor. Further conflict arose. 'Princes did sit and speak against me'. being intercepted by the uplifted arm of Grim." and with bowed head awaited their blows. [he answered]. Archbishop of York-a privilege always formerly reserved to Canterbury. Thomas again refused. Reginald Fitzurse. (The coronation did." dropped face downwards at full length on the floor. take place in York in June of 1170. only to return with a larger force. he led "the first case of any opposition to the king's will in the matter of taxation" in Britain (Dictionary of National Biography) when Henry tried to deny local sheriffs compensation for their services. but he and Edward Grim. A great financial dispute between the crown and Canterbury. in fact. to Canterbury" (Dictionary of National Biography). in league with the bishops of London and Salisbury and the sheriff of Kent. Thomas' aides took the Archbishop into Canterbury Cathedral. and then. In the struggle fierce words broke from the archbishop. for it is expressly stated in a contemporary letter that Thomas himself had the cross in his hands when he was smitten to death. but archbishop and priest of God. Denys. however. turning towards the altar of St. not traitor. what seek ye?" "Your death. in disguise." "Slay me here if you will. saying. into thy hands I commend my spirit. were more than a match for the five. Thomas also established himself as a champion of justice for the common people. Probably this wound compelled Grim to relinquish the archbishop's cross. Stephen"-the first Christian martyr (Acts 7)-"with its significant introit. and murmuring "For the name of Jesus and for the defence of the church I am ready to embrace death. and Richard le Breton-came to Canterbury to make the demand again. Thomas thus sent the letters ahead of him. He landed at Sandwich on December 1.Archbishop." (Dictionary of National Biography). but at the question. citing papal authority. and then fell sideways on his left shoulder.." at a third he fell on his knees. during which Thomas refused to yield what he felt belonged to the church. They tried to drag him out of the church. On December 29. The knights left after a brief fight. "Here I am. three priests stayed with Thomas while the rest hid. from England in 1163. He received another blow on the head. he covered his eyes with his hands. but when his assailants drew their swords to slay him where he stood.. He left after having celebrated "the mass of St. when Thomas and the Pope learned that Henry planned to have his oldest son's coronation performed by Roger of Pont l'Evêque. with the words. Thomas did not allow them to bar the cathedral doors. he returned the same answer as before. The first blow made a gash in the crown of his head. but if you touch any of my people you are accursed.) The Pope ordered the suspension of York and any other bishops who took part in the irregular ceremony. in order to take the papal letters of suspension he would bring with him. led to Thomas' departure. now his sole remaining companion. Thomas Becket?" he returned no answer. after a reconciliation between him and the king could be arranged-a reconciliation that was to have included a ritual "kiss of peace" but no resolution of the monetary dispute that had caused the heart of the conflict. 1170 "and proceeded. Benedict on his right hand. in person. William de Tracy. One more sword-stroke completed the severance of the tonsured . four knights-Hugh de Morville. Thomas refused the king's request to absolve the suspended bishops. The four knights and a cleric entered. Consequently. amid much popular rejoicing. most notably. and to St. Roger of York. to the patron saints of this church. "Lord. Thomas would not return to England until 1170. plotted to intercept Thomas upon his planned landing. I commend myself and the church's cause. "To God and the blessed Mary. "Where is the archbishop?".

however. of the entire play." enticing the archbishop to betray the king. knowing that. The second urges Becket to acquire and exercise temporal power to achieve his aims. for he brings doom with him. let the wheel turn. however. He reports that crowds are welcoming Becket with wild abandon and great devotion. A messenger informs the priests that Becket draws close to the city. 1170. 11)." The messenger allows that none know precisely what Becket's words meant. The women allude to the passage of time-"Since golden October declined into sombre November. One of the priests admonishes them to keep silent-but he." (p." Becket's return will set a chain of events into motion: "For ill or good. imploring Becket not to return. Part I of Eliot's drama effectively stands outside of time." The women return. confident that he is serving the "greater cause" of God and God's church. He urges the archbishop to embrace actively the role of martyr in order to win heavenly glory. Thomas was quickly acclaimed as a martyr and a saint by the people of England. to make sense. it must not be for reasons of personal pride: "The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason. in turn. The Honor of God. Becket's suffering begins when four figures of temptation appear to him." Analysis Ostensibly set on December 2.. to exist. the "wheel" (to use one of the play's dominant images) has ceased turning. Dramatically speaking. as do the women. hints at trouble on the horizon: he relates how Becket told the king. PART 1 Summary The scene is the Archbishop's Hall in Canterbury." Knowing that he is not consumed by pride. now he is to return. breathes. December 2. that is not poverty / Compared with richness of heavenly grandeur?" But Becket resists this temptation also. A group of Canterbury's women find themselves inexplicably drawn to the cathedral. and. 1884) and Jean Anouilh (Becket.e. the Pope proclaimed Thomas' canonization on February 21. wondering about the circumstances surrounding the imminent return of Archbishop Thomas Becket to Canterbury. whom God appoints / To be my guardian."-but state also. / What earthly pride. "What earthly glory. He tells the priest that the women of Canterbury "speak better than they know" and speaks of suffering: it is necessary "[t]hat the pattern [i. Three priests also arrive. The third appeals to Becket as "a rough straightforward Englishman. to continue. that his return will bring suffering." The priests recognize that. urging them to prepare to meet him. Becket prepares to meet the fate he knows awaits him. indeed. A fourth tempter. 1170. Becket remains steadfast in the face of all these temptations. if he is indeed to become a martyr. The opening chorus gives voice to the non-temporal qualities of the scene. "[f]or good or ill. of life] may subsist. He also. whose authority Becket opposed in defense of the church's sovereignty and the Pope's authority. waits. Becket has been in exile for seven years. including not only Eliot's play but also dramas by Tennyson (Becket."-that is. He is commemorated in many shrines and churches across England-including some ostensibly named for Thomas the apostle-and his story has been told in many literary forms. 1961). like the life he knew and enjoyed as the king's chancellor.crown from the skull. comes closest to pulling Becket astray. supposedly reconciled to the king. "The New Year waits. confident that "my good Angel. He knows. filled with foreboding. "I leave you as a man / Whom in this life I shall not see again. is himself admonished by the returning archbishop. but "no one considers it a happy prognostic. hover over the swords' points. This impression of time having stopped probably serves to dramatize the nature of the events about to transpire as a turning point: as the women . of king or emperor. even if he does not know exactly what shape that suffering will take. asking him. or. The first advises Becket to abandon his serious insistence on ecclesiastical independence and authority in favor of a life of pleasure. time seems to have stopped. 1173.

Advent prepares for the parousia [i. The conversation among the three priests prior to Becket's return introduces a contrast between the temporal realm and the spiritual realm. And while Christians are enjoined to observe Advent with both penitence and expectancy. In another sense. the feast day on which all saints and martyrs. they have endured seven years of "oppression and luxury. this first act is set during early December. 15). For example. A fear like birth and death" (pp. The old way of "living and partly living. "if we are left alone" (p.. a rupture in history and. 12). thus. the Roman Catholic Church]. the Second Coming]. 12]. it has finished. Eliot's play sounds this theme early on. as well as for Christmas" (Bowker 22). Advent is a season for waiting: "Concerned with the Four Last Things [i. but now that seemingly endless. of course.say. however-whether set in ecclesiastical-theological time or outside of time altogetherthe play begins with an undeniable establishment of temporal stillness: "The New Year waits. For example. because of the Resurrection of Jesus. In short." one might even view the Messenger's speech as an "annunciation" of sorts. They go so far. 18). poverty and license. the completion of creation in seven days according to Genesis 1. the third priest criticizes temporal authorities (picking up on the chorus' words. the spiritual rule. Such "patched up" reconciliation as does exist between the archbishop and the king is "[p]eace. Because the women do not "wish anything to happen.e. 15). In either case. with a reference to All Hallows [p. 12).. return"-but not the expected plea of returning to Canterbury-"return to France " (p. "coming" or "arrival"). Becket's return threatens to upset the status quo-a common motif in the Christian tradition. actually happened-in which they were simply turned upon the wheel they describe. mutual co-existence or toleration than an actual cessation of hostilities and restoration of relationship. out of which Eliot wrote. 14)." they say. "[d]estiny waits for the coming" (p. Given that the word "angel" derives from the Greek word for "messenger. "the present form of this world is passing away" (1 Cor.[A] great fear is upon us. The priests' conversation also raises the question of whether true peace can ever be found between these two realms: "What peace can be found to grow between the hammer and the anvil?" (p.g. It is about to be interrupted. the first priest speculates that Becket returns with the confidence of "the power of Rome [i.) Becket's impending arrival represents a break in time. the temporal realm is equated with force.e. As they put it. In Becket's absence. the spiritual. "We do not wish anything to happen. as well as the mundane existence in between them. "Now I fear disturbance of the quiet seasons. the Day of Judgment. but in liturgical time. the Canterbury women observe Becket's "advent" with only dread." they are loathe to leave behind their half-existence in which nothing. In a sense. preparing the world to meet a coming savior. 12). has come to an end-a conclusion the women are neither entirely comfortable nor overly happy about: as they lament. even of divine wholeness (e. the women have been "[l]iving and partly living" (p. during which waiting for the second coming of Christ is a dominant focus. symbolic connotations of the number seven as a number of completion. 19 et al. then. with love. what is in the Christian liturgical calendar the season of Advent (from the Latin adventus. came to an end because of the conflicting. .e.. Christ's second coming. not in ordinary time." (p. cyclical repetition of life's extremities. The chorus thus expresses a common psychological reality: it is often easier to suffer under a known but unsatisfactory set of circumstances than to risk venturing into a new and potentially more satisfactory but unknown set. return. 15). destiny waits for the coming. heaven. The imminent end of their world's present form creates a crisis of anxiety for the Canterbury women." then. They obey only the law of brute force. (Indeed. is about to come to an end. "Kings rule or barons rule") for governing by "violence." (p. 19-20). Becket's own life. 11:31)." and a host of other dichotomies. competing interests of the temporal and spiritual realms. are celebrated. readers may note the ancient. "[W]e are content. it may be accurate to say that the play's first act is set. the text very quickly foregrounds the Christian calendar in the audience's mind. as he urges the three priests to "prepare to meet" the returning archbishop (p.). 12). in their second major speech. and the love of the people" (p. and hell]. in contrast.. It is often easier to remain in the past than to move forward into the future. Further potential allusions to Advent occur in the Messenger's first speech. following his conversion to Anglo-Catholicism in 1927. in fact. return. alerting the audience of the central conflict to come. the ancient and medieval designation of the "sevenfold" gifts of the Holy Spirit from Isaiah 11:2-3). consider the apostle Paul's apocalyptic conviction that. but not the kiss of peace" (p. known or unknown. significantly. Archbishop. duplicity and frequent malversation" (p. Traditionally. 16)-in other words. it is more of an uneasy. the assurance of right. to plead with Becket: "O Thomas.

and is still proud as spiritual archbishop. long for no such resolution. Becket's arrival in Canterbury is. The Canterbury women. oxymoronic statement may mean that. in effect. Becket's death will cause the wheel to turn-and yet this new state of being truly will be peace.g. however. The priest ties together the themes of temporal versus spiritual power and pride when he states that Becket has always wanted to be in "subjection to God alone. "for good or ill. They do not wish to know. for they fear an upheaval in the world they have known. / Sometimes the harvest is good. 19)-thus demonstrating that they share the common human experience of sensing temporality. they reject it." good or ill. Jesus used this greeting to allay his followers' fears. The mere fact that Becket enters Eliot's drama as one who returns further develops the characters as a Christ-figure." From Becket's first entrance. "Sometimes the corn has failed us. Eliot begins developing him as not only a Christ-figure in general but also as an analogy of Jesus Christ himself. especially after his Resurrection (e. "what God has done. which commonly signifies completeness and wholeness in religion and mysticism. As noted above.. 3:1).g. in what sense? The first priest claims that Becket was proud as secular chancellor. however. 18). as the women rightly perceive. even though it is but a world of "[l]iving and partly living" (p. let the wheel turn" (p. the women intone a litany of antitheses-e. the Chorus' second major speech is an ironic plea for Thomas' return: they wish him to return. 17). and a time to pluck up what is planted.. physically represent or "stand in for" Jesus in many Christian traditions. But Eliot wishes to draw tighter parallels. a doom on [himself]. he realizes that his return will initiate suffering. stuck in a "peace" that really is no peace. Becket's first spoken word. for instance. "has put a sense of past and future into [human beings'] minds. As does Qohelet. John 20:19). and then frustrates human desires to make sense of temporality. Qohelet declares. and a time to die. that could potentially serve as a moment that reveals the "pattern of time" (p. with its famous passage on the cyclical nature of time: "For everything there is a season. as the Third Priest says. like Jesus'. is "Peace" (p. When an event looms. Ironically. This suffering. for he brings a "doom on the house. the women's speech at this point may evoke the book of Ecclesiastes. / Another a year of dryness" (p. the word "doom" may carry overtones not only of a disastrous end but also of the word's medieval definition of "fate. Becket's suffering. 13). preferring instead to go on "living and partly living. they implore Thomas to go away.The conversation among the priests also raises a second central question: Is Thomas Becket a proud man? And. the number seven. whereas Canterbury. cf. Pride has. the arrival of nothing less than fate itself.) points to a series of antitheses to support his thesis that "there is nothing new under the sun" (1:9): he recites a litany of "a time to be born. In other words. Becket's impending suffering and death will move Canterbury and its inhabitants to a new state of being-i. "the Teacher. but Becket can be seen as confirming the fears of those who follow him: like the women. so Becket is a Christ-figure in that sense already. whether he held temporal or spiritual office.. is necessary-even as Jesus' suffering was "necessary" (Luke 24:26). for it was "pride always feeding upon [Becket's] own virtues. the priest says. not to Canterbury. this commentary's previous discussion of Advent as a time of preparation for Jesus' ." Instead. / Pride drawing sustenance from impartiality. 19). This admittedly difficult. the pattern of life-to "turn and still / Be forever still" (p. yet they cannot find out what God has done from the beginning to the end" (3:11). but in the text identified only as Qohelet. The Teacher wishes to be freed from this "wheel" of time (not his phrase. an issue readers can only decide for themselves as the play unfolds. and a time for every matter under heaven" (Eccl. 21)-a greeting Jesus commonly uses in the gospel narratives. in contrast. 22). a doom on the world" (p. because he sees it as. Priests do.e. For an audience versed in the Bible." Is such dedication a form of pride in itself? Should one aspire to be completely free of the temporal realm in order to live entirely in the spiritual? Of course. yet it is an arrival they reject. as Qohelet says. but to France. however. been a constant in Becket's character. Becket's return will." 1:1 and passim. a time to plant. a curse upon humanity: God. has been stagnant for the past seven years. as symbolized in its women. / Pride drawing sustenance from generosity" (p. such questions' validity depends upon the validity of the priest's assessment of Becket's character. of course. The writer of Ecclesiastes (traditionally identified as King Solomon. God implants a sense of temporality in humanity. the number seven may here mean that the time allotted for this quasi-life has reached its end. / One year is a year of rain. In this speech." and so forth (see 3:2-8). however. They state they have existed in this limbo for seven years-more than a straightforward temporal reference. but Eliot's). if so. 19). Luke 24:36. will have a salvific dimension: it will allow "the wheel"-the order.

and he . i. 13). Luke 21:36) but also of his request that the disciples watch with him in Gethsemane prior to his arrest (Matt. "Spring has come in winter. at your prayers.. The Four Tempters who present themselves were intended. for power is made perfect in weakness. an event which inaugurates the eschaton. The Tempter presents a symbolic vision of the passing seasons that is at odds with the scheme established earlier in the drama: where the Tempter declares that." These words have the effect of jolting Becket out of his near-submission to the Tempter. Becket is tempted at this point to abandon his mission. master of policy / Whom all acknowledged. Becket advises the priests to "watch" for the "consummation" of his story (p. although Jesus was tempted to focus on physical needs when tempted to turn stones into bread (Matt. my Lord. for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour" (Luke 12:40). This argument has some appeal to Becket because he has been established as the champion of the lowly. This first temptation has no unambiguous parallel in those faced by Jesus. 29)-a phrase from the traditional. God-given" (p. Mark 13:37. Only in so doing will Becket receive "the power and the glory" (p. / I'll remember you at kissing-time below the stairs" (p. Eliot creates the expectation that Becket's impending suffering and death will be just such an epochal event. a fiction. 23). a fantasy.. then. 12:9: "My grace is sufficient for you. he departs Becket with an ironic and sarcastic anticipation of Becket's canonization to come: "If you will remember me. As Becket moves closer to falling into the Tempter's trap. an illusion-and adheres to the already-established motif of the seasons as markers of a seemingly endless cycle of barren waiting-a cycle that his impending death will. 26). morally fallacious argument that ends justify means. "Shall the Son of Man be born again in the litter of scorn?" (p. Notably. Luke 4:1-4). "What shall we do in the heat of summer / But wait in barren orchards for another October?. "You also must be ready. protect the poor. doxological conclusion of the Lord's Prayer: "For thine is the kingdom and the power and the glory forever. sudden. The First Tempter calls Becket back to the hedonistic life he lived while he was King Henry's chancellor: "[S]hall we say that summer's over / Or that the good time cannot last?" (p. the "end times. accuses Becket of pride-specifically. like the First Priest (p. / Beneath the throne of God can man do more?" (p. Becket's rooms have not been made ready. The Second Tempter would have Becket shift from pursuing and using spiritual to temporal power: "You." Such "weak" power is the only power Becket has been called to wield. 25). It is a mocking allusion to the plea of people who pray for the saints' intercession. 26)-that is. you would have had a better welcome / If we had been sooner prepared for the event" (p." Note also the Second Priest's protestation. He thus reintroduces the conflict between temporal and spiritual power into the play.e. Thus Eliot has already explicitly invited his audience to view Becket's return as an eschatological event-that is. 28). not in some "hereafter" (p. as the Tempter advises him to do. should guide the state again" (p. or "second coming. 26). 22). the Tempter tells Becket that he could again use the power of the chancellorship to "set down the great. 17). to be "doubled" with the roles of the Four Knights. however. even though the priest promises he will make them so.g. "Forgive us. Attentive readers and audience members know that. of course. Becket knows that the vision is but a "springtime fancy" (p. not "holiness. 13. 24). selfrighteousness: "You were not used to be so hard upon sinners / When they were your friends" (p. Eliot revealed in a prefatory note to the third edition (1937). the phrase "Son of Man" has already surfaced in Eliot's text. 23)-an echo not only of Jesus' admonitions to his disciples to watch for the last day (e. the summer has long been over (see the Chorus' words on p. By foregrounding biblical material surrounding the Parousia. my Lord. Similarly and appropriately. He brands Becket's principles as "higher vices / Which will have to be paid for at higher prices" (p. 27). Notably. the First Tempter. 27). break. in the reconciliation with the king. a time during which Jesus was tempted to abandon his saving mission. when the Chorus asks. The Tempter thus invokes the old." because power can shape the world today. He argues that only power matters. They may also be Eliot's echoing of such biblical commentary on the nature of power as 2 Cor." the "last things." bringing rebirth with it (p. 4:1-3. This exchange may bring to mind Jesus' parables of his own return: for example." words that describe the women's present situation). In keeping with his frivolity (his "humble levity"). The archbishop himself calls it an "end": "End will be simple. Ora pro nobis (Pray for us). the same actors were to play the parts." Eschatological events mark the end of an old world and the birth of a new.Parousia. Becket cannot retreat into the past. They serve to remind him of where his true loyalties lie. 24). 26:35-46 and parallels). the Tempter tells him that the price of such power is the "[p]retence of priestly power"-he would have to give up his claims as archbishop to spiritual authority.

tempts Becket to seize the honor of sainthood for himself. 3738)-the last perhaps a sly reference to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales as well as the historical fact of the multitude of pilgrims who traveled to Canterbury to do homage at Becket's shrine." the Tempter responds. The Tempter strives to persuade Becket to pursue the path of martyrdom. like the office of high priest as described in the New Testament. standing in line / Before the glittering jewelled shrine. "I expected / Three visitors. in effect. as Becket knows: "[S]hall I. when another shall come." a state of life-no longer "living and partly living"-in which the wheel once again turns." (p. He even uses Becket's earlier words against him ("You know and do not know. 34). been expected (p. he. For all of his supposed "pride. 18:18)-". Luke 5:8)." etc.will do so in facing his martyrdom. the Fourth Tempter would seem to be Eliot's way of externally dramatizing Becket's inner struggles. He does not seek to make his role in God's pattern anything but what God means it to be. The Fourth Tempter comes closest to luring Becket away from the mission he knows he must fulfill. As have the other tempters. much-talked about pride. knows that his purpose is not to escape it but to interrupt it. But Becket also resists this temptation to expedient friendships on the basis of his faith: "If the Archbishop cannot trust the Throne"-i. He wants the archbishop to be proud-to embrace a martyr's fate for an ulterior motive. 40). his role is to bring an "end. 4:5-7.. its desire is for you. "You have often dreamt them" (p. Luke 4:5-8). 40)." a true "peace. Becket knows that. 16:19. in fact. perhaps because Jesus only wrestled with three temptations in the Gospel narratives of Matthew and Luke (cited numerous times above)-but much of this Tempter's nearsuccess must also be attributed to the fact that he seems closest to being Becket himself.. Becket's second temptation has a clear analogue in Scripture. when Becket accuses this last Tempter. 30)-the unavoidable implication being that "order" as the world defines it is not true order at all. pp. The Tempter. Becket makes clear the distinction between temporal and spiritual power: it can only guarantee order "as the world knows order" (p. sainthood is not an honor one presumes to take for oneself (see Heb. 30)." then. The appeal is to more than Becket's alleged. that pattern. it would appear that Becket has done so. This alternative is imagined as Becket. in return for worshiping him (Matt. as discussed above. All worldly power is as nothing compared to the power of God. 40-41). 31). Yet that wheel. Becket's repudiation of the temptation echoes Jesus' repudiation of any help but God in the face of temptation (Matt. 35). the Third Tempter leaves Becket to his fate. Becket is accused of being proud-by the Fourth Tempter. This third temptation perhaps parallels the temptation Jesus faced to ally himself with the common people against the religious leadership by throwing himself from the Temple (Matt. in fact. Interestingly. just as "peace" as the world defines it is not true peace (see Becket's earlier greeting of "Peace" as well as Jesus' words in John 14:27). This Tempter tells Becket to betray the king with whom he has so recently been reconciled: "Other friends / May be found." the Tempter tells Becket. who keep the keys / Of heaven and hell"-a reference to the power of pardon Jesus grants to the Church (see Matt. When Becket asks the Tempter's identity. not four" (p. 4:7: "[S]in is lurking at the door. it is an appeal to a desire to break free of the "wheel" (p. 33). As far as becoming a saint is concerned. but at any event. what is to act or suffer. "You only offer / Dreams to damnation. No doubt his unexpected arrival accounts for some of his power over Becket-as the Archbishop says. however. by the priests-but he is actually anything but. but for ultimately selfish reasons: for instance. in other words. 34)-an allusion to the depiction of sin in Gen. in which the unjust status quo has been disrupted. any more than can the women of Canterbury. 4:8-10. 39)." (pp.Descend to desire a punier power?" (p. is an order to which Becket firmly belongs. 39). "What can compare with the glory of Saints / Dwelling forever in presence of God?" (p." but Becket claims he has. tempting me with my own desires?" (p. but you must master it. "I shall not wait at your door" (p. . canonizing himself: the Tempter asks him the rhetorical question. Thus. when the devil tempts Jesus to rule over all the kingdoms of the earth. to do so would be for Becket to be an anti-Christ figure. He cannot escape from it. 5:4)-one must be called to it. Luke 4:9-12). Or again. "think of glory after death. 4:10.e." At this point. 2:6)-or "grasped." in other translations. The Third Tempter styles himself "an unexpected visitor. he does so in a way that indicates this truth: "Who are you. 38) of time itself. he does)-"He has good cause to trust none but God alone" (p. declaring. 38). "King is forgotten. but "Saint and Martyr rule from the tomb" (p. if he has cause for fear from the king (which. Think of pilgrims. Becket sees this fourth temptation for the temptation to pride that it is: "I know well that these temptations / Mean present vanity and future torment" (p. as Jesus "did not regard equality with God as something to be exploited" (Phil. as God is calling Becket.

45). the first Christian martyr.e. but the will of God.edu/halsall/basis/goldenlegend/GL-vol2-thomasbecket. First. Becket denies that Jesus was giving temporal peace: "the kingdom of England at peace with its neighbours. 1170. taking as his text the traditional narrative of the announcement of Christ's birth to the shepherds in Luke 2. "The last temptation is the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason" (p. 48). for he knew well his time was nigh. This emphasis on the proximity of birth and death serves to help interpret for the play's audience the fact of Becket's death during Christmastide: it is. "What yet remains to show you of my history / Will seem to most of you at best futility. paradoxically. coexist quite closely in the Mass of the Nativity. As archbishop." (The Golden Legend. 16]. 44)-expresses his coming to terms." (p. regardless of how it looks to others (e. He defines true peace in spiritual rather than temporal terms." Analysis Although its text is Eliot's invention. Archbishop Elphege.html). 48). apocalyptic event that will "for good or ill" set the "wheel" of history turning once more (cf.g. and events through which God works out the divine purpose. prayed the people to pray for him. that interrupting. it has been. for centuries. the barons at peace with the King. Birth and death. a shorthand way of referring to temporal structures and authorities) cannot comprehend such behavior. that "[s]in grows with doing good" and the "[s]ervant of God has chance of greater sin" (p.g. He tells his listeners that.. that the priest offers a "bloodless sacrifice" to God. and that one perhaps not the last. humbly and appropriately. He asks his congregation to think about how Jesus spoke of peace. Second. 45). Becket's final speech in Part I-which includes the famous couplet. http://www. serve Eliot's dramatic aims. Becket states that. Becket's sermon reflects a well-known tradition: "On Christmas day Saint Thomas made a sermon at Canterbury in his own church. with his fate. although "the World" (in the context of Eliot's play. the Christian community "can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason" (p. however. Eliot uses Becket's sermon to return to an examination of the relationship-usually. but also his death: because of the theology underlying the Roman Catholic Mass (or Eucharist)-namely. Interlude Summary Archbishop Becket preaches his Christmas morning sermon. literally re-presenting the body and blood of Christ to God under the accidents (i. Becket's death will enable the world to be born out of the barren limbo of "living and partly living" (the repeated refrain from Part I).fordham. Rather. one of conflictbetween the temporal and the spiritual. Becket closes by invoking the memory of his predecessor.Thus. 47). He connects Christmas with the liturgical feast that follows the next day. it is no doubt certain that Becket preached on Christmas Day. Christmas is an occasion in which mourning and rejoicing commingle. and it is even highly probable that Becket did indeed take Luke 2:14 and the surrounding verses as his text. 45). 18).. The themes of his sermon in this Interlude. the traditionally assigned reading for the celebration of Christmas. Becket reminds his listeners that martyrdoms are not mere happenstance. It is Becket's death that will. Becket makes several points in his brief homily. Nonetheless. the feast of Saint Stephen. for the world itself. recall the Messenger's comment in Part I: "no one considers it a happy prognostic" [p. and should be understood as such. external attributes) of the consecrated bread and wine-Becket can conclude that "we celebrate at once the Birth of Our Lord and His Passion and Death upon the Cross" (p. give birth to a new existence for Canterbury and its people-and. through the bloodless sacrifice of the Mass. p. and weeping. by extension. (In connection with this legend about Becket's foreknowledge of his death. Becket makes much of the fact that Christmas is a celebration not only of Jesus' birth. Jesus meant ." p. the Christian community celebrates Jesus' death at the same time as they celebrate his birth-thus. again. Becket recognizes. then. Romans 7:7). he must strive to "serve the greater cause" (p. this portion of the sermon not only references John 14:27 but also Becket's own initial greeting of peace upon his return to Canterbury in Part I. as did the apostle Paul before him (e.. and prophesying that Canterbury "in a short time may yet have another martyr.

Sir Hugh de Morville. He is sometimes represented with an axe cleaving his skull" (The Catholic Encyclopedia. The priests have been marking the liturgical feasts that come after Christmas-the feast of St. For these three reasons. and Richard Brito (the actual names of Becket's assassins. at Greenwich. The critical moment. Stephen. the feast of St. Becket protests that he cannot absolve them. not even the glory of becoming a martyr" (p. only the Pope. till one Thurm dispatched him with an axe. the first Christian martyr. and enraged at ransom being refused. for alternative renderings. for it was not until after Jesus' Resurrection that his disciples remembered and understood his words about his own identity and role in God's pattern (see. Becket. will nonetheless result in peace for the community and the world by fulfilling God's "pattern. no longer desires anything for himself. Elphege (sometimes spelled Alphege.a spiritual peace. see the "Note on Historical Background" above).. in defiance of the Vatican. Unsatisfied. and also known as Godwine) assumed the archbishopric of Canterbury in 1006. realizes that his appointed end has come. who condemned them. towards the end of September. who. then. 49). Near the close of his sermon. drag him to say vespers. drunk with wine. promising to soon return. Luke 24:44-45. it is notable that Becket asks his congregation to keep his words "in your hearts" and "think of them at another time" (p. Even now. 50). and again speak ominous. He affirms that the true martyr "has lost his will in the will of God. 1170-the women of Canterbury again gather." In truth. the knights depart. made Elphege a prisoner. 1011. foreboding words as they lament "the death of the old" year and the promise only of "a bitter spring" to follow. those children of Bethlehem slain by Herod's soldiers in the monarch's mad search for the newborn "king of the Jews. On 19 April. thus. his captors. Becket reminds his listeners-and. could perform that action." by allowing the wheel of fate to once again turn. the feast of the Holy Innocents.htm) Part 2 Summary Four days after the Interlude-December 29. accusing him of treason. "At this period England was much harassed by the Danes. Stephen. Finally.50). however. Becket's sermon offers explicit definitions of martyrdom. "a Christian martyrdom [is not] the effect of a man's will to become a Saint. 49). "for the King's justice.newadvent. Eliot has the archbishop comment on the fact that the two days after Christmas Day are. His death. "Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from." on December 28-but also express doubt that these chronological markers carry much meaning: as one priest states. on the Western Christian liturgical calendar. They demand that Becket absolve the bishops who. 1012.org/cathen/05394a. to bring them back to [God's] ways" (p. Despite the Archbishop's calm and prayerful resolve. In keeping with Eliot's presentation of Becket as a Christ-figure. It is that non-temporal kind of peace which Becket's death will bring. as a man by willing and contriving may become a ruler of men" (p. Becket makes reference to "the blessed Archbishop Elphege" (p. http://www. His destiny has arrived. e. Eliot informs his audience-that "A Christian martyrdom is never an accident. but here following Eliot's spellings. 49). for Saints are not made by accident" (p. in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear. participated in the coronation of King Henry's son. on December 26. These knights demand to see Archbishop Becket. literally. Becket's sermon offers several interpretive keys to the whole of Eliot's drama. and also reinforces the intractable division between temporal and spiritual power. 49). and. pelted Elphege with bones of oxen and stones. Furthermore. the first Christian martyr (see Acts 7). John the Evangelist on December 27. a consequence of his not being at temporal peace with King Henry. The chorus of Canterbury's women reflect on what awaits human ." Becket's priests urge him to seek his own safety within the Cathedral.g. He then discusses the educative and even salvific purposes of a martyrdom: "to warn [men] and to lead them. Becket thus implicitly reiterates his rejection of the Fourth Tempter's enticements in Part I. with swords. is always now. four soldiers of King Henry appear: we will learn later that their names are Reginald Fitz Urse. having sacked and burned Canterbury. his priests. John 2:22). Baron William de Traci. the feast of St.

Fitz Urse urges the audience to disperse quietly to their homes. a believer's declaration of intent to rely solely on God's statutes in the face of persecution. as they ask. Stephen. Second. for Chaucer writes that pilgrims travel to Becket's shrine at Canterbury "Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote. Their talk of defiling and renewal may also anticipate their cries for the world's cleansing while the four knights kill the archbishop. Commending himself in prayer to God. the General Prologue to Chaucer's Canterbury Tales. another text about testimony and witness. and it "defiles the world. thus enabling him or her to proclaim God's greatness in the future among God's people. First. "Who killed the Archbishop?" He argues that. Once more. The archbishop refuses. Brito asks the audience to consider well the question. de Traci argues that he and his companions are disinterested in the murder. and yet there is no "peace upon earth. the Second Priest quotes from Psalm 22. Analysis As did Part I.beings beyond death: "[B]ehind the face of Death the Judgment / And behind the Judgment the Void. Psalm 119:23 is. the four knights directly address the audience. The First Priest sings verses from Psalm 119 on the feast of St. as a continuing witness to God. Instead. Following Becket's death. recognizing their complicity. the chorus of women lament that the whole world has become foul. as patriots. Thus. the first Christian martyr. thus "silenc[ing] the enemy and the avenger". The text thus gives voice to a faithful one who is suffering. and prove applicable not only to Stephen. in its biblical context. hostility prevails. but death in the Lord renews it" (p. a hope that God will deliver the psalmist from trouble. the Blessed Virgin. Even though the winter solstice has passed. and indeed that of the world. they stand to gain nothing by it. in effect. goodwill among men" (p. Becket killed himself by his unquenchable pride. therefore. it will be only "a bitter spring" (p. "What sign of the spring of the year?" (p.) On the next day." Following these speeches. and finally. in an ironic fashion. (Incidentally. The priest also reads from the first Epistle of John (1:1-2). the Third Priest mingles several different biblical texts: "Out of the mouths of babes" from Psalm 8:2-an affirmation that God causes praise to come forth from the mouths of the vulnerable and innocent. 53). attempting to explain and justify their actions. in his death. and the saints-including "blessed martyr Denys"Becket is slain by the four knights."-in other words. return. The play draws to a close as the priests and chorus recognize Becket's new status as a saint with God and seek his intercession. when spring is bringing new life to the earth. They are acting. The priests' procession across the stage mirrors the progression of the days after Christmas Day that lead to Becket's death. Part II begins with the Chorus' comment upon the progression-or lack thereof-of time. insisting that God's house must be open to all people. 53)-perhaps the women's unconscious acknowledgment of the way in which Becket's impending martyrdom will effect "salvation" for the world. Becket refuses: absolution is not his to grant. he represented a threat to stability and security. the First Priest also quotes Acts 7:60. Third. He condemns Becket as "a monster of egotism. in other words. this verse serves to point to Becket's fate after death."). and do it only for the sake of England. Part II is also similar to Part I in that it immediately grounds the audience in liturgical time. an expression of faith for the future. "Do the days begin to lengthen?" (p. which is the New Testament's narration of the moment of Stephen's death. Psalm 79:3 ("The blood of thy saints. If so. 53)-a phrase that may be designed to call to mind. The knights. but also to Becket. which similarly mocks Chaucer with Eliot's famous declaration. they see no evidence of the natural rebirth to come. 53). John. in its original setting. 53)." What makes this winter so cruel for the Chorus seems to be the realization that another Christmastide has arrived. once more demanding that Becket grant absolution to the excommunicated bishops. Becket's priests urge him to bar the door. Eliot skillfully draws from the appointed liturgical readings to highlight his themes of martyrdom and faithful witness to God. Becket upset the King's plan to consolidate the power of the church with the power of the state. the Chorus feels compelled to ask. "April is the cruelest month. John the Seer's vision of the chorus of the faithful martyrs in heaven in ." Within the Cathedral. If there is to be a spring. Reginald Fitz Urse introduces each speaker. The Chorus' speech also invokes Eliot's own work in his modernist epic poem The Waste Land (1922). On the following day. the feast of St. Psalm 22:22 is. more horrid than active shapes of hell. Sir de Morville talks about the need for order. During his murder. now inebriated.

67). 65). the Chorus delivers a lengthy. 56). sweet pea. in "sordid particulars. Even now. passim. Yet Becket himself would claim the same identity. 59). for instance. such language strongly suggests a parallel between Becket and Jesus.Revelation ("the voice of many waters" and "a new song. selection. 60).) As Becket's death draws ever closer. in championing the rightful spiritual authority of the Church. by delivering the world from its constant "waiting" (see the comments on the significance of Advent in the commentary for Part I). and Matthew's account of the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23. he does for his people. will be the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10). Obviously. Mark 12:17 and parallels).. but. 14:2-3). even as Eliot draws attention to liturgical time here at the outset of Part II. consider the Knights' accusation to Becket. in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear" (p." (p. that was the day. Eliot thus employs the language of kingship to further develop his treatment of temporal versus spiritual power. (Compare Jesus' discussion of the same issue in the New Testament. For instance. "What day is the day that we know that we hope or fear for?" He then answers his own question: "Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from. following his canonization as a saint. By making his decision to adhere to God's order. The critical moment / That is always now. While Becket may be seen as insubordinate to Henry-although Becket would no doubt argue that. that a kind of life beyond that of "living and partly living" is possible and necessary. he declares. can be seen as doubly true: "Both before and after I received the ring [of the chancellorship] / I have been a loyal subject to the King" (p. the King of kings. which itself cites Jeremiah 31:15). Prior to the death of Becket. an explicit anticipation of his canonization as a saint). moreover. therefore. serves to highlight. he is actually rendering all due and appropriate service to the temporal authority-he is certainly not "in revolt" against his heavenly King. however brokenly and imperfectly. See. Audiences should note the irony in Eliot's use of the term "King" when the four knights enter the action. he also. "I have smelt / Death in the rose. as did Jesus. The Third Priest asks. "[W]e'll pray for you" [p." Rev. Becket will bring something of that order into the world of the "now and here. 5). sensory reflection filled with images of death and decay: e. These critical lines speak directly to the play's theme that time must and can be redeemed. just as Jesus did not presume to become a high priest (Heb. as he resists his fellow priests' efforts to hurry him off to vespers." The speech helps the play's audience interpret Becket's death as more than an "accident" (see the Interlude)-it is a truly transcendent act. Becket. which culminates in the women's request that Becket pray for them (again. they introduce themselves as "Servants of the King" (p. and here. Becket's transcendence of "living and partly living" will benefit the rest of humanity by allowing "the wheel" to again turn. primrose and cowslip. This constellation of texts. death in the hollyhock. for example. the prophet Ezekiel's condemnation of false shepherds (Ezek. his discussion of whether or not the king should be able to trust the archbishop and vice versa when rejecting the Third Tempter in Part I).). (Eliot utilizes irony further when he has the Knights tell Becket. Becket has not presumed to become a martyr. "They shall find the shepherd here. Eliot draws on the biblical tradition of picturing true spiritual leaders as shepherds. but also and even more so in reference to God. An understanding of this irony illuminates deeper meanings to much of what follows: as just one example. / We say. then. Similarly. and Jesus' self-identification as "the good shepherd" who "lays down his life for the sheep" (John 10:11). like a faithful high priest. Only in retrospection. / Shall the sea run between the shepherd and his fold" (p. His response. not only in reference to King Henry (compare.g. In response to the Chorus' song of corruption. Becket states that distance shall never again separate him from those for whose souls he has charge: "Never again. allowing true "peace" to manifest itself in Canterbury. 57)." enabling the "wheel" of time to turn. to no uncertain degree. One moment / Weighs like another. not for Becket. in a key interpretive passage. the depiction of God as a shepherd (Psalm 23). 70). the identity of Becket as a martyr. Further commentary on the nature of Becket's death emerges by the conflated quotation of Hebrews 5 and John 10 by the First Priest (p. "You are the Archbishop in revolt against the King" (p. 34. relegates it to second importance. In terms of the existential crisis that Eliot's play presents. 57). hyacinth. the flock shall be spared" (p. and what quality of allegiance is owed to each. And yet. the archbishop . it emphasizes that what Becket does. 60]-anticipating the fact that people will pray to.

according to the legend. in her own way. The "blessed martyr Denys" to whom Becket commends himself (p. This allegiance to the spiritual also serves Eliot's purpose of portraying Becket as a transcendent individual whose death achieves a transcendent purpose: "It is not in time that my death shall be known. Becket now knows that his "hour" is near (e. 74). 78) is Denis. Audiences may well think again of the Third Priest's earlier speech: "Even now. see 1 Cor. which may or may not be good or evil-after all. 2 Cor. are lost on the priests: "Force him. in sordid particulars" (p. toiling in the household. as they arise. No one can live entirely under the crushing awareness of God's purposeas Becket states. Becket again reminds them. after his execution the corpse rose again and carried the head for some distance" (The Catholic Encyclopedia." (p. to seek his own safety. "good and evil in the end become confounded" (p." (p. "the figure of God's purpose [may be] made complete" (p.g. / It is out of time that my decision is taken / If you call that decision / To which my whole being gives entire consent" (p. a wink of heaven. Rather. 69). he is repudiating the very idea that ends can offer any firm moral guidance at all. for in "every life and every act / Consequence of good and evil can be shown" alike (p. Eliot has Becket speak the last words that history actually does attribute to him. 12:9). drunk but prepared to do their bloody deed. 44). 69)-but forgetting does not change the fact that they happened. When the priests urge Becket to bar the doors of the cathedral. 57). must inject transcendence into mundane "reality"-in the play's terms. Becket. / To settle if an act be good or bad" (p. and so the four knights. of the difference between temporal and spiritual power: "The Church shall protect her own. and the audience. He is able to face his destiny because he has received "a tremour of bliss. "He is usually represented with his head in his hands because. I shall rise from my tomb. not / As oak and stone. Martyrdom is no crass means to an end. Those latter lines are important because they prevent Becket from becoming the very kind of utilitarian." they say (p. John 12:27ff). 70). Becket does not. however. it is up to us to be loyal to them. enter.g. 73). bishop of Paris.. another reminder of the inversion." (p. For Becket.newadvent. spiritual power and order are not. Becket's warnings about the confusion of temporal and spiritual means. to follow and pursue them. 73). Such transcendence may not last in the world-as Becket told the Chorus. e. 57). The particulars of Becket's death possess just that revelatory quality. of his "whole being's consent" to witness to the spiritual in the midst of the temporal. set out to die a martyr's death in order to achieve something. "This is one moment" (p. 70). / Give no stay. As does Jesus in the New Testament. His words here echo his earlier assertion that the worst possible temptation is to "do the right deed for the wrong reason" (p. stone and oak decay. 73). as Becket earlier told the Chorus. of transcendence. perhaps. It is as though Becket knows that peace is at hand because his death is at hand-because. As the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus before his death. but the Church shall endure" (p. Temporal power and order are fleeting. the only logical outcome. as this world does. as Becket states. along with two of his companions. More important than result is moral orientation: "I give my life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man" (p. that transcendence was. for one "critical moment. Audiences might also infer from Becket's comment that all we ever receive in this life are glimpses and "rumours" of heaven. Becket dies a martyr's death because it is the only possible consequence.echoes the first word we heard him speak: "Peace" (p. his executioners. 74). 69). out of pride or shrewd calculation. He is thus an appropriate symbol for the truth of Becket's words. so now do the knights mock Becket. pragmatic individual he is condemning-the kind of individual that the Fourth Tempter in Part I enticed him to become. Here we see how God's pattern-that "eternal design" of which the Third Priest spoke-is working itself out in the present. "Human kind cannot bear very much reality" (p. whom tradition says was killed by nonChristian natives in the late third century CE. as he states. "order" as the world understands it-for life to be truly lived. in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear" (p." achieved. 69) in which he is "not in danger: only near to death" (p. what theologians sometimes call the "great reversal. in order that the "wheel" might turn-in order that." of values in the kingdom of heaven (as before.. 1:26-31. Becket reminds the priests that spiritual order and power are not utilitarian: "You argue by results. 66). Becket is doing more than repudiating the idea that ends justify means. "[I]f you kill me. that the wheel turned. http://www. a whisper / And I would no longer be denied. stands steadfast in his resolve to have the doors unbarred. . 69)-but the saints and martyrs. however. "You shall forget these things. in one of the drama's most-quoted lines. The words are.org/cathen/04721a. 74). the spiritual trumps the temporal. 73). "critical moment.htm).

folks. to be. as the text has it. as did Becket. it of course is-but they do not see how to move beyond that foulness-how. Eliot may. and beyond the (slight) comic relief the four knights here provide. / We understood the private catastrophe. They see that "the world is wholly foul" (p. It is perhaps to signify that lack of depth to modern life that Eliot has switched from poetic form to prose for the knights' speeches. readers and audience members must consider their own complicity in the continuation of the "living and partly living" that Becket. 77) after such experiences? That the disasters and terrors of the new century were grievous wrongs was not to be disputed. meaning utterly revelatory-in that they lay bare the conflict between the temporal and the spiritual. 79) when in fact he is a baron-one of those who rule unjustly over the oppressed. yet the Chorus is unable to see how its "sordid particulars" work out the will of the spiritual. While in Eliot's day these words may have had special relevance as a warning against fascism-"government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator. therefore. "showed himself to be utterly indifferent to the fate of the country. to the soft quiet seasons" (p. suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship. William de Traci calls himself one of "four plain Englishmen" (p. and can become crises in which people such as Becket pledge their loyalty to the spiritual in a transcendent act. with World War II and the Holocaust). 77). They must shoulder their share-rather. 81). This argument is made further explicit by the third to speak. / The personal loss. do not react in that way. Fitz Urse concludes this section of the play with a comical. virtually verbatim invocation of the stereotypical admonishment "move along. the death of this "meddlesome priest" (King Henry's alleged epithet for Becket)-to justify the means. even as Becket is dying they are rejecting the freedom his martyrdom makes available: "We did not wish anything to happen. less violent ways: completely subjugated the spiritual to the temporal-"if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State. perhaps. to transcend it. he claims. for turning our back on the vision of the abyss. in essence. so does the prose. stringent socioeconomic controls. like so many of us. the Chorus realizes the transcendent effect his death is having: "But this. nothing to see here" speech heard by so many police officers in motion pictures (see p. Hugh de Morville represents the end of absolute temporal order: "Our King saw that the one thing needful"-note the allusion to Jesus' language in Luke 10:42-was to restore order" (p./ Living and partly living" (p. That Becket's death is a grievous wrong is. of their previous experience. But beyond the justification of means by ends. in fact. "this is out of life. public horrors that the early twentieth century brought in the guise of World War I (and would bring even more horrifically. we must shoulder our share-of the blame for rejecting transcendence. Taken together. transcended. however. through the lens of widespread. remember that it is we who took the first step" (p. the sight of the world's foulness that can nevertheless be overcome-for. He represents the end of maintaining the status quo. and Eliot reverts to . The apologia of the four knights for their act provide (no doubt according to Eliot's intentions) some unexpected comic relief even as they force the audience to think about serious issues. as if Eliot wishes no one to miss the point. Ironically and tragically. under the central government" (p. Such moments are "apocalyptic"-again. 77)-that key refrain is repeated yet once again. 83). however. however. a monster of egotism" (p. Eliot views Becket's death. they demonstrate the very moral failure of the temporal order that Becket warned against: using the end-namely. Various ends. Hugh de Morville points out that what the four knights have done is really what modern. 69). He explains to the audience that King Henry had made Becket the chancellor for this very reason: to create "a union of spiritual and temporal administration. The women of Canterbury. Rather than being at peace. 81). How could the world ever dare hope to "return. this is out of time" (p. Richard Brito. De Morville's argument is. that in rejecting such a union of authorities and orders. 84). when the knights leave the stage. twentiethcentury society has done in more subtle. the Chorus can only lament how the world has become stained. in fact. For example. are called upon to perform such justification. for the wholeness. indisputable. be pointing at a way in which these wrongs can be received and seized as redemptive possibilities.As the knights kill Becket. 78)-which. the general misery. who rehearses the old arguments that Becket sought a martyr's death because of his ego: Becket. according to the Chorus' speeches in Part I. Becket invited his own demise. Becket's death has freed them from the "living and partly living" they have known for the past seven years-that is. of course. as the evils of the twentieth century proved for so many. the totality. of course." the women cry. however. 82). being unable to bear reality (see p. by his death. and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism" (American Heritage Dictionary)-they remain relevant for the early twenty-first century as an indictment of the world's neglect of the spiritual in favor of the temporal.

as Becket was. / Lord. 87-88). . "Even in us the voices of seasons. a new "Te Deum" to complement the traditional one that Eliot's stage directions indicate should be playing in the background: a hymn of praise that declares all things proclaim God in simply. to underscore the change that has taken place. have mercy upon us. living. But this life must be true living. with total devotion to manifesting the eternal and the spiritual in the transitory. a purely temporal world. The play concludes. 84)-the Third Priests insists that the Church shall persevere. have mercy upon us. / Who fear the blessing of God. "The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church. the same motif with which the play began. "They affirm Thee in living. The play does not. have mercy upon us"-and with a plea for Becket's intercession on our behalf to God." (p. but truly. the hands to the face under fear. requires "loneliness. The Chorus confesses. surrender. however. the song of spring. so long as men will die for it" (p. with the Kyrie Eleison-"Lord. the Chorus offers praises to God. / Christ." (p. the head bent under grief. In its final speech. are all complicit in the deaths of martyrs like Becket. it must be marked. that they are but "common men." The Priest also rejects a world without God-that is. of the divine pattern of destiny. as the Chorus well knows. While the First Priest interprets Becket's absence from them as reason for despair-as evidence of "the heathen" now building on "the ruins" of the Church "[t]heir world without God" (p. His comment recalls the oft-quoted maxim of the third century theologian Tertullian. Thus they. Eliot returns to the symbolic motif of the passage of the seasons. and humanity often rejects the "Saints" sent to it who would blaze a trail of transcendence. It must be a complete embrace of God's turning wheel. For transcendence. 87). who shut the door and sit by the fire. in terms of Eliot's play. Thus Eliot's drama closes with a somber reminder that the temporal world resists the infusion of the spiritual. 87). transcendent living in the manner of Becket. The passing seasons are no longer simply a time of waiting. not the half-life of "living and partly living" from which his death offers deliverance. with only temporal "peace" and temporal "order"-as "the hell of make-believe" in which the condemned "justify [their] action to [them]selves" (p.poetry for the final moments of his drama. the drone of summer. praise Thee" (p. to act as though the end justifies the means. all things affirm Thee in living" (p. 84). 85)-hearkening back to the temptation offered to and resisted by Becket. for we "fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God" (p. a perpetual Advent: far from it. end on an entirely transcendent note. appropriately. the snuffle of winter. 88). The Three Priests recognize Becket's status as a saint long before the ecclesiastical hierarchy ever will (see the Historical Note at the beginning of this commentary). and we. 87). mundane and "sordid particulars" of the temporal: "The back bent under toil. deprivation" (pp. the knee bent under sin. 86)even if they would consciously deny God. for it "is fortified / By persecution: supreme. just before the curtain falls.

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