Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama

Discuss Murder in the Cathedral as a poetic drama.



Ans. A poetic drama is one in which poetry and drama are fused. Since the dialogue between the characters is in verse, the play becomes a combination of music, imagery, and ritual. These factors create high intensity and dramatic effect Eliot’s plays attempt to revitalize verse drama and usually treat the same themes as in his poetry. For a very long period verse drama was the dominant form of drama in Europe (and was also important in non-European cultures). Greek tragedy and Racine’s plays are written in verse, as is almost all of Shakespeare’s drama, and Goethe’s Faust.


Verse drama is particularly associated with the seriousness of tragedy, providing an artistic reason to write in this form, as well as the practical one that verse lines are easier for the actors to memorize exactly. In the second half of the twentieth century verse drama fell almost completely out of fashion with dramatists writing in English (the plays of Christopher Fry and T. S. Eliot being possibly the end of a long tradition). Since Eliot began his career as a writer during the second decade of this century, there has been just a single shift in his mental focus and his turn over to the Poetic Stage is connected with this positional displacement. This focal shift in his approach does not involve any fundamental twist in his outlook. The original stand he took was one of repulsion to the bourgeois liberalist civilisation with its stress on realism, skepticism –‘the dry-rock, waste-land symbolism’ and from this he was logically led on to the subsequent position, that of deep respect for tradition and an understanding faith in theology and ecclesiastical authority. The poetic dramas which have come since 1935 – Murder in the Cathedral (1935), Family Reunion (1939), Cocktail Party (1949) and Confidential Clerk (1953), show him to have moved away, even from mere ecclesiastical tradition, to a deep ritualistic pagan faith.


His early poem, The Waste Land (1921), which has become now a pass-word to pretended acquaintance with modern literature among pseudo-intellectuals, is a rapid-moving- disjointed-yet-having-unity-picture of what scientific

rationalism has made of human society. His vision could take in only the world’s decay; he could not stomach the superficial optimism and shallow romantic outlook, full of smug assumptions regarding ‘the beautiful, the true and the noble’. In general, during the Post-Versaillesian world, there was a penetrating search for ‘a general theory of evaluation’. This attempt at rigid evaluation, mentally, undertaken by poets like Eliot and literary thinkers like T. E. Hume, exposed the false basis of Romanticism. The romanticist in his pre-occupation with the self tended to minimise the influence of environment; he believed ‘that man the individual is an infinite reservoir of possibilities.’ This attitude led to the gradual elimination of interest in the collective-consciousness as exhibited through ritual, folk symbolism and myths. Thus romanticism, this worm-eaten liberalism, was exposed as a self-centred corruption of facts and there was an attempt at reviving deep interest in ritual, mystic symbols and ancient myths.


In this search, the East, ancient Egypt and the primitive tribes with their mystical rites and symbolism, became quite a reservoir from which to draw inspiring images. The study of social anthropology by such pioneers as Sir James Frazer and Miss Jessie L. Weston revealed an enormous wealth of mythical customs and rituals, and Eliot drew deeply from this source to build up his edifice of symbols, into which could be put his impressions. Writers earlier to Eliot, like Emerson, had drawn much from Oriental beliefs, as in poems like Brahma and Hamatreya. In fact, the impact of the East had its own part to play in the resurgence of poetic drama in Europe.


This basic movement away from the realistic, rationalist approach of the modern mind, into the thrilling but eerie world of myths, contributed to the development of the allegorical, symbolical style of writers between the two wars, men like D. H. Lawrence, Auden and Eliot. That realism is brittle and. inadequate to express the deep struggle in the consciousness of man, became evident as the war ended, and Eliot, being a man of extraordinary grasp, the necessity to evolve a new form with the help o tradition. The value of that underlying continuity in thought-process, that which is called tradition, had been minimised by the ‘romanticists’; but was deeply realised by Eliot as he wrote his famous early essay, Tradition and Individual Talent (1917):

“No poet, no artist of any art has his complete meaning alone. His significance, his appreciation is the appreciation of his relation to the dead poets and artists. You cannot value him alone; you must set him for contrast and comparison, among the dead.”

What was required was the diversion of interest from the Poet to the Poetry and the realisation of the fact that the actual written work has to be studied and analysed, instead of the idealisation of the Poet’s personality: “Poetry is not a turning loose of emotion but an escape from emotion; it is not the expression of personality, but an escape from personality”.

As F. A. Mathiessen puts it, the poet’s work, according to Eliot, is a process of continual self-sacrifice, the surrender of himself to the work to be performed. So in poems like ‘The Waste Land’ and ‘Ash Wednesday’ the collective symbolism is reflective of the barrenness in the environments rather than of a purely personal world of ideas. The many suggestive symbolical phrases, which come in rapid succession, provide a picture of what the inherent state of the present civilisation is – the many references to bones like the one in ‘Ash Wednesday’:

Under a Juniper tree the bones sang, scattered and shining. We are glad to be scattered, we did little good to each other. Under a tree in the cool of the day, with the blessing of sand Forgetting themselves and each other, united In the quiet of the desert.

This imagist trend in Eliot is much evident in The Waste Land. In the second part with the title A Game of Chess, he seems to have the satirical pleasure which Pope derived while describing Belinda’s toilet in ‘The Rape of the Lock’:

The chair she sat in, like a burnished throne,

Glowed on the marble, where the glass

The glitter of jewels rose to meet it,

From satin cases poured in rich profusion;

In vials of ivory and coloured glass

Unstoppered, lurked her strange synthetic perfumes

Unguent, powdered, or liquid.

In the same section of the poem, is one of the best illustrations for Eliot’s synthesis of the modern imagist trend with ancient classical myths, the sad story of Philomela’s violation by Tereus, her sister Procne’s husband: “The change of Philomel, by the barbarous king

So rudely forced; yet there the nightingale

Filled all the desert with inviolable voice.

And still she cried, and still the world pursued

‘Jug’, ‘Jug’ to dirty years.”

(The Waste Land)

The repetition of sordid images connected with rats, shows the nausea felt by the poet, looking at what is called civilisation.

“I think we are in rat’s alley

Where the dead men lost their bones.”

Also, another reference in ‘The Hollow Men’:

Rat’s feet over broken glass

In our dry cellar.

In his later plays such symbolical suggestions abound and they convey the same picture of a world which has lost its faith, just as the mention of ‘the cry of bats’ in The Cocktail Party.

In addition to this symbolical exhibition of the decay in modern civilisation, there is the recurring mention or the passage of time. Eliot’s love of tradition is somehow synthesised with the concept of Time both as understood in the ancient scriptures and as interpreted by modern philosophy. Time is as continuous as the flow of water in a river, in which like ripples are events; “what is actual is actual only for one time”, and only for one place.

Eliot grasped the psychical Possibilities of this Concept of Time in his later work – The Four Quartets where he assumed the existence of the Timeless, that Something which is beyond Time (God?), and of Reality as ‘the point of intersection of the timeless with time’. The mythical vision as mentioned in ancient texts like the Bhagavad-gita gave him the vision of the regeneration of life from time to time–The Rebirth, experience of the Now, an incessantly moving Now.


Among all the types in literature, it is in the field of dramatic poetry that Eliot discovered the deepest tradition of myths, symbolical representations and other ritualistic forms, as much as in the case of Yeats who derived the same satisfaction out of Celtic myths.

Drama, since the most ancient days has always been ‘poetic’ in garb and ‘symbolist or mythical’ in content. Eliot expressed, as Dryden did in 1681 in his famous Essay on Dramatic Poesy, all his thought on drama in the modern context in the form of a dialogue among individuals representing differing angles of view of the same poetic drama. There are seven individuals A, B, C, D, E, and F, instead of the more informal persona1 names used by Dryden – Eugenius, Crites, Lisideius, and Neander, but all are supporters of the poetic drama. There is a general criticism of

the ‘realistic drama,’ of Shaw, William Archer and such others who championed ‘the play with a purpose.’ To Eliot, deeply stained by that weakness for ritualistic tradition, contemporary drama lacked ‘the more formal element, a system of traditional symbolical and highly skilled movement’. Might be that Eliot was influenced by the Natya Sastra of Bharata, with its detailed doctrinaire attitude to drama, or the Kabuki and No-technique of the Japanese. But the ‘Ballet russe’ with its systematic movements and strict art-form appealed to him so much that he wished to incorporate into dramatic poetry an element of ritualistic rigour along with the usual plot and action. If what is permanent and universal is to be represented, then highly formalised poetry is to be added on to the dramatic action:

“The more fluid, the more chaotic the religious and ethical beliefs, the more the drama must tend in the direction of liturgy……”

He is convinced that modern drama fails to reach sublime heights, because “plays are written by poets who have no knowledge of the stage and also plays are written by men who know the stage and are not poets.” The reasons that drew Eliot to the poetic stage are ritualistic symbolism, deep distrust of realistic and problem plays which are as bald as the lines:

He’s been in the army four years,

he wants a good time,

And if you don’t give it him,

there’s others will, I said

Oh, is there, she said.

(The Waste Land)

The early attempts of Eliot at poetic drama are to be seen in that ‘Aristophanic Melodrama’, Sweeney Agonistes (1932) and The Rock (1934). But the most developed of his poetic plays came later at long intervals, starting with Murder in the Cathedral ((1935), The Family Reunion (1939), The Cocktail Party (1949) and The Confidential Clerk (1953). Of these the first mentioned does not show that deep mystic symbolism of the cycle of regeneration that Eliot developed in the Four Quartets and which is evident in the last mentioned plays. As he is moving through the latter three plays, the feeling is inescapable that Eliot is even giving up his stand on the ecclesiastic tradition of the Catholic Church and is becoming more universal in his grasp of values.


The poet obviously feels an apparent contradiction in their totality; events appear to repeat themselves, though individually they look separate and unconnected. That ‘Time past is time forgotten,’ may appear a truism, but another great passage spoken late in the play by the impetuous Archbishop completely brings out the Time-factor involved in the chain of causation. The common fallacy of the ordinary logic is “to argue by results”–“to settle if an act be good or bad.” But the cause and effect interchange their position in the continuity of time – “And as in time results of many deeds are blended So good and evil in the end become confounded.”


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