T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral tells the story of Thomas Beckett, a man who reigned as Archbishop of Canterbury during the 12th century in England until his death in 1170. In order to tell Beckett’s story, Eliot creates a series of equally interesting characters that each play a crucial role thought the play. The most unique role found within the play is the Women of Canterbury, or the Chorus. Throughout the piece, the Chorus delivers seven choral odes. These choral odes, when looked at as a collective work tell a story. They begin with brief foreshadowing of events that will occur later in the play, but then quickly jump into necessary storyline; one which summarizes the events of the pasts, and then immerses the audience into the common man’s view of the events in the present.
The first choral ode begins with heavy foreshadowing. The Women of Canterbury are drawn towards the Cathedral, but they do not know why. At first, there is confusion. They question, “Are we drawn by danger? Is it the knowledge of safety that that draws our feet towards the Cathedral?” As they reach the cathedral however, they come upon a realization. “There is not danger for us, and there is no safety in the cathedral. Some presage of an act, which our eyes are compelled to witness, has forced our feet towards the cathedral.” They recognize that it is not their own personal danger that draws them closer to the cathedral, but instead the foreshadowing of a horrifying act in which they will be forced to bear witness. It will be an act so terrible, that safety can not even be found within the hallowed halls of the cathedral.
After the period of foreshadowing, the mood of the first choral ode drastically shifts away from the dark and mysterious presage of an act to a description of the concrete past. The remainder of the choral ode serves as a way to bring the audience up to speed on the last seven years of Canterbury’s history. While they convey the events of the past, the women of Canterbury express a constant lurking fear for the safety of their Archbishop. A perfect example of this common theme found within the first choral ode is in the following stanza, in which the Chorus states:
“Seven years and the summer is over,
Seven years since the Archbishop left us,
He who was always so kind to his people.
But it would not be well if should return.”
These lines are typical of the first choral ode, for not only do they explain to the audience that the Archbishop Thomas Beckett has been gone for seven years now, but they fear for his well being and for the well being of Canterbury if he were to return. As the choral ode draws to a close, the Women of Canterbury give off a sense of unavoidable waiting. They say:
“Come happy December, who shall observe you, who shall preserve you?
Shall the Son of Man be born again in the litter of scorn?
For us, the poor, there is no action,
But only to wait and to witness”
They welcome the month of December, but then question how it could possibly be a joyous time. Who would be able to celebrate the Christmas and Advent season with the terrible events that are about to occur? Could Jesus be reborn into such scorn? The Women of Canterbury know that there is little they can do at this time. They must wait, and then witness the act that they fear.
With the commencement of the second choral ode, the general mood shifts from confusion and waiting to fear. The Women of Canterbury have been informed that Beckett is returning to Canterbury. Such an announcement stirs great anxiety amongst them. They fear that their way of life will be disrupted and endangered. They plea to a Thomas who has not yet arrived to:
“Return. Quickly. Quietly. Leave us to perish in quiet.
You come with applause, you come with rejoicing, but
You come bringing death into Canterbury:
A doom on the house, a doom on yourself, a doom on the world.”
The women say that though they will be rejoicing on the outside, their deep insides will be dominated by fear, for they believe that his coming will come hand in hand with his own death. The idea of fear is the general theme in the second choral ode, as it constantly recurs throughout the lines. Later in the choral ode, the women say, “We are afraid in a fear which we cannot know, which we cannot face, which none understands.” This illustrates the depth and complexity of the fear which they are facing, for they know not how to neither combat it nor completely comprehend it. All the people know is that with Thomas comes death upon their home of Canterbury, so the beg him to “leave us, leave us, leave us sullen Dover, and set sail for France.”
The fear of the second choral ode becomes a reality in the third. The Women of Canterbury know what decision Beckett has made. They tell him, “We have not been happy, my Lord, we have not been too happy. We are not ignorant women, we know what we must expect and not expect.” By saying this, the Women of Canterbury mean that they understand the consequences that Thomas has chosen by staying in Canterbury. They know that he will perish if he stays. Then the women begin to despair. They cry, “God gave us always some reason, some hope; but now a new terror has soiled us, which none can avert,” and, “God is leaving us, God is leaving us, more pang, more pain than birth or death.” The Women of Canterbury, who always took faith in the idea the God was protecting their Archbishop, believe that Thomas has turned away from the Lord’s protection by deciding to remain at Canterbury, for not even God could protect him from the wrath of what was yet to come.
The fourth choral ode that opens up the second act heads in a completely different direction than the intense despair of the third choral ode. Instead, this choral ode is more accepting, for the chorus knows that the death of Beckett is coming. Nature is used throughout this choral ode to foreshadow his death. At one point the Women of Canterbury say, “The starved crow sits in the field, attentive; and in the wood the owl rehearses the hallow note of death.” The starved crow that they speak of symbolizes the Four Knights, who arrive in Canterbury shortly after the choral ode is delivered. The owl symbolizes the result of their visit to Canterbury: a death, a death that they fear will be brought upon Thomas. Though they have accepted the situation, the Women of Canterbury feel helpless, for all they can do between that moment and Thomas’s death is wait. As there is nothing they can do, they say, “We wait, and the time is short, but the waiting is long.”
As the fifth choral ode begins, the helplessness from the fourth choral ode carries over, but this time it is coupled with an air of guilt. The Women of Canterbury are stuck in an in between zone. They grieve:
“Now is too late for action, too soon for contrition.
Nothing is possible but the shamed swoon
Of those consenting to the last humiliation.
I have consented, Lord Archbishop, have consented.”
The women realize that the wheel is turning and the eternal action leading to Beckett’s doom is in motion. They are in despair, for it is too late for them to try and aid their Archbishop, but too soon for them to seek forgiveness for allowing Beckett to be killed. The murder of their Archbishop is a matter that they are taking personal responsibility for, and they view it as a humiliation to them all. Their final cry of “I have consented, Lord Archbishop” truly isolates and illustrates the immense guilt that they have brought upon themselves. The Women of Canterbury believe that by standing aside and allowing the Knights to threaten Thomas, they have consented to his murder. All they have left is helplessness, guilt, and like always, waiting.
The sixth choral ode is met with a shift from helplessness to intense distress. Archbishop Thomas Beckett has just been murdered, and the Women of Canterbury feel as if they, along with all of Canterbury, have been stained with their Archbishop’s blood. The chorus screams:
“Clear the air! Clean the sky! Wash the wind! Take the
Stone from the stone, take the skin from the arm,
Take the muscle from the bone, and wash them.
Wash the stone, wash the bone, wash the brain,
Wash the soul, wash them wash them!”
As shown, the Women of Canterbury become obsessed with trying to wash themselves clean of Beckett’s blood. Such words confirm that the Women of Canterbury see not only the Four Knights as Thomas Beckett’s killer, but themselves as well. They feel severe regret, proclaiming:
“We did not wish anything to happen
We understood the private catastrophe,
The personal loss, the general misery,
Living and partly living”
These lines show that, though they believe that they were a part of the murder, they were unintentionally involved. They did not mean for any ill will to come upon their Archbishop, but through their lack of action, their living and partly living, they allowed Beckett to face a tragedy, a tragedy that they were completely aware of, alone. The Women of Canterbury abandoned their Lord, and they do not know how to deal with their despair
The final choral ode begins not with despair, but instead with grateful praise to an all powerful God. The entire choral ode reads like one long prayer of praise, thanks, and then contrition to a merciful God. At points, the Women of Canterbury even go as far as to compare their deceased Archbishop to Jesus Christ. In it’s beginning, they say, “We praise Thee, O God, for Thy glory displayed in all the creatures” The Women of Canterbury then go on to on to show their gratitude to God by respectfully praying, “We thank Thee for Thy mercies of blood, for Thy redemption by blood. For the blood of Thy martyrs and saints.” By these words, the Women of Canterbury are thanking God for redeeming their souls with the blood of Thomas, their Archbishop. Through these lines, Eliot is comparing the murder of Thomas Beckett to the death of Jesus Christ on the cross, saying that both died to save the souls of those around them. Finally, the Woman of Canterbury seek contrition, pleading, “Forgive us, O Lord, we acknowledge ourselves as type of the common man, of the men and women who shut the door and sit by the fire.” On one level, they ask forgiveness for standing by and doing nothing to prevent Beckett’s death, for they are just common men. If read more deeply however, they return to the Christ like image of Beckett. The common men ask for forgiveness, for like Peter, they “sat by the fire” and denied their Lord. Just as Peter allowed Christ to die, so the Women of Canterbury allowed Thomas Beckett to die.
The seven choral odes in T.S. Eliot’s Murder in the Cathedral tell the story of the common man’s view of the events that occurred during that fateful December of 1170 in Canterbury. Through foreshadowing and interesting use of language, T.S. Eliot crafts the Chorus to be one of, if not the most fascinating character found within the whole play. Their unique perspective on Thomas Beckett’s murder truly makes Murder in the Cathedral one of the greatest plays of the 20th Century.