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All Things Great and Small

At the end of Coleridge’s The Rime of the Ancient Mariner, the Mariner famously exhorts the Wedding-Guest: “He prayeth well, who loveth well / Both man and bird and beast.” In the final chorus of Murder of the Cathedral, the women of Canterbury sing of “all things great and small,” as physical proof of God’s omnipresence:

They affirm Thee in living; all things affirm Thee in living; the
bird in the air, both the hawk and the finch; the beast on the
earth, both the wolf and the lamb; the worm in the soil and the
worm in the belly.

Characteristically, the Chorus uses very specific images – here indicating size, ferociousness and habitat – for an effect of comprehensiveness. The same is true of botanical, domestic, agricultural or farming imagery in other choruses. Various images suggest the richness of human experience, its sensory immediacy (“I have tasted the living lobster”) or its emotional background (“the child without milk in summer”).

The role of the Chorus being premonitory, the images it evokes before the climax of Becket’s murder tend to be unsettling. If, in the final choral prayer, all animals are granted their place in the order of Creation, earlier in the play they are presented as threatening creatures, detached from any human activity or interest:

Laughter in the noises of beasts that make strange noises: jackal,
jackass, jackdaw; the scurrying noise of mouse and jerboa; the
laugh of the loon, the lunatic bird.

These beasts could inhabit the demonic Biblical settings described by Northrop Frye in The Great Code – typically, a desert or wilderness where the divine has no presence or influence. In Eliot’s play, the imagery of demonic fauna also serves the purpose of characterising the Four Knights, when the Priests try to persude the Archbishop to bar the doors of the Cathedral against the return of the murderous emissaries of the King:

My Lord! These are not men, these come not as men come, but
Like maddened beasts. […]
You would bar the door against the lion, the leopard, the wolf or the boar, […]

The Priests seem to echo the women of Canterbury in these lines, although their voice is more closely related to the details of the dramatic action. Concrete images constitute the basic material for the choruses, just as abstract and sententious reflection – in verse dialogues as in the prose sermon – tends to be voiced by Becket. Murder in the Cathedral (1935) was written simultaneously with “Burnt Norton” (1936), the first of the Four Quartets, where the combination of these two modes (imaginal versus meditative) becomes a defining element.


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