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Rejoice and Mourn

The women of Canterbury in Hoellering’s film adaptation of Murder in the Cathedral

The two acts of Murder in the Cathedral are separated by a prose “Interlude” in which Eliot reconstructs Thomas Becket’s last sermon, given on Christmas Day of 1170 at Canterbury Cathedral, only a few days before the archbishop’s assassination. Nowhere else does Eliot’s drama come as close to liturgy.

Glossing Luke 2.14 (“Glory to God in the highest, and on earth peace to men of good will”), Becket’s sermon develops a curious line of argument. First, he emphasises that the Christmas mass celebrates Christ’s birth but, like any mass, it also mourns his Passion. This puzzling simultaneity is a paradox and a mystery: “so it is only in these our Christian mysteries that we can rejoice and mourn at once for the same reason”.

The preacher then urges his listeners to consider why the angels should have heralded “peace” – significantly, this is the first word spoken by Becket in Act I, on entering the cathedral. During the interwar period (the play was first produced in 1935), when the population was still suffering the consequences of a world war and fearing the outbreak of another, Becket’s words inevitably had a contemporary resonance: “ceaselessly the world has been stricken by War and the fear of War”.

The peace that “the heavenly host” anounced is the peace that Christ left with his disciples, who “went forth to journey afar, to suffer by land and sea, to know torture, imprisonment, disappointment, to suffer death by martyrdom”. Thus is one of the sermon’s central themes introduced. Rejoicing does not preclude mourning, and peace also means martyrdom. Sinfully brought about but fulfilling God’s design, martyrdom can be mourned and celebrated. The sermon alludes to two martyrs: St Stephen, whose feast is on the second day of Christmas, and St Alphege, Becket’s Anglo-Saxon predecesor. The archbishop finishes foreshadowing his own death: “it is possible that in a short time you may have yet another martyr”.

About twenty years after Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot’s “The Cultivation of Christmas Trees” (1954), the last of his Ariel Poems, seemed to echo Becket’s sermon with a different emphasis. The perspective is that of a child who will understand, with age, that the joy of Christmas is disturbed not only by the premonition of the Passion, but also by the uncertainty of the Second Coming:

The accumulated memories of annual emotion
May be concentrated into a great joy
Which shall be also a great fear, as on the occasion
When fear came upon every soul:
Because the beginning shall remind us of the end
And the first coming of the second coming.

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Hoo-ha’s Coming to You

In “Fragment of a Prologue,” the first part of Sweeney Agonistes (1933), Sam Wauchope brings his friends (Captain Horsfall and two American businessmen, Mr. Klipstein and Mr. Krumpacker) to Doris and Dusty’s flat. They talk casually about the war, a memorable poker game, and London. The five men reappear in the second part (“Fragment of an Agon”), where their singing mingles with the dialogue between Doris and Sweeney (music-hall style) and, as a chorus, they bring the play to a close:

When you’re alone in the middle of the night and
you wake in a sweat and a hell of a fright
When you’re alone in the middle of the bed and
you wake like someone hit you in the head
You’ve had a cream of a nightmare dream and
you’ve got the hoo-ha’s coming to you.

This grim impression harks back to earlier poems by Eliot, such as “Preludes” (1917): “You dozed, and watched the night revealing / the thousand sordid images / of which your soul was constituted”. On the other hand, they prefigure The Family Reunion (1939), whose protagonist, Harry, conveys to his sympathetic cousin Mary the terror of being chased by the Furies: “At the moment before sleep / I always see their claws distended”. In fact, The Family Reunion is often assumed to revisit Sweeney Agonistes, and both texts draw on Aeschylus’s trilogy, the Oresteia. The former is inspired by The Furies, and the latter opens quoting Orestes in The Libation Bearers: “You don’t see them, you don’t – but I see them: they are haunting me down, I must move on”.

The final chorus suggests the nightmare of death in life (“And perhaps you’re alive / And perhaps you’re dead”), echoing Sweeney when he clarifies for Doris that “Death is life and life is death,” a perfect four-stress line that could be interpreted as a mystical paradox. Not surprisingly, the other opening quote chosen by Eliot for Sweeney Agonistes is from St. John of the Cross’s description of the dark night of soul: “Hence the soul cannot be possessed of the divine union, until it has divested itself of the love of created beings”.

The via negativa is only tangentially present, as a paratext, in Sweeney Agonistes, a prodigy of rhythm and experimentation published as an “unfinished poem”. It is unfinished literally, but also in the sense of lacking transcendent completion. When Eliot returned to his project of verse drama in the late thirties with The Family Reunion, after his conversion, he was a different man and a different author. In the later work, Harry could leave his family behind in order to follow the Eumenides (that is, the Furies in their benevolent aspect), to head for “somewhere on the other side of despair”.