Murder in the Cathedral by TS Eliot

1935   Part II

CHORUS: Between Christmas and Easter what work shall be done?

The ploughman shall go out in March and turn the same earth

He has turned before, the bird shall sing the same song.

When the leaf is out on the tree, when the elder and may

Burst over the stream, and the air is clear and high,

And voices trill at windows, and children tumble in front of the door,

What work shall have been done, what wrong

Shall the bird’s song cover, the green tree cover, what wrong

Shall the fresh earth cover? We wait, and the time is short

But waiting is long.

observations: After John Guy’s Becket biography last week, here's Eliot’s play, which covers just the last few days of Becket’s life. It must be a compelling drama to see staged, and Eliot’s words are beyond wonderful. The chorus creates a very real atmosphere of tension and fear, and, as above, of that longing for spring at the turn of the year (like, now). And it’s not all merry ploughboys and 12th century life – this, in the middle of the temptations:

Man's Life is a cheat and a disappointment;
All things are unreal,
Unreal or disappointing:
The Catherine wheel, the pantomime cat,
The prizes given at the children's party,
The prize awarded for the English essay,
The scholar's degree, the statesman's decoration,
All things become less real.

- would make a pretty good poem on its own.

Astonishingly, according to Wikipedia, Murder in the Cathedral was shown live on British TV in 1936, in the brand new service which was to stop completely at the outbreak of the Second World War.

Another version of the story comes in the 1964 film Becket, based on a play by Jean Anouilh, which apart from having a huge basic mistake (it claims Becket is Saxon, rather than Norman, and this is quite an important feature of the plot), is an interesting dramatization of the friendship, with very much a homoerotic subtext. Henry is surrounded rather unhistorically by nagging shrewish women – his mother (the Empress Matilda) and wife (Eleanor of Aquitaine) were two of the most interesting and surprising women of their age.

Links on the blog: There was a previous entry about Becket, and two stories of mediaeval life, here and here.

The picture is from an Anglo-Saxon manuscript made available via the Gutenberg Project.


  1. Moira - thank you for reminding me of this one. I am going to look it out again. Hope the week is treating you well.

  2. Moira - Oh, how lovely! Yes indeed Eliot's words are just wonderful. How great it was to read them again. Yes, I must look this one up and refresh myself...

  3. Eliot is one of my favourite poets. Like Carole, your review makes me want to look out for the book. Thanks

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