Books: Poet leaves a lasting impression on official
March 13, 2009
T.S. Eliot (1888-1965) was born in St. Louis. After graduation from Harvard, he went to England, where he spent eight years at Lloyds Bank, after which he went into book publishing. In 1948, Eliot won the Nobel Prize in literature for his poetry. That same year, King George IV bestowed the Order of Merit on him.
In 1935, for the Canterbury Festival, Eliot wrote “Murder in the Cathedral,” a play about the murder of Thomas à Becket, archbishop of Canterbury, which happened on Dec. 2, 1170.
The theme of the play is the struggle between the church and state for power, and which should have the upper hand in governing. Before Becket became archbishop, he was King Henry’s right-hand man as the chancellor. The king’s goal was to join the power of church and state to govern as one. But Henry’s plan was foiled when Becket resigned as chancellor. After seven years of exile in France, Becket returned to Canterbury. He knew he was doomed if he did not join forces with Henry.
Becket chose to serve only the church. He placed spiritual power above the temporal. Speaking to the tempter, a spokesman for Henry, Becket said:
No, shall I who keep the keys
of Heaven and Hell, supreme alone in England,
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who bind and loose, with power from the Pope,
Descend do desire a punier power?
Delegate to deal the doom of damnation.
To condemn kings, not serve among their servants
Is my open office. No! Go.
So martyrdom is Becket’s fate, to which the chorus, the women of Canterbury, plead with Becket by saying, “Destroy yourself and we are destroyed.”
In Part II, the chorus sums up the spiritual in these words:
The peace of this world is always uncertain,
unless men keep the peace of God.
And war among men defiles this world,
but death in the Lord renews it …
The temporal point of view is represented by the First Knight, one of the assassins, who said to Becket:
Saving your order! Let your order save you “
As I do not think it is like to do.
Saving your ambition is what you mean,
Saving your pride, envy and spleen.
Before Becket is murdered, he says,
My blood given to pay for his death,
My death for his death.
Why read or stage the play today? Because today at home and abroad, we face the same issue, a conflict or war, over which power is supreme, the temporal or the spiritual. As the chorus said, war among men defiles this world. So our world today is not much different than the world of 1170. We still murder one another in the name of God or the power of the state. Somehow, we have to find a way to coexist.
” Bill Crawford is a South Lake Tahoe city councilman.