Imagine a sordid city street at sunset. Imagine withered stumps of time. Imagine
all of this together and you have taken the first step towards appreciating
Eliot's poetry. His best known and most influential poems, such as The Lovesong
of J. Alfred Prufrock (1917) and The Waste Land (1922), use imagery that is
fragmented, unlofty and secular. The fragmented imagery is used in part to convey
a feeling of cultural dislocation and rootlessness. In part, too, to depict
the decay of the urbs aeterna. His imagery is also urban and arid as opposed
to pastoral and fertile. The characters in these poems are alienated, the mood
claustrophobic and sardonic.
T.S. Eliot was born in the Midwest but his was the world of his puritan ancestors. His cultural background was the austere, grim world of colonial Massachusetts where his family had settled in 1670.
Eliot studied in Paris and traveled in Germany, and then settled in England just before the outbreak of World War I. His best-known poems are from the period 1917 to 1922, in other words between the Dada and Neue Sachlichkeit movements. In contrast to these continental movements, however, some of his poems contained another, less despairing level, expressed in the mythic imagery of the cycle of birth and death, fertility and regeneration.
By 1935, the year in which he wrote Murder in the Cathedral, Eliot had converted to Anglo-Catholicism. The intellectual and spiritual journey from his early poetry to his treatment of the martyrdom of Thomas à Becket is expressed in the progress of the chorus in this play. In Act One the chorus pleads with the archbishop to return to France, so that they, the poor people of Canterbury, can continue to plod along, coping with the petty joys and tribulations which define their lives.
In the course of Act Two, however, they realize that they can not hide behind the obtuse comforts of the ignorant or, worse still, of the willfully ignorant. The archbishop's trenchant stand in his dispute with the king, they come to realize, is a stand which they, too, must take if they are to save their immortal souls.
In the year 2001 the themes of Murder in the Cathedral might seem remote. The poetic language is certainly difficult. However, the performances this week in St. Maria im Kapitol will, I think, bring Eliot's text alive in a way not often seen East of Dover.