Versification in Murder in The Cathedral

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      At the time of writing Murder in the Cathedral Eliot believed that the verse in poetic drama ought to have a distinctive poetic quality. The poetic drama had to be revived and to revive an interest, emphasis should be laid on the fact that what the audience was hearing, was verse. "So we introduce rhyme, even doggerel, as a constant reminder. that it is verse and not a compromise with prose." It was later that Eliot reconsidered his opinion and stated that the audience should not be made conscious of the fact that it is listening to poetry. Thus, in Murder in the Cathedral the element of poetry is stressed rather than minimized or kept in the background. It is also to be noted that. the subject of the play by its very nature allowed more "obvious poetic effects" than in Eliot's other plays.

Eliot's Views on Versification in Context with this Play:-

      Murder in the Cathedral justifies even some of his later views. Poetry, said Eliot, should not be used as mere decoration but should be dramatically justified. It is to be observed that in all the passages in the play, the versification and poetry are indeed suited to the situation and person speaking and it is in moments of intense emotional excitement that the greatest poetry is found. For, Eliot says, the verse is the natural medium of expression at such moments. As such, the subject of poetic drama has to be different - what can be adequately written in prose should not be written in verse. The verse should be used for plays dealing with deep "emotions and passions of men". As remarked earlier, the subject of this play is suited for the use of verse - there has been a tradition of treating historical subjects in verse. Characters in a historical piece were expected to express Themselves in a way slightly removed from the mode of contemporary speech. Another factor that made Eliot "freer" in the use of verse was that the play was for a festival audience, prepared to put up with poetry.


      Eliot, under these special circumstances, is justified in his use of rhetorical devices such as balance, antithesis, cumulative effects, and even, from time to time, an elaborate alliteration reminiscent of old English verse.

"Shall I, who keep the key

Of heaven and hell supreme alone in England

Who bind and loose, with power from the Pope

Descend to desire a Punier power?

Delegate to deal the doom of damnation,

To condemn kings, not serve among their servants,

In my open office."

      This massive, almost ponderous effect is particularly suited to the acoustic peculiarities of churches, where speeches must be slowed down and enunciated clearly in separate phrases if it is not to be confused in transmission. "In such a setting the heavy thud of alliteration in "Delegate to deal the doom of damnation" is particularly effective as an evocation of the awful solemnity of ex-communication," as D.E. Jones says. The use of verse by Eliot intensifies the drama of Becket's inner struggle with evil and his ultimate conquest of it.

Technical Skill:-

      A dramatist writing poetic drama has a difficult task to handle for he has to solve the problem of communication - his meaning has to be transmitted immediately to a strange audience through strange actors and directors. Thus the writer has to exercise artistic self-control in the interest of dramatic effectiveness. Eliot's style and versification in The Murder in the Cathedral are a tribute to his technical skill.


      Eliot realized that the subject eschewed the use of the exact vocabulary and style of modern conversation - as he had to take the audience back to a historical event. However, he could not be archaic either as he wanted to point out the contemporary relevance of the theme. The style, therefore, had to be natural, committed neither to the present nor the past. Thus, Eliot developed a style suitable for all times.

Rejection of Blank Verse:-

      Eliot had said that the attempts at the revival of poetic drama had failed to a large extent because they had been pale imitations of the Shakespearean blank verse. He himself thus carefully avoids the use of this mode of versification as he felt that its potentialities had already been exhaustively explored and it had lost its flexibility. As such it could not be used effectively any longer, and was unfit for dramatic dialogue. While writing Murder in the Cathedral, he kept in mind the verse from in Everyman. "An avoidance of too much iambic, some use of alliteration, an occasional unexpected rhyme, helped to distinguish the versification from that of the 19th century" (Eliot). In his versification, he has used a combination of long lines and short lines with a number of stressed syllables (usually three or four). In some passages, there is an assertive quality given to the four-stressed line and it is combined with alliteration.

Use of Prose:-

      Eliot had remarked that prose should not be used in poetic drama if it was to be revived, because prose would make the audience too conscious of the poetry. Yet he makes use of it in two passages in his own play - for the Archbishop's sermon and the Knight's Apologia. However, the use of prose in this passage has its reasons and functional value. In either case, the shift to prose marks a shift in the relation between the audience and what is going on in the play. Also, a sermon would have been too jarring and unconvincing in verse, and the prose of the Apologia of the Knights emphasizes that they are directly addressing the 20th-century audience". Eliot himself said that "the use of platform prose (Apologia) is intended, of course, to have a special effect, to shock the audience out of their complacency, and bring home the significance of the play's theme in contemporary times.

Varied Verse form to Suit Emotion and Character:-

      The medium is made to suit perfectly the emotions expressed and the characters expressing them. As Maxwell says: "The verse varies from the slacker, extremely conversational pitch of the lighter passages, to the tightened rhythm of the more emotional. Eliot offers a verse which suggests the contemporary environment and which deliberately, for a great part of the play, approaches prose very closely, yet remains sufficiently far from it so as not to jar the ears when more verse is used." He cites the example of the messenger. A pompous banality appears in his prosaic:

"You are right to express a certain incredulity

There streets of the town will be packed to suffocation

But it leaves place for modulation into the more harmonious,

"Strewing the the way with leaves and late flowers of the season."

      Thus, keeping in touch with the more intense passages, the pattern of the verse can be seen as a planned modulation of the conversational.

Varieties of Metres:-

      Eliot employs a number of different meters, in Murder in the Cathedral. He was, as has been remarked before, free to exhibit the fact that he was using verse and indeed was inclined to "obtrude the verse form upon the audience. Thus there were plenty of excuses for the use of a considerable variety of meters (besides the two passau of prose). He further developed the style suitable to each kind of scene and thus his verse forms become integral to the play as a whole, Martin Browne says of the different meters employed:

      "The most superficial level, that of the quarrels between Becket and the Knights is rhymed doggerel. More subtle, and sometimes rather crabbed, is a four-stress rhyming verse for the Tempters who dramatize the tortuous progress of Becket's inner struggle... There is an easy, near-blank verse for the dialogue with the Priests and Women. And for the Chorus, a very varied series of forms, from the three-stress lines of the women's domestic talk... to the long complex verses of pleading or of praise. In addition, Eliot has...used the rhythms of two more Christian hymns as ground bass (bases) of choral odes."

The Chorus:-

      Eliot achieves the greatest poetical success in this play with the Chorus. The most interesting dramatic verse is to be found here. Note how in the passage "we do not wish anything to happen,

"Living and partly living
There have been oppression and luxury,
There has been poverty and licence,
Yet we have gone on living
Living and partly living..."

the very style of versification - easy, simple, repetitive phrasing a slack rhythm - communicates the sense that these are misfortunes daily life, a part of their mundane existence and accepted as such. Again, we take the example of the Chorus: I have smelt them, the death bringers, my senses are quickened" :

"By subtle forbidding: I have heard,

Fluting in the night time, fluting and owls, have been at noon,

Scaly wings standing over, huge and ridiculous."

      We can easily observe how the disorder expressed by the words are also reflected in its "long irresolute lines" and how towards the end it becomes a balanced order of versification and phrasing to match the more balanced thought, as the Chorus recognizes its responsibility.

"Have not known, what was coming to be? It was here, in the kitchen in the passage.

In the mews in the barn byre in the market place

In our veins our bowels our skulls as well..."

      The influence of Biblical verse, with its simple syntax, emphatic repetitions, and rhythmical variety is to be found in the Chorus. Choric verse in general is difficult to formulate as it is, by its very nature, different from the meters of dialogue. It is collective speech and care must be taken that the sense of the speeches is not lost, thus it has to be emphatic. It must, therefore, be rhythmic, and cannot go in for too much variation of speech and tone or voices speaking together will not be able to cope with it. At the same time, if meter is too regular, there is a danger of reducing the speech to a monotonous, "sing-song". Eliot manages to evade both dangers by using a free meter and infusing it with the necessary variety by varying the length of a line. He makes variety inherent in the metrical structure.

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