Wednesday, December 09, 2009

I need some footnotes

While I should have been reading Water for Elephants last night, I started T.S. Eliot's Murder in the Cathedral. The mere mention of this play's fourth tempter in an Engines of Our Ingenuity episode during yesterday's commute to work reminded me that I had never read this play and made me obsess about reading it. I kept thinking about it off and on all day. (Eliot's "The Waste Land" is one of my favorite poems, and I like "The Preludes," and some of his other poems too.) I knew that I had a copy of the play at home, a copy that I bought over three years ago when I was still teaching AP English.

So last night before going to bed, I found the book, thinking that I might read the whole playbefore going to sleep--it's very short and even a slow reader like me can read a play in one sitting sometimes. However, I should have known that I'm too old to stay awake that long. When I woke up this morning, I remembered a line from what I had read: "I have seen these things in a shaft of light." This line immediately brought to mind Emily Dickinson's poem that begins "There's a certain slant of light." Later, while I was waiting on the hair straightener to heat up, I found the poem in a book and reread it. Both the poem and the play have religious themes. Is Eliot's line an allusion to Dickinson's? That question is one of the reason's I need some footnotes.

Murder in the Cathedral is a short play, mostly in verse. It tells the story of Thomas Becket, the Archbishop of Canterbury, returning to England after years of exile/banishment. He is assassinated very soon after he returns, and he had prophesied his impending death. Despite being written mostly in verse, the basic plot of the play isn't difficult to follow. What I need footnotes for is the British history, which provides the basis for the play. I just don't know or remember enough.

I really enjoyed the Chorus, which functions in much the same way as the Chorus does in the plays like Oedipus Rex. One of my favorite Chorus parts is in Part II after the four knights have stated the evidence of Thomas's treason and hinted that he must die for it. The Chorus says:
I have smelt them, the death-bringers, senses are quickened
By subtile forebodings; I have heard
Fluting in the night-time, fluting and owls, have seen at noon
Scaly wings slanting over, huge and ridiculous. I have tasted
The savour of putrid flesh in the spoon. I have felt
The heaving of earth at nightfall, restless, absurd. I have heard
Laughter in the noises of beasts that make strange noises: jackal, jackass, jackdaw; the scurrying noises of mouse and jerboa; the laugh of the loon, the lunatic bird. I have seen
Grey necks twisting, rat tails twining, in the thick light of dawn...
And this great poetry goes on for another page and a half in my book. Eliot piles on the dark imagery as the Chorus intones an incantation of death. (This passage makes me wish I still taught AP English.)

I think this play is intended as a tragedy, which would explain Eliot's use of a chorus. I need to reread the play with some footnotes and/or read some literary criticism before I say anything else about it. Hopefully, I'll have time tomorrow at work to do a little research. One of the perks of being a librarian is that I can do personal research and reading and look like I'm working hard, but let's keep that little secret between us. ;-)

Now, I need to go to bed and read more of Water for Elephants. Book club meets on Sunday, and I don't want to spend my whole weekend trying to finish it.

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