Four days after the Interlude-December 29, 1170-the women of Canterbury again gather, and again speak ominous, foreboding words as they lament “the death of the old” year and the promise only of “a bitter spring” to follow. The priests have been marking the liturgical feasts that come after Christmas-the feast of St. Stephen, the first Christian martyr, on December 26; the feast of St. John the Evangelist on December 27; the feast of the Holy Innocents, those children of Bethlehem slain by Herods soldiers in the monarchs mad search for the newborn “king of the Jews,” on December 28-but also express doubt that these chronological markers carry much meaning: as one priest states, “Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from. The critical moment. is always now. Even now, in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear.”
In truth, four soldiers of King Henry appear: we will learn later that their names are Reginald Fitz Urse, Sir Hugh de Morville, Baron William de Traci, and Richard Brito (the actual names of Beckets assassins, but here following Eliots spellings; for alternative renderings, see the “Note on Historical Background” above). These knights demand to see Archbishop Becket, accusing him of treason. They demand that Becket absolve the bishops who, in defiance of the Vatican, participated in the coronation of King Henrys son. Becket protests that he cannot absolve them; only the Pope, who condemned them, could perform that action. Unsatisfied, the knights depart, promising to soon return, “for the Kings justice. with swords.” Beckets priests urge him to seek his own safety within the Cathedral. Becket, however, realizes that his appointed end has come. His destiny has arrived. Despite the Archbishops calm and prayerful resolve, his priests, literally, drag him to say vespers. The chorus of Canterburys women reflect on what awaits human beings beyond death: “[B]ehind the face of Death the Judgment / And behind the Judgment the Void, more horrid than active shapes of hell.”
Within the Cathedral, Beckets priests urge him to bar the door. The archbishop refuses, insisting that Gods house must be open to all people. The knights, now inebriated, return, once more demanding that Becket grant absolution to the excommunicated bishops. Once more, Becket refuses: absolution is not his to grant. Commending himself in prayer to God, the Blessed Virgin, and the saints-including “blessed martyr Denys”-Becket is slain by the four knights. During his murder, the chorus of women lament that the whole world has become foul.
Following Beckets death, the four knights directly address the audience, attempting to explain and justify their actions. Reginald Fitz Urse introduces each speaker. First, de Traci argues that he and his companions are disinterested in the murder; they stand to gain nothing by it, and do it only for the sake of England. They are acting, in other words, as patriots. Second, Sir de Morville talks about the need for order. Becket upset the Kings plan to consolidate the power of the church with the power of the state; therefore, he represented a threat to stability and security. Third, and finally, Brito asks the audience to consider well the question, “Who killed the Archbishop?” He argues that, in effect, Becket killed himself by his unquenchable pride. He condemns Becket as “a monster of egotism.” Following these speeches, Fitz Urse urges the audience to disperse quietly to their homes. The play draws to a close as the priests and chorus recognize Beckets new status as a saint with God and seek his intercession, recognizing their complicity, and indeed that of the world, in his death.
As did Part I, Part II begins with the Chorus comment upon the progression-or lack thereof-of time. Even though the winter solstice has passed, the Chorus feels compelled to ask, “Do the days begin to lengthen?” (p. 53). If so, they see no evidence of the natural rebirth to come; as they ask, “What sign of the spring of the year?” (p. 53). If there is to be a spring, it will be only “a bitter spring” (p. 53)-a phrase that may be designed to call to mind, in an ironic fashion, the General Prologue to Chaucers Canterbury Tales, for Chaucer writes that pilgrims travel to Beckets shrine at Canterbury “Whan that Aprill with his shoures soote / The droghte of March hath perced to the roote.”-in other words, when spring is bringing new life to the earth. The Chorus speech also invokes Eliots own work in his modernist epic poem The Waste Land (1922), which similarly mocks Chaucer with Eliots famous declaration, “April is the cruelest month.” What makes this winter so cruel for the Chorus seems to be the realization that another Christmastide has arrived, and yet there is no “peace upon earth, goodwill among men” (p. 53). Instead, hostility prevails, and it “defiles the world, but death in the Lord renews it” (p. 53)-perhaps the womens unconscious acknowledgment of the way in which Beckets impending martyrdom will effect “salvation” for the world. Their talk of defiling and renewal may also anticipate their cries for the worlds cleansing while the four knights kill the archbishop.
Part II is also similar to Part I in that it immediately grounds the audience in liturgical time. The priests procession across the stage mirrors the progression of the days after Christmas Day that lead to Beckets death. Eliot skillfully draws from the appointed liturgical readings to highlight his themes of martyrdom and faithful witness to God. The First Priest sings verses from Psalm 119 on the feast of St. Stephen. Psalm 119:23 is, in its biblical context, a believers declaration of intent to rely solely on Gods statutes in the face of persecution. The text thus gives voice to a faithful one who is suffering, and prove applicable not only to Stephen, the first Christian martyr, but also to Becket. (Incidentally, the First Priest also quotes Acts 7:60, which is the New Testaments narration of the moment of Stephens death.) On the next day, the feast of St. John, the Second Priest quotes from Psalm 22. Psalm 22:22 is, in its original setting, an expression of faith for the future, a hope that God will deliver the psalmist from trouble, thus enabling him or her to proclaim Gods greatness in the future among Gods people. Thus, this verse serves to point to Beckets fate after death, as a continuing witness to God. The priest also reads from the first Epistle of John (1:1-2), another text about testimony and witness. On the following day, the Third Priest mingles several different biblical texts: “Out of the mouths of babes” from Psalm 8:2-an affirmation that God causes praise to come forth from the mouths of the vulnerable and innocent, thus “silenc[ing] the enemy and the avenger”; Psalm 79:3 (“The blood of thy saints.”); John the Seers vision of the chorus of the faithful martyrs in heaven in Revelation (“the voice of many waters” and “a new song,” Rev. 14:2-3); and Matthews account of the slaughter of the innocents (Matthew 2:13-23, which itself cites Jeremiah 31:15). This constellation of texts, therefore, serves to highlight, to no uncertain degree, the identity of Becket as a martyr. Further commentary on the nature of Beckets death emerges by the conflated quotation of Hebrews 5 and John 10 by the First Priest (p. 56). Becket has not presumed to become a martyr, just as Jesus did not presume to become a high priest (Heb. 5); but, like a faithful high priest, Becket, as did Jesus, will be the good shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep (John 10).
And yet, even as Eliot draws attention to liturgical time here at the outset of Part II, he also, in a key interpretive passage, relegates it to second importance. The Third Priest asks, “What day is the day that we know that we hope or fear for?” He then answers his own question: “Every day is the day we should fear from or hope from. One moment / Weighs like another. Only in retrospection, selection, / We say, that was the day. The critical moment / That is always now, and here. Even now, in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear” (p. 57). These critical lines speak directly to the plays theme that time must and can be redeemed, that a kind of life beyond that of “living and partly living” is possible and necessary. By making his decision to adhere to Gods order, Becket will bring something of that order into the world of the “now and here,” enabling the “wheel” of time to turn, allowing true “peace” to manifest itself in Canterbury, however brokenly and imperfectly, in “sordid particulars.” The speech helps the plays audience interpret Beckets death as more than an “accident” (see the Interlude)-it is a truly transcendent act.
Audiences should note the irony in Eliots use of the term “King” when the four knights enter the action. For instance, they introduce themselves as “Servants of the King” (p. 57). Yet Becket himself would claim the same identity, not only in reference to King Henry (compare, for example, his discussion of whether or not the king should be able to trust the archbishop and vice versa when rejecting the Third Tempter in Part I), but also and even more so in reference to God, the King of kings. Eliot thus employs the language of kingship to further develop his treatment of temporal versus spiritual power, and what quality of allegiance is owed to each. (Compare Jesus discussion of the same issue in the New Testament, Mark 12:17 and parallels). An understanding of this irony illuminates deeper meanings to much of what follows: as just one example, consider the Knights accusation to Becket, “You are the Archbishop in revolt against the King” (p. 59). While Becket may be seen as insubordinate to Henry-although Becket would no doubt argue that, in championing the rightful spiritual authority of the Church, he is actually rendering all due and appropriate service to the temporal authority-he is certainly not “in revolt” against his heavenly King. His response, then, can be seen as doubly true: “Both before and after I received the ring [of the chancellorship] / I have been a loyal subject to the King” (p. 60). (Eliot utilizes irony further when he has the Knights tell Becket, “[W]ell pray for you” [p. 60]-anticipating the fact that people will pray to, not for Becket, following his canonization as a saint.)
As Beckets death draws ever closer, Eliot draws on the biblical tradition of picturing true spiritual leaders as shepherds. See, for instance, the prophet Ezekiels condemnation of false shepherds (Ezek. 34, passim.); the depiction of God as a shepherd (Psalm 23); and Jesus self-identification as “the good shepherd” who “lays down his life for the sheep” (John 10:11). Becket states that distance shall never again separate him from those for whose souls he has charge: “Never again. / Shall the sea run between the shepherd and his fold” (p. 65).
Similarly, as he resists his fellow priests efforts to hurry him off to vespers, he declares, “They shall find the shepherd here; the flock shall be spared” (p. 70). Obviously, such language strongly suggests a parallel between Becket and Jesus; moreover, it emphasizes that what Becket does, he does for his people. In terms of the existential crisis that Eliots play presents, Beckets transcendence of “living and partly living” will benefit the rest of humanity by allowing “the wheel” to again turn, by delivering the world from its constant “waiting” (see the comments on the significance of Advent in the commentary for Part I).
Prior to the death of Becket, the Chorus delivers a lengthy, sensory reflection filled with images of death and decay: e.g., “I have smelt / Death in the rose, death in the hollyhock, sweet pea, hyacinth, primrose and cowslip.” (p. 67). In response to the Chorus song of corruption, which culminates in the womens request that Becket pray for them (again, an explicit anticipation of his canonization as a saint), the archbishop echoes the first word we heard him speak: “Peace” (p. 69). It is as though Becket knows that peace is at hand because his death is at hand-because, as he states, “This is one moment” (p. 69) in which he is “not in danger: only near to death” (p. 70). As does Jesus in the New Testament, Becket now knows that his “hour” is near (e.g., John 12:27ff). He is able to face his destiny because he has received “a tremour of bliss, a wink of heaven, a whisper / And I would no longer be denied.” (p. 70). Here we see how Gods pattern-that “eternal design” of which the Third Priest spoke-is working itself out in the present, “critical moment. in sordid particulars” (p. 57). Audiences might also infer from Beckets comment that all we ever receive in this life are glimpses and “rumours” of heaven, of transcendence; it is up to us to be loyal to them, to follow and pursue them, in order that the “wheel” might turn-in order that, as Becket earlier told the Chorus, “the figure of Gods purpose [may be] made complete” (p. 69). Such transcendence may not last in the world-as Becket told the Chorus, “You shall forget these things, toiling in the household.” (p. 69)-but forgetting does not change the fact that they happened, that the wheel turned, that transcendence was, for one “critical moment,” achieved. No one can live entirely under the crushing awareness of Gods purpose-as Becket states, in one of the dramas most-quoted lines, “Human kind cannot bear very much reality” (p. 69)-but the saints and martyrs, as they arise, must inject transcendence into mundane “reality”-in the plays terms, “order” as the world understands it-for life to be truly lived.
When the priests urge Becket to bar the doors of the cathedral, Becket again reminds them, and the audience, of the difference between temporal and spiritual power: “The Church shall protect her own, in her own way, not / As oak and stone; stone and oak decay, / Give no stay, but the Church shall endure” (p. 73). Temporal power and order are fleeting; spiritual power and order are not. The words are, perhaps, another reminder of the inversion, what theologians sometimes call the “great reversal,” of values in the kingdom of heaven (as before, e.g., see 1 Cor. 1:26-31; 2 Cor. 12:9). Becket reminds the priests that spiritual order and power are not utilitarian: “You argue by results, as this world does, / To settle if an act be good or bad” (p. 73). His words here echo his earlier assertion that the worst possible temptation is to “do the right deed for the wrong reason” (p. 44). Becket is doing more than repudiating the idea that ends justify means; he is repudiating the very idea that ends can offer any firm moral guidance at all, for in “every life and every act / Consequence of good and evil can be shown” alike (p. 73). More important than result is moral orientation: “I give my life / To the Law of God above the Law of Man” (p. 74). For Becket, the spiritual trumps the temporal. This allegiance to the spiritual also serves Eliots purpose of portraying Becket as a transcendent individual whose death achieves a transcendent purpose: “It is not in time that my death shall be known; / It is out of time that my decision is taken / If you call that decision / To which my whole being gives entire consent” (p. 74). Those latter lines are important because they prevent Becket from becoming the very kind of utilitarian, pragmatic individual he is condemning-the kind of individual that the Fourth Tempter in Part I enticed him to become. Becket does not, out of pride or shrewd calculation, set out to die a martyrs death in order to achieve something. Martyrdom is no crass means to an end, which may or may not be good or evil-after all, as Becket states, “good and evil in the end become confounded” (p. 73). Rather, Becket dies a martyrs death because it is the only possible consequence, the only logical outcome, of his “whole beings consent” to witness to the spiritual in the midst of the temporal. Audiences may well think again of the Third Priests earlier speech: “Even now, in sordid particulars / The eternal design may appear” (p. 57). The particulars of Beckets death possess just that revelatory quality.
Beckets warnings about the confusion of temporal and spiritual means, however, are lost on the priests: “Force him,” they say (p. 74), to seek his own safety. Becket, however, stands steadfast in his resolve to have the doors unbarred, and so the four knights, his executioners, enter, drunk but prepared to do their bloody deed. As the Roman soldiers mocked Jesus before his death, so now do the knights mock Becket.
Eliot has Becket speak the last words that history actually does attribute to him. The “blessed martyr Denys” to whom Becket commends himself (p. 78) is Denis, bishop of Paris, whom tradition says was killed by non-Christian natives in the late third century CE, along with two of his companions. “He is usually represented with his head in his hands because, according to the legend, after his execution the corpse rose again and carried the head for some distance” (The Catholic Encyclopedia; http:www.newadvent.org/cathen/04721a.htm). He is thus an appropriate symbol for the truth of Beckets words, “[I]f you kill me, I shall rise from my tomb.” (p. 66).
As the knights kill Becket, the Chorus realizes the transcendent effect his death is having: “But this,” the women cry, “this is out of life, this is out of time” (p. 77). Beckets death has freed them from the “living and partly living” they have known for the past seven years-that is, for the wholeness, the totality, of their previous experience. Ironically and tragically, however, even as Becket is dying they are rejecting the freedom his martyrdom makes available: “We did not wish anything to happen. / We understood the private catastrophe, / The personal loss, the general misery,/ Living and partly living” (p. 77)-that key refrain is repeated yet once again, as if Eliot wishes no one to miss the point. Rather than being at peace, the Chorus can only lament how the world has become stained. That Beckets death is a grievous wrong is, of course, indisputable; yet the Chorus is unable to see how its “sordid particulars” work out the will of the spiritual. Eliot views Beckets death, perhaps, through the lens of widespread, public horrors that the early twentieth century brought in the guise of World War I (and would bring even more horrifically, of course, with World War II and the Holocaust). How could the world ever dare hope to “return, to the soft quiet seasons” (p. 77) after such experiences? That the disasters and terrors of the new century were grievous wrongs was not to be disputed; Eliot may, however, be pointing at a way in which these wrongs can be received and seized as redemptive possibilities. Such moments are “apocalyptic”-again, meaning utterly revelatory-in that they lay bare the conflict between the temporal and the spiritual, and can become crises in which people such as Becket pledge their loyalty to the spiritual in a transcendent act. The women of Canterbury, however, like so many of us, do not react in that way. They see that “the world is wholly foul” (p. 78)-which, as the evils of the twentieth century proved for so many, it of course is-but they do not see how to move beyond that foulness-how, as did Becket, to transcend it.
The apologia of the four knights for their act provide (no doubt according to Eliots intentions) some unexpected comic relief even as they force the audience to think about serious issues. Taken together, they demonstrate the very moral failure of the temporal order that Becket warned against: using the end-namely, the death of this “meddlesome priest” (King Henrys alleged epithet for Becket)-to justify the means. Various ends, in fact, are called upon to perform such justification. William de Traci calls himself one of “four plain Englishmen” (p. 79) when in fact he is a baron-one of those who rule unjustly over the oppressed, according to the Chorus speeches in Part I. He represents the end of maintaining the status quo, therefore. Hugh de Morville represents the end of absolute temporal order: “Our King saw that the one thing needful”-note the allusion to Jesus language in Luke 10:42-was to restore order” (p. 81). He explains to the audience that King Henry had made Becket the chancellor for this very reason: to create “a union of spiritual and temporal administration, under the central government” (p. 81). De Morvilles argument is, in essence, that in rejecting such a union of authorities and orders, Becket invited his own demise. This argument is made further explicit by the third to speak, Richard Brito, who rehearses the old arguments that Becket sought a martyrs death because of his ego: Becket, he claims, “showed himself to be utterly indifferent to the fate of the country, to be, in fact, a monster of egotism” (p. 83). Fitz Urse concludes this section of the play with a comical, virtually verbatim invocation of the stereotypical admonishment “move along, folks, nothing to see here” speech heard by so many police officers in motion pictures (see p. 84). But beyond the justification of means by ends, and beyond the (slight) comic relief the four knights here provide, readers and audience members must consider their own complicity in the continuation of the “living and partly living” that Becket, by his death, transcended. They must shoulder their share-rather, we must shoulder our share-of the blame for rejecting transcendence, for turning our back on the vision of the abyss, the sight of the worlds foulness that can nevertheless be overcome-for, as the text has it, being unable to bear reality (see p. 69). For example, Hugh de Morville points out that what the four knights have done is really what modern, twentieth-century society has done in more subtle, less violent ways: completely subjugated the spiritual to the temporal-“if you have now arrived at a just subordination of the pretensions of the Church to the welfare of the State, remember that it is we who took the first step” (p. 82). While in Eliots day these words may have had special relevance as a warning against fascism-“government marked by centralization of authority under a dictator, stringent socioeconomic controls, suppression of the opposition through terror and censorship, and typically a policy of belligerent nationalism and racism” (American Heritage Dictionary)-they remain relevant for the early twenty-first century as an indictment of the worlds neglect of the spiritual in favor of the temporal.
It is perhaps to signify that lack of depth to modern life that Eliot has switched from poetic form to prose for the knights speeches; when the knights leave the stage, however, so does the prose, and Eliot reverts to poetry for the final moments of his drama. The Three Priests recognize Beckets status as a saint long before the ecclesiastical hierarchy ever will (see the Historical Note at the beginning of this commentary). While the First Priest interprets Beckets absence from them as reason for despair-as evidence of “the heathen” now building on “the ruins” of the Church “[t]heir world without God” (p. 84)-the Third Priests insists that the Church shall persevere, for it “is fortified / By persecution: supreme, so long as men will die for it” (p. 84). His comment recalls the oft-quoted maxim of the third century theologian Tertullian, “The blood of the martyrs is the seed of the Church.” The Priest also rejects a world without God-that is, in terms of Eliots play, a purely temporal world, with only temporal “peace” and temporal “order”-as “the hell of make-believe” in which the condemned “justify [their] action to [them]selves” (p. 85)-hearkening back to the temptation offered to and resisted by Becket, to act as though the end justifies the means. In its final speech, the Chorus offers praises to God, a new “Te Deum” to complement the traditional one that Eliots stage directions indicate should be playing in the background: a hymn of praise that declares all things proclaim God in simply, but truly, living. “They affirm Thee in living; all things affirm Thee in living” (p. 86)-even if they would consciously deny God. But this life must be true living, transcendent living in the manner of Becket, not the half-life of “living and partly living” from which his death offers deliverance. It must be a complete embrace of Gods turning wheel, of the divine pattern of destiny; it must be marked, as Becket was, with total devotion to manifesting the eternal and the spiritual in the transitory, mundane and “sordid particulars” of the temporal: “The back bent under toil, the knee bent under sin, the hands to the face under fear, the head bent under grief.” (p. 87). Eliot returns to the symbolic motif of the passage of the seasons, the same motif with which the play began, to underscore the change that has taken place. The passing seasons are no longer simply a time of waiting, a perpetual Advent: far from it, “Even in us the voices of seasons, the snuffle of winter, the song of spring, the drone of summer. praise Thee” (p. 87).
The play does not, however, end on an entirely transcendent note. The Chorus confesses, just before the curtain falls, that they are but “common men. who shut the door and sit by the fire; / Who fear the blessing of God.” (p. 87). Thus Eliots drama closes with a somber reminder that the temporal world resists the infusion of the spiritual, and humanity often rejects the “Saints” sent to it who would blaze a trail of transcendence. For transcendence, as the Chorus well knows, requires “loneliness. surrender. deprivation” (pp. 87-88). Thus they, and we, are all complicit in the deaths of martyrs like Becket, for we “fear the injustice of men less than the justice of God” (p. 88). The play concludes, appropriately, with the Kyrie Eleison-“Lord, have mercy upon us. / Christ, have mercy upon us. / Lord, have mercy upon us”-and with a plea for Beckets intercession on our behalf to God.