Journey of the Magi

Consider this poem, Journey of the Magi, by T.S. Eliot:

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.’
And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and grumbling
And running away, and wanting their liquor and women,
And the night-fires going out, and the lack of shelters,
And the cities hostile and the towns unfriendly
And the villages dirty and charging high prices:
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all night,
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley,
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped away in the meadow.
Then we came to a tavern with vine-leaves over the lintel,
Six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver,
And feet kicking the empty wine-skins.
But there was no information, and so we continued
And arrived at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
And I would do it again, but set down
This set down
This: were we led all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen birth and death,
But had thought they were different: this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.
We returned to our places, these Kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.

Go here to listen to a recording of Eliot himself reading his poem: Journey of the Magi by T. S. Eliot – Poetry Archive.  (And notice what happened to his St. Louis accent after going off to England!)

Now, class:  What is the meaning of these images in the second stanza: the three trees on the low sky; the vine leaves on the lintel; the hands dicing for pieces of silver; the empty wine-skins?

What is the meaning of this statement in the third stanza:  “I had seen birth and death,/But had thought they were different”?

About Gene Veith

Professor of Literature at Patrick Henry College, the Director of the Cranach Institute at Concordia Theological Seminary, a columnist for World Magazine and TableTalk, and the author of 18 books on different facets of Christianity & Culture.

  • SKPeterson

    I’ll give it a shot.

    3 trees – both the Trinity and the three crosses of Calvary (the dark and low sky at the Crucifixion).

    vine leaves – hearkens back to Passover and blood of the lamb on the lintel – the vine is now the wine of the Eucharist, the blood of the Lamb, who spares us from the curse of death (or Death).

    hands dicing for silver – the gambling over Jesus’s garments and Judas’s selling out for silver pieces. A further stretch: the hands are those of most of humanity who believe in the false promise, the uncertainty of Chance (and monetary economic materialism) and not on the true promise of the Birth (incarnational materialism) and eternal certainty (Resurrection).

    Empty wine-skins – evokes the parable of the new and old wine-skins. The poem does not say whether they are old or new, but their being kicked by feet suggests to me that the empty skins are humanity, perhaps the Church, who are to be filled with the wine (Word) of the Lord (back to the vines), but are kicked and trodden on by the World, often cast aside and mistreated.

    Thank you for not asking about the white horse. Perhaps Death fleeing the Birth? The conquering of Death by the death of Jesus. Also evokes the “pale” horse of Revelation, but I’m not sure if that fits, here.

    As to the line “I had seen birth and death,/But had thought they were different,” I can think of several interrelated concepts. Mostly the implicit consequences of the Resurrection. We have birth and death contrasted with Birth and Death. Humanity is subject now to death, from the moment of our birth at the very least. We are sinful and under the condemnation of the Law. Each man’s birth leads inevitably towards his death; one is born, lives for a time, then dies. Jesus’s Birth had the telos of initiating his death (or Death), such that by his death, Death might die. Now, even while we are still sinners, we have been saved; his Death has defeated the consequences of our sin, which is our death. So, that now birth leads to death leads to life eternal because of the Death of Christ, which is the defeat of death, through the Resurrection.

  • SKPeterson

    I’ll give it a shot.

    3 trees – both the Trinity and the three crosses of Calvary (the dark and low sky at the Crucifixion).

    vine leaves – hearkens back to Passover and blood of the lamb on the lintel – the vine is now the wine of the Eucharist, the blood of the Lamb, who spares us from the curse of death (or Death).

    hands dicing for silver – the gambling over Jesus’s garments and Judas’s selling out for silver pieces. A further stretch: the hands are those of most of humanity who believe in the false promise, the uncertainty of Chance (and monetary economic materialism) and not on the true promise of the Birth (incarnational materialism) and eternal certainty (Resurrection).

    Empty wine-skins – evokes the parable of the new and old wine-skins. The poem does not say whether they are old or new, but their being kicked by feet suggests to me that the empty skins are humanity, perhaps the Church, who are to be filled with the wine (Word) of the Lord (back to the vines), but are kicked and trodden on by the World, often cast aside and mistreated.

    Thank you for not asking about the white horse. Perhaps Death fleeing the Birth? The conquering of Death by the death of Jesus. Also evokes the “pale” horse of Revelation, but I’m not sure if that fits, here.

    As to the line “I had seen birth and death,/But had thought they were different,” I can think of several interrelated concepts. Mostly the implicit consequences of the Resurrection. We have birth and death contrasted with Birth and Death. Humanity is subject now to death, from the moment of our birth at the very least. We are sinful and under the condemnation of the Law. Each man’s birth leads inevitably towards his death; one is born, lives for a time, then dies. Jesus’s Birth had the telos of initiating his death (or Death), such that by his death, Death might die. Now, even while we are still sinners, we have been saved; his Death has defeated the consequences of our sin, which is our death. So, that now birth leads to death leads to life eternal because of the Death of Christ, which is the defeat of death, through the Resurrection.

  • Pete

    End of discussion. Tough to improve on SKPeterson @1!

  • Pete

    End of discussion. Tough to improve on SKPeterson @1!

  • Caleb

    Well, I was going to say pretty much everything that SKPeterson said…

  • Caleb

    Well, I was going to say pretty much everything that SKPeterson said…

  • Caleb

    Albeit not so quickly or eloquently.

  • Caleb

    Albeit not so quickly or eloquently.

  • http://simonpotamos.wordpress.com Tapani Simojoki

    Don’t forget baptism: “I should be glad of another death.” Mine, that is.

  • http://simonpotamos.wordpress.com Tapani Simojoki

    Don’t forget baptism: “I should be glad of another death.” Mine, that is.

  • Tom Hering

    Poetry is putting into words what words can’t express. Which seems like a nonsensical description on the face of it. But great poetry is full of paradox and mystery. Journey of the Magi certainly is. Which is just to say it’s a mistake to try and make too much sense of its biblical images. It’s not a piece of dogmatics. It works on a different level.

    On the other hand, it’s fun to bounce the mind off of a poem. :-)

  • Tom Hering

    Poetry is putting into words what words can’t express. Which seems like a nonsensical description on the face of it. But great poetry is full of paradox and mystery. Journey of the Magi certainly is. Which is just to say it’s a mistake to try and make too much sense of its biblical images. It’s not a piece of dogmatics. It works on a different level.

    On the other hand, it’s fun to bounce the mind off of a poem. :-)

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I have always held poetry at a distance, as I first and last claimed to have any understanding of it in high school, with an English major sitting at the front of the room, and grading me on it. So it is with trepidation that I undertake this comment, especially after SK’s had a go at it (@1).

    The second stanza is confusing to me. The first impression one gets is the contrast from the first stanza. Leaving the harsh, snowy world, dirty and hostile, they come to a lush, peaceful place. It would seem as if they’d finally come to something better (if not quite as nice as the terraces and palaces they’d left behind).

    But as the details get filled in, things get odd. “Three trees on the low sky”, while seemingly fitting with the rest of the valley’s pleasant vegetation, point to something else. They seem lonely, and far off. I have to admit, I, too, first thought of the three trees on Calvary, as well. A portent, and perhaps something disquieting in this peaceful place they had found.

    And the white horse? Is it the same one that Jesus is to ride back upon his victorious return, after hanging on the tree at Calvary? But for now, it is riderless. Where is the rider? He is not here.

    The tavern puzzles me most. It sounds much nicer than the places described in the first stanza, but perhaps all is not perfect here, either. After all, to whom do the “six hands” belong? Perhaps the (traditionally) three Magi. And what does “dicing for pieces of silver” bring to mind but the events of Christ’s death, when soldiers rolled dice for his clothes and Jesu was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver? Yet, are we to understand that the Magi were complicit in these heinous acts — if not literally, then perhaps as fellow sinners? To be sure, wine has been poured out, but with empty wine-skins, it seems to me that it has been in revelry. Fun was had (in the daytime, no less!), but in the end, “there was no information” — in this place was not the fulfillment of their journey, or their beings. So they moved on.

    And then they come to the Christ-child. And, it would seem Eliot is telling us, the Magi came to faith. After all, they returned to their lands “no longer at ease”, calling their compatriots “an alien people clutching their [note: not "our"] gods”. And perhaps this is best explained by the Birth and Death they experienced, which were “different” from the birth and death they had known before. Because, with the coming of Christ, looking forward already to the Tree on Calvary, these men found their Old Man had died, and a New Man born inside them — the same New Man they now beheld in the flesh.

    I did my best not to look at any “official” explanations of what this poem means, preferring to say what I felt as I read it, so forgive me if I got it totally “wrong”.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I have always held poetry at a distance, as I first and last claimed to have any understanding of it in high school, with an English major sitting at the front of the room, and grading me on it. So it is with trepidation that I undertake this comment, especially after SK’s had a go at it (@1).

    The second stanza is confusing to me. The first impression one gets is the contrast from the first stanza. Leaving the harsh, snowy world, dirty and hostile, they come to a lush, peaceful place. It would seem as if they’d finally come to something better (if not quite as nice as the terraces and palaces they’d left behind).

    But as the details get filled in, things get odd. “Three trees on the low sky”, while seemingly fitting with the rest of the valley’s pleasant vegetation, point to something else. They seem lonely, and far off. I have to admit, I, too, first thought of the three trees on Calvary, as well. A portent, and perhaps something disquieting in this peaceful place they had found.

    And the white horse? Is it the same one that Jesus is to ride back upon his victorious return, after hanging on the tree at Calvary? But for now, it is riderless. Where is the rider? He is not here.

    The tavern puzzles me most. It sounds much nicer than the places described in the first stanza, but perhaps all is not perfect here, either. After all, to whom do the “six hands” belong? Perhaps the (traditionally) three Magi. And what does “dicing for pieces of silver” bring to mind but the events of Christ’s death, when soldiers rolled dice for his clothes and Jesu was betrayed for thirty pieces of silver? Yet, are we to understand that the Magi were complicit in these heinous acts — if not literally, then perhaps as fellow sinners? To be sure, wine has been poured out, but with empty wine-skins, it seems to me that it has been in revelry. Fun was had (in the daytime, no less!), but in the end, “there was no information” — in this place was not the fulfillment of their journey, or their beings. So they moved on.

    And then they come to the Christ-child. And, it would seem Eliot is telling us, the Magi came to faith. After all, they returned to their lands “no longer at ease”, calling their compatriots “an alien people clutching their [note: not "our"] gods”. And perhaps this is best explained by the Birth and Death they experienced, which were “different” from the birth and death they had known before. Because, with the coming of Christ, looking forward already to the Tree on Calvary, these men found their Old Man had died, and a New Man born inside them — the same New Man they now beheld in the flesh.

    I did my best not to look at any “official” explanations of what this poem means, preferring to say what I felt as I read it, so forgive me if I got it totally “wrong”.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m definitely putting a lot of emphasis on the “three trees on the low sky” in my reading, but I also wanted to note that that line comes pretty much at the center of the poem, at the crux, if you will. That adds to my reading of it.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    I’m definitely putting a lot of emphasis on the “three trees on the low sky” in my reading, but I also wanted to note that that line comes pretty much at the center of the poem, at the crux, if you will. That adds to my reading of it.

  • SKPeterson

    I’m still left wondering about the horse. You may have hit at it tODD, but I also note that the horse is not just “white”, but also “old”. There’s something there, but I’m at a loss as to what IT is. I also haven’t read any professional literary commentary on this poem, or on Eliot’s use of imagery, so I’m going by what the words evoke to me. The visual images presented are clear, but they are also simultaneously disturbing, yet oddly comforting. Dr. Veith – time to chime in please.

  • SKPeterson

    I’m still left wondering about the horse. You may have hit at it tODD, but I also note that the horse is not just “white”, but also “old”. There’s something there, but I’m at a loss as to what IT is. I also haven’t read any professional literary commentary on this poem, or on Eliot’s use of imagery, so I’m going by what the words evoke to me. The visual images presented are clear, but they are also simultaneously disturbing, yet oddly comforting. Dr. Veith – time to chime in please.

  • SKPeterson

    One other thing, and you hint at this as well tODD in your noticing the placement of the cross in the 2nd stanza, the structure of the first stanza is different from the others. Also, three stanzas – a subtle reference to the Trinity, or just a convenient structural pattern?

  • SKPeterson

    One other thing, and you hint at this as well tODD in your noticing the placement of the cross in the 2nd stanza, the structure of the first stanza is different from the others. Also, three stanzas – a subtle reference to the Trinity, or just a convenient structural pattern?

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    The white horse is something of a mystery in Eliot scholarship, but I think most scholars think it refers to death. The pale horse and the pale rider. Isn’t that one of the horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation? Here it’s the horse without the rider. And death is definitely old. That would go with the other pointers to the Christ child’s death in the stanza. But also to His return.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    The white horse is something of a mystery in Eliot scholarship, but I think most scholars think it refers to death. The pale horse and the pale rider. Isn’t that one of the horsemen of the apocalypse in Revelation? Here it’s the horse without the rider. And death is definitely old. That would go with the other pointers to the Christ child’s death in the stanza. But also to His return.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Okay, Dr. Veith, but will you answer your other questions, as well? Or are you just waiting for all the replies to come in? You have a mildly maddening tendency not to answer your own riddles (cf. “white on white on white”).

    And what does it mean (@11) that “the white horse is something of a mystery in Eliot scholarship”? Is this a constant, but ill-understood, symbol across Eliot’s work? Or is there just disagreement about its meaning in this one poem?

    And, pardon my ignorance about literary scholarship in general, but how does that work? Did Eliot himself explain the meaning of his poems? Point out what the various symbols mean? Or did he just leave people guessing, perhaps intentionally refusing to speak to his intent, and it’s just that scholars have coalesced around certain ideas as the correct one (or ones)?

    If I were to dig my heels in on my reading, I would point out that “pale” is not “white” (because nobody likes strict enforcement on word choice and meaning like a poet ;) ), and further suggest that the white horse was “old” because his time for serving as the mount of the triumphant Christ was soon to come, even during Christ’s earthly life. So there. :p

    I also don’t see the pale horse from Revelation as particularly associated with Christ, per se.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Okay, Dr. Veith, but will you answer your other questions, as well? Or are you just waiting for all the replies to come in? You have a mildly maddening tendency not to answer your own riddles (cf. “white on white on white”).

    And what does it mean (@11) that “the white horse is something of a mystery in Eliot scholarship”? Is this a constant, but ill-understood, symbol across Eliot’s work? Or is there just disagreement about its meaning in this one poem?

    And, pardon my ignorance about literary scholarship in general, but how does that work? Did Eliot himself explain the meaning of his poems? Point out what the various symbols mean? Or did he just leave people guessing, perhaps intentionally refusing to speak to his intent, and it’s just that scholars have coalesced around certain ideas as the correct one (or ones)?

    If I were to dig my heels in on my reading, I would point out that “pale” is not “white” (because nobody likes strict enforcement on word choice and meaning like a poet ;) ), and further suggest that the white horse was “old” because his time for serving as the mount of the triumphant Christ was soon to come, even during Christ’s earthly life. So there. :p

    I also don’t see the pale horse from Revelation as particularly associated with Christ, per se.

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Death dismounted by the Crucifixion of Christ? The horse that represents death, being riderless, as he is old, because death his rider has died?

  • http://www.utah-lutheran.blogspot.com Bror Erickson

    Death dismounted by the Crucifixion of Christ? The horse that represents death, being riderless, as he is old, because death his rider has died?

  • Tom Hering

    “And, pardon my ignorance about literary scholarship in general, but how does that work? Did Eliot himself explain the meaning of his poems? Point out what the various symbols mean? Or did he just leave people guessing, perhaps intentionally refusing to speak to his intent, and it’s just that scholars have coalesced around certain ideas as the correct one (or ones)?” – tODD @ 12.

    I’d say analysis is what scholars and teachers do, and what they teach their students to do. (It keeps everybody busy – even employed. ;-) ) But it’s definitely not what poets do.

    “The poet is in the end probably more afraid of the dogmatist who wants to extract the message from the poem and throw the poem away than he is of the sentimentalist who says, “Oh, just let me enjoy the poem.’” – Robert Penn Warren

    “Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out … Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.” – A.E. Housman

    “You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick … You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words.” – Dylan Thomas

    “A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer … He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.” – E.B. White

    “A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself.” – E.M. Forster

    “A poem should not mean
    But be.”
    - Archibald MacLeish

  • Tom Hering

    “And, pardon my ignorance about literary scholarship in general, but how does that work? Did Eliot himself explain the meaning of his poems? Point out what the various symbols mean? Or did he just leave people guessing, perhaps intentionally refusing to speak to his intent, and it’s just that scholars have coalesced around certain ideas as the correct one (or ones)?” – tODD @ 12.

    I’d say analysis is what scholars and teachers do, and what they teach their students to do. (It keeps everybody busy – even employed. ;-) ) But it’s definitely not what poets do.

    “The poet is in the end probably more afraid of the dogmatist who wants to extract the message from the poem and throw the poem away than he is of the sentimentalist who says, “Oh, just let me enjoy the poem.’” – Robert Penn Warren

    “Even when poetry has a meaning, as it usually has, it may be inadvisable to draw it out … Perfect understanding will sometimes almost extinguish pleasure.” – A.E. Housman

    “You can tear a poem apart to see what makes it tick … You’re back with the mystery of having been moved by words.” – Dylan Thomas

    “A poet dares be just so clear and no clearer … He unzips the veil from beauty, but does not remove it. A poet utterly clear is a trifle glaring.” – E.B. White

    “A poem is true if it hangs together. Information points to something else. A poem points to nothing but itself.” – E.M. Forster

    “A poem should not mean
    But be.”
    - Archibald MacLeish

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Good grief, tODD. You need to take one of my lit classes. Poetry works with images, which may be descriptive or symbolic or both. Eliot in particular was a pioneer of the style of poetry known as imagism. Yes, Eliot actually wrote some footnotes to his own poem, the Wasteland. Often, the images and symbols are drawn from other works of literature, something else Eliot did a lot with. Here we have lots of Biblical allusions. Aren’t you familiar with the Biblical images of the wineskins, the vine, the lintel (note how Eliot, who had a high view of the sacraments ties wine to blood to the Passover to the Christ child), three trees (the crosses on Golgatha)? Now some references are not so clear, such as the white horse, so interpreters differ and offer different interpretations. But the whole poem does not resist interpretation.

    And Tom Hering, yes, poetry deals with evocations and subtle epiphanies and the like, and, yes, lots of poets don’t want to get pinned down. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to understand what a poem means, or that it somehow damages the poem if you understand it. Poetry is art made out of language. And language has referents and meaning. To say those of us who study literature are harming literature is ridiculous. You have to understand the words on some level; otherwise, the poem could not work, since it would be like reading a foreign language you didn’t understand or reading gibberish. You couldn’t get any evocations or subtlety or anything out of it.

    The white or pale horse is not associated with Christ, per se. It’s death. In Revelation it’s part of the horrible judgment on the world. But Christ died, took that judgment, and is coming back to resurrect all of the dead. There won’t be anybody to ride that horse.

  • http://www.geneveith.com Gene Veith

    Good grief, tODD. You need to take one of my lit classes. Poetry works with images, which may be descriptive or symbolic or both. Eliot in particular was a pioneer of the style of poetry known as imagism. Yes, Eliot actually wrote some footnotes to his own poem, the Wasteland. Often, the images and symbols are drawn from other works of literature, something else Eliot did a lot with. Here we have lots of Biblical allusions. Aren’t you familiar with the Biblical images of the wineskins, the vine, the lintel (note how Eliot, who had a high view of the sacraments ties wine to blood to the Passover to the Christ child), three trees (the crosses on Golgatha)? Now some references are not so clear, such as the white horse, so interpreters differ and offer different interpretations. But the whole poem does not resist interpretation.

    And Tom Hering, yes, poetry deals with evocations and subtle epiphanies and the like, and, yes, lots of poets don’t want to get pinned down. But that doesn’t mean it’s impossible to understand what a poem means, or that it somehow damages the poem if you understand it. Poetry is art made out of language. And language has referents and meaning. To say those of us who study literature are harming literature is ridiculous. You have to understand the words on some level; otherwise, the poem could not work, since it would be like reading a foreign language you didn’t understand or reading gibberish. You couldn’t get any evocations or subtlety or anything out of it.

    The white or pale horse is not associated with Christ, per se. It’s death. In Revelation it’s part of the horrible judgment on the world. But Christ died, took that judgment, and is coming back to resurrect all of the dead. There won’t be anybody to ride that horse.

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    wonderful stuff. dr veith you are persuading this very literal minded accountant to try to read more poetry!

  • http://www.thirduse.com fws

    wonderful stuff. dr veith you are persuading this very literal minded accountant to try to read more poetry!

  • Tom Hering

    Dr. Veith, thanks for your response. My position isn’t that studying literature harms literature (it doesn’t), but that over-analyzing poetry, specifically, is an approach that sends the reader in a direction that’s the opposite of where the poet wants the reader to go, i.e., in a direction that engages rational thought alone, rather than a direction that engages rational thought and intuition and the emotions and – above all else – the ear, i.e., hearing the rhythms of word-music. This is what too much of a focus on meaning misses: the sheer, non-utilitarian delight of poetry.

  • Tom Hering

    Dr. Veith, thanks for your response. My position isn’t that studying literature harms literature (it doesn’t), but that over-analyzing poetry, specifically, is an approach that sends the reader in a direction that’s the opposite of where the poet wants the reader to go, i.e., in a direction that engages rational thought alone, rather than a direction that engages rational thought and intuition and the emotions and – above all else – the ear, i.e., hearing the rhythms of word-music. This is what too much of a focus on meaning misses: the sheer, non-utilitarian delight of poetry.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dr. Veith said (@15), “Good grief, tODD.” You just like that phrase, don’t you? It’s not the first (or second) time you’ve used it. Perhaps you just enjoy giving me a comeuppance in a field that is your specialty and which I have admitted is not my strong suit. Perhaps as revenge for all those past posts where you discussed scientific topics. If so, I’d like to remind you that it was WebMonk who typically gave you your comeuppance on those posts. I merely agreed with him. ;)

    “You need to take one of my lit classes.” Yes, well. I was hoping that you wouldn’t mind doing some teaching right here. Ahem. You did refer to us as “class”, did you not? Anyhow, I treasure the debate this blog engenders as much as you do, but you do have a habit of asking us questions that imply you have an answer in mind, without telling us what your answer is (cf. “Connect these dots”), or whether someone hit on it in the discussion. We do like to know your opinions, as well, you know. It’s why some of us read the blog, at least. Have I pointed out already that you still haven’t answered your own questions? Nor enlightened us poetic philistines as to whether other commenters have correctly hit upon the Academy-approved readings? Ahem.

    As to Eliot, it seemed to me that you knew more about him than I did, or than I could discover via a hasty Internet search — especially with regard to this poem — so I appealed to that knowledge to learn more. Some artists explain their work or themselves (outside of their works, that is) more than others, so I wasn’t sure to what degree Eliot had commented on his own poems.

    And yes, I am familiar with the Biblical images you (and SK) note. But when I find allusions in a work, I always have to ask if they were intentionally put there by the author, or if I’m merely reading my own ideas into a work by an author with different ideas. (Which is why the Internet is full of pages of Christian youth asking if thus-and-so secular song “is Christian”.) Your reply suggests that, to understand a work, you must already know something about its author and what he believed. But I don’t know much about Eliot.

    Anyhow, I’m still confused by the second stanza, the hands, the feet kicking wine-skins, and the fact that “there was no information” among all those allusions.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Dr. Veith said (@15), “Good grief, tODD.” You just like that phrase, don’t you? It’s not the first (or second) time you’ve used it. Perhaps you just enjoy giving me a comeuppance in a field that is your specialty and which I have admitted is not my strong suit. Perhaps as revenge for all those past posts where you discussed scientific topics. If so, I’d like to remind you that it was WebMonk who typically gave you your comeuppance on those posts. I merely agreed with him. ;)

    “You need to take one of my lit classes.” Yes, well. I was hoping that you wouldn’t mind doing some teaching right here. Ahem. You did refer to us as “class”, did you not? Anyhow, I treasure the debate this blog engenders as much as you do, but you do have a habit of asking us questions that imply you have an answer in mind, without telling us what your answer is (cf. “Connect these dots”), or whether someone hit on it in the discussion. We do like to know your opinions, as well, you know. It’s why some of us read the blog, at least. Have I pointed out already that you still haven’t answered your own questions? Nor enlightened us poetic philistines as to whether other commenters have correctly hit upon the Academy-approved readings? Ahem.

    As to Eliot, it seemed to me that you knew more about him than I did, or than I could discover via a hasty Internet search — especially with regard to this poem — so I appealed to that knowledge to learn more. Some artists explain their work or themselves (outside of their works, that is) more than others, so I wasn’t sure to what degree Eliot had commented on his own poems.

    And yes, I am familiar with the Biblical images you (and SK) note. But when I find allusions in a work, I always have to ask if they were intentionally put there by the author, or if I’m merely reading my own ideas into a work by an author with different ideas. (Which is why the Internet is full of pages of Christian youth asking if thus-and-so secular song “is Christian”.) Your reply suggests that, to understand a work, you must already know something about its author and what he believed. But I don’t know much about Eliot.

    Anyhow, I’m still confused by the second stanza, the hands, the feet kicking wine-skins, and the fact that “there was no information” among all those allusions.

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Tom (@17) said, “over-analyzing poetry, specifically, is an approach that sends the reader in a direction that’s the opposite of where the poet wants the reader to go.”

    Two thoughts. First, doesn’t this statement presume on the motives of every poet? I mean, in the world of visual media, some creators write lengthy artist’s statements. Others don’t, and title every work of theirs Untitled. Some people want you to know what they’re thinking, and what they’re saying — all of it. Other artists believe it doesn’t matter what they were thinking when they made it, it’s what you get from it that matters, at least to you. I have to imagine there’s a similar breadth of intent when it comes to poetry, no?

    Second, your statement hinges significantly on the word “over-analyzing” — a label that can no doubt be applied to this very reply. When does one cross over from insightful analysis to ham-fisted over-analysis? Wikipedia alone has orders of magnitude more to say about a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens than did William Carlos Williams — analysis, or over-?

  • http://www.toddstadler.com/ tODD

    Tom (@17) said, “over-analyzing poetry, specifically, is an approach that sends the reader in a direction that’s the opposite of where the poet wants the reader to go.”

    Two thoughts. First, doesn’t this statement presume on the motives of every poet? I mean, in the world of visual media, some creators write lengthy artist’s statements. Others don’t, and title every work of theirs Untitled. Some people want you to know what they’re thinking, and what they’re saying — all of it. Other artists believe it doesn’t matter what they were thinking when they made it, it’s what you get from it that matters, at least to you. I have to imagine there’s a similar breadth of intent when it comes to poetry, no?

    Second, your statement hinges significantly on the word “over-analyzing” — a label that can no doubt be applied to this very reply. When does one cross over from insightful analysis to ham-fisted over-analysis? Wikipedia alone has orders of magnitude more to say about a red wheelbarrow glazed with rainwater beside the white chickens than did William Carlos Williams — analysis, or over-?

  • Tom Hering

    Are you saying I’m over-stating the case against over-analysis and should just get over it? Well, yes, I did go too far. But I’d still say that among those poets who produce poems in which meaning isn’t clear, meaning – or, at least, a single meaning – isn’t what they’re concerned with. Otherwise, they’d just be riddle makers and not poets, or, they’d simply be incapable of communicating clearly. (Obviously, neither is the case with Eliot.) So … what are they concerned with?

  • Tom Hering

    Are you saying I’m over-stating the case against over-analysis and should just get over it? Well, yes, I did go too far. But I’d still say that among those poets who produce poems in which meaning isn’t clear, meaning – or, at least, a single meaning – isn’t what they’re concerned with. Otherwise, they’d just be riddle makers and not poets, or, they’d simply be incapable of communicating clearly. (Obviously, neither is the case with Eliot.) So … what are they concerned with?


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