Poem for Epiphany

T.S.Eliot

Here is a treat for you: a recording from the BBC of T.S.Eliot reading his poem, The Journey of the Magi. 

This was one of the first of Eliot’s poems I encountered, and I have loved it since. I especially like the way he uses various imagery from the gospels to load the poem with a mysterious level of meaning–pointing us to a contemplation of the deeper meanings–meanings that have yet to be revealed.

“Feet kicking empty wineskins”, “Six hands dicing for pieces of silver”, “three trees on a low sky” then my favorite image, “an old white horse galloped away in the meadow”

Readers would often try to assign allegorical meanings to these symbols, but they missed Eliot’s technique. He was always looking for what he called the “objective correlative”. This was an image, a sign, an object in the world which carried not an explicit and precise meaning or symbolic correlation with anything, but it served as a door that opened onto a shared emotional experience.

The “old white horse galloped away in the meadow” does not represent the Old Testament dispensation or the former lives of the three kings or the departure of purity or youthful power. Instead it is meant to evoke an emotional response in the reader which is beyond words. In other words, how do you feel when you hear those words? I feel strangely nostalgic and thrilled. I feel a poignancy and longing at the words. This is how Eliot’s poetry is supposed to work, and those who keep trying to find specific symbolic or allegorical meanings are missing the point.

What interests me (and I feel a longer article brewing) is how Eliot’s use of evocative imagery that connects to the Biblical imagery is similar to the way Tolkien uses imagery in Lord of the Rings. The characters speak and act in a world that constantly echoes the world of the Church and the Scriptures, and yet never descends to the one on one correlation of allegory or to the specific allusion of a reference or quote.

Anyway, read the poem and listen to Eliot’s wonderful sonorous voice as he reads it with great, understated and powerful feeling.

About Fr. Dwight Longenecker

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