“The Journey of the Magi”

“The Journey of the Magi” December 26, 2019


Thomas Stearns Eliot photo
T. S. Eliot (ca. 1934)
Wikimedia Commons public domain photograph


I’ve said that I’m done with Christmas for the next eleven months or so.  And I mean it.  But here’s a poem — “The Journey of the Magi,” by T. S. Eliot — that has always puzzled and intrigued me.  I first encountered T. S. Eliot in high school and was smitten with him, probably to a considerable extent because I couldn’t understand what he was talking about but suspected that it was Very Deep.  Among Eliot’s poetical works and on the surface, this particular piece is, on the surface, far less inscrutable than, say, “The Wasteland” or Four Quartets.  But it’s still challenging.


I can justify posting it now — don’t worry, I won’t try this trick very often — because Epiphany, the traditional feast of the Three Kings, falls on 6 January:


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, sorefooted, 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 arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might 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.


Posted from Richmond, Virginia



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