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Today is the sixth of January, Epiphany, recognised by Christians as the day of the manifestation of Jesus to the Gentiles. It is based on the visit of the Magi (or Wise Men or Three Kings) to the baby Jesus as told in the gospel of Matthew. The gospel describes how the Magi (never specified as three in the gospel, but remembered as such in popular tradition) discovered the child and presented him with gifts of gold, frankincense and myrrh.
T.S.Eliot in this poem seeks to record in dramatic monolgue the significance of the visit.
Journey of the Magi "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 dakness, And three trees on the low sky. 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: we were 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.
At first for Christian readers there might be disappointment. There is no joy, no giving of gifts, the language seems muted, detached and intellectual. Words like “Information”, phrases such as the exasperatingly coldly objective “it was (you may say) satisfactory”, “there was a Birth, certainly, We had evidence and no doubt”. This is a voice similar to that of the modern academic, coolly, objectively assessing evidence -as if to sound personal and emotionally involved is a violation of intellectual credentials. It is, whether today or yesterday, when reacting to the wonderful, a profoundly exasperating and limitedly cerebral voice.
What is Eliot doing, transmitting the “information” through such a voice? Partly because, as a possible lecturer at Harvard in Philosophy, it was a voice natural to him.But more is revealed in the final lines of the poem. For something of the mystery and wonder of this birth has got through the intellectual layers of defence. In this Birth they, the Magi, somehow faced their deaths. Hence it was agony. It meant that on returning home they could not abide “at ease here, in the old dispensation.” Consciousness, understanding has moved on, that is their insight as witnesses, but they live among a people who do not know this, who have becometherefore “alien” worshippers of old gods exposed now to the Magi as no longer credible.
They are left unable to communicate with their people with only death to look forward to.
When Eliot became a Christian around the time he wrote the poem many of his friends of the literary world were shocked. T. S. Eliot, the avant-garde poet of the The Wasteland become a Christian! The TLS (Times Literary Supplement) saw it as “betrayal” And this was the reaction of his friend Virgia Woolf (1882-1941). Writing to her sister Vanessa she expresses herself thus:
“ I had a most shameful and distressing interview with poor dear Tom Eliot , who may be called dead to us all from this day forward. .. He has become an Anglo-Catholic, believes in God and immortality and goes to church. I was really shocked. A corpse would seem to be more credible than he is. I mean there’s something obscene in having a person sitting by the fire and believing in God.”
By the literary world, the world of Bloomsbury it is Eliot seen as clutching the old God against the insights of post-Darwinian intellectuality and the belief in reason as understood by his society. But the Eliot who wrote “Journey of the Magi” following his conversion saw it was the contemporary world of the literati in its hold of the Nietzschean belief “God is Dead” that was without adequate roots in religious understanding. When Woolf committed suicide in 1941 the grieving Eliot wrote “it was the end of a world.”
So the poem reflects the difference and separation his new found faith has created between the fashionable dispensation and his role as the great poet of the age. Fortunately, unlike the Magi, he has not simply death to look forward to. He is to go on to write his great work “The Four Quartets” and numerous invaluable works of critical reflection.
As for us? It is for each of us- certainly within the Christian tradition- to reflect on what the contemplation of the Nativity does not only for our faith but for our place in the modern world.