On Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

On Eliot’s Journey of the Magi

T. S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi, a poem of 43 lines, was one of a collection of poems with Christmas subjects “suitably decorated in colours and dressed in the gayest wrappers,” published by Faber and Faber to celebrate the season.  However, if one bothers to read the poem there is nothing gay or celebratory about it. It reflects the dark musings of a pagan king who has seen the Christ child, knows that his birth will upend the world, but is hardly thrilled at the prospect.  Perhaps the magus would be better off dead.  First, the poem, and then a few comments on it. 

Journey of the Magi (1927)

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.

Commentary

Begun in winter, the journey the pagan king is called upon hardly makes sense.  The voices he hears sing not of the glory of the newborn king, but of the foolishness of his expedition.  The magus does not recognize the symbols.  To imagine that he does would be to read the poem in the light of two millennia of Christianity.  It’s more interesting if we don’t.  

In the second stanza, the magus descends into a warm and lush valley, filled with things like trees and horses.  Until that is, we flesh out the symbols.  They valley is a new Eden; the three trees stand for the three crosses on Calvary.  The white horse carries the King of Kings (Revelation 6:2-4).  You can work out the Christian symbolism of the vine leaves over the lintel (John 15:5), the three men playing dice (Matthew 27:35-37), and the empty wine-skins (Mark 2:22).

But the magus knows none of this.  He knows only that he has seen something at once “satisfactory,” nothing special, yet destined—he recognizes—to change the world forever.  He has seen birth and death.  And here you can read the poem two ways.  The birth of Christ means the death of the old way of life of the magus.  The world he will return to is finished, even if it doesn’t know it yet.  The magus is already alienated from his people, whom he now recognizes as pagan idol worshipers.  Perhaps it is time for him to die.

Or, you can read the birth and death that the magus experiences as saying that with the birth of Christ comes death, for he was born to die on the cross.  Occasionally Christ’s death is called the satisfaction of sin (Anslem).  The magus’ dry comment, “it was . . . satisfactory,” would then have a double meaning.  The incarnation forever twinned with the crucifixion, satisfaction (redemption) for man’s sins.

     Another way to think about the poem

Eliot says that he wrote the poem in a couple of hours after church with the help of half a bottle of gin.  He also says that the poem asks the question “How fully was the Truth revealed to those who were inspired to recognize Our Lord so soon after the Nativity.” (Watkins)  But this seems more like a confession of faith than an account of the poem.  Eliot was baptized in the Anglican church in the same year he wrote the poem.  His friends did not always admire his choice.  He was “dead to us all from this day forward,” said Virginia Woolf.

Perhaps, but there is another way of looking at the poem.  That it is thoroughly pre-Christian, almost as though it were the material from which Matthew worked to write his account of the Nativity (1:18-2:23), much like the hypothesized Q-source, now lost, that seems to provide the material for Matthew and Luke that is absent in Mark.  In Matthew’s Gospel much is gained, not just symbolism but a story to go with it (Harris, p 851).  But not without loss, above all the sense that a world has been abolished, but with no hint that the world that takes its place will be an improvement.  That’s what the poem says if we read it through pre-Christian eyes.  That’s almost impossible, but not quite.   

People have made of The Journey of the Magi what they will.  It’s still recited in church at Christmas services.  But while the incarnation that it evokes is real, there’s little hint of salvation, unless one reads the term “satisfactory” in a more imaginative way than Eliot likely intended.  That would be the interpretation of the pious, not the poet.

Conclusion

Harris (p 852) thinks it good that Eliot’s focus on the incarnation turns away from the “lurid brutality” of the cross, to which Eliot was perversely attracted.   I know no way of evaluating Harris’ statement, except as an aesthetic preference.  What is clear is that Eliot wrote a poem capturing the strangeness of what has become a routine recitation.  That’s enough.

References

Anselm, Cur Deus Homo: Why God Became Man.  Create Space, 2016 [original 1095-1100].

Daniel Harris, “Language, History, and Text in Eliot’s `Journey of the Magi.’”  PMLA, October 1980 (volume 95, number 6), 838-856. 

Jack Watkins, www.countrylife.co.uk/comment-opinion/in-focus-t-s-eliots-journey-of-the-magi-the-masterpiece-that-was-dashed-off-in-45-minutes-236664

4 thoughts on “On Eliot’s Journey of the Magi”

  1. When I was 16 I studied this. If I hadn’t done some modern poetry I would never have thought of writing poetry. The musicality of it is what I like but it’s interesting to see your analysis

  2. A long-time favourite of mine, with such vivid sensual imagery
    “Wet, below the snow line, smelling of vegetation;
    With a running stream and a water-mill beating the darkness,”
    Birth and Death cannot be separated – Eliot wrote much later “that which is only living can only die”

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