Tuesday, January 10, 2012

The Journey of the Magi - T. S. Eliot

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The 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, 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
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, 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 this way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I had seen Birth and
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.

T. S. Eliot (1927)

Commentary ...

Recounts the journey of the Magi (3 wise men) to the birth of Christ to pay homage (Re: - Matthew 2 v1-12).

One of a series of lyric poems called ‘The Ariel’ poems published as Christmas poems over a five year period from 1927.

The first five lines are taken from a sermon by Lancelot Andrews – Bishop of Winchester (1555 – 1626).

The poem is a dramatic monologue spoken by one of the wise men outlying the difficulty of the journey.

Three lines of regret balanced by ten lines on the difficulties with camels, the drivers the conditions and the environment. But they continue their ‘quest’ against their better judgement … and travel in darkness (spiritual darkness).

Then a new birth in the journey an awakening … at dawn … winter disappearing with the snow and vegetation … you could say a crossing through a symbolic waste land to something more.

The journey is from death to life in both a physical and spiritual sense … from the death of the old life ... of palaces and silken girls bringing sherbet ... to the start of a new life. This is symbolised by perhaps the most important line of the poem …
‘An old white horse galloped away in the meadow’. (Re: white horse - see Revelations 6: 2 and 19: 11).

Time is represented by the running stream, the water-mill beating the unknown future which is glimpsed unknowingly by this wise man in the foreshadowing of the crucifixion …the three trees (Golgotha), the dicing for silver … and symbolically the vine leaves become empty wine casks to be kicked around.

… then the arrival at precisely the ‘appointed time’ to a ‘satisfactory’ place.

In the last section the wise man reflects back and contemplates the meaning of this event … a Birth and a Death … with more prominence given to the Death than the traditional joy of Birth … the death of the old order … and note the clever change in the wise men returning to their places not their palaces … but the old order still persists though it is now alien and conquered. The narrator glad when the old order has gone ... when times can be changed for the better …now a stranger in the community … and in the traditional religious sense glad to see the death of ‘sin’ and a transformation beyond a personal transformation ... (however long this might take of course.)

Footnote …

T. S. Eliot became an Anglican in 1927 … this poem is a symbol of his spiritual journey from doubt to spiritual faith. It is the drama through his waste land to a life of a new awakening and represents TSE’s own internal spiritual development. His religious development expands later in another important work – The Four Quartets (1943).

Galled – abnormal vegetable growth on a plant – appropriate description for a camel … probably carrying a large load too
Refractory – stubborn, unmanageable
Sherbet - a powdered confection eaten dry or used to make effervescent drinks.

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