Friday, 6 January 2012

Christmas Poems (23): The Journey Of The Magi by TS Eliot

The Adoration by the Magi ... an Ethiopian artist’s impression (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Patrick Comerford

The Christmas season comes to an end today with our celebration of the Feast of the Epiphany. Traditionally, the Epiphany celebrates three events in the life of Christ: the Adoration of the Christ Child by the Magi; the Baptism of Christ by John in the River Jordan; and the Wedding Feast of Cana.

For my final Christmas Poem this morning [6 January 2012], I have chosen TS Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi.’

This poem was written after Eliot’s conversion to Christianity and his confirmation in the Church of England in 1927, and was published in Ariel Poems in 1930. This poem is truly a sermon in poem, and one year in the chapel of the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, when term began earlier, instead of preaching a sermon on this day, I read this poem instead.

Eliot wrote ‘The Journey of the Magi’ after his conversion to Christianity and his confirmation as an Anglican on 29 June 1927, and it was published in 1930 in Ariel Poems. Later, Eliot became a churchwarden at Saint Stephen’s in Gloucester Road, London, and he remained a lifelong Anglo-Catholic.

The Adoration of the Magi, by Peter Paul Rubens ... the Altarpiece in the Chapel of King’s College, Cambridge

The poem recalls ‘Dover Beach’ by Matthew Arnold (1822-1888), with the rhythm of journey and also Arnold’s recollection of how

Sophocles long ago
Heard it on the Ægæan, and it brought
Into his mind the turbid ebb and flow
Of human misery; we
Find also in the sound a thought,
Hearing it by this distant northern sea.


Or where Arnold writes:

Ah, love, let us be true
To one another! for the world, which seems
To lie before us like a land of dreams,
So various, so beautiful, so new,
Hath really neither joy, nor love, nor light,
Nor certitude, nor peace, nor help for pain;
And we are here as on a darkling plain
Swept with confused alarms of struggle and flight,
Where ignorant armies clash by night.


The poem also shows some influences of the earlier ‘The Magi’ by WB Yeats. But, unlike Yeats, Eliot’s ‘The Journey of the Magi’ is a truly Anglican poem, for the first five lines are based on the 1622 ‘Nativity Sermon’ of Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), Bishop of Winchester, who first summarised Anglicanism in the dictum “One canon reduced to writing by God himself, two testaments, three creeds, four general councils, five centuries and the series of Fathers in that period … determine the boundary of our faith.”

The tomb of Lancelot Andrewes in Southwark Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford)

Eliot’s poem recalls the journey of Magi to Bethlehem from the point of view of one of the Wise Men. In this way, the poem continues Eliot’s use of the dramatic monologue – a form adapted from Robert Browning. In this poem, Eliot chooses an elderly speaker who is world weary, reflective and sad – he works in a similar way in ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock,’ ‘Gerontion,’ and with the Tiresias narrator of ‘The Waste Land,’ and possibly also with the narrator of ‘The Hollow Men.’

In this poem, Eliot’s narrator is a witness to momentous historical change who seeks to rise above that historical moment, a man who, despite material wealth and prestige, has lost his spiritual bearings. The speaker is agitated, his revelations are accidental and born out of his emotional distress, and he speaks to the reader directly.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of the journey, the wise man recalls a journey that was painful and tedious. He remembers how a tempting, distracting voice was constantly whispering in their ears on that journey that “this was all folly.”

The poem picks up Eliot’s persistent theme of alienation and a feeling of powerlessness in a world that has changed.

Instead of celebrating the wonders of his journey, the surviving Magi complains about a journey that was painful, tedious, and seemingly pointless. The speaker says that a voice was always whispering in their ears as they went that “this was all folly.” The magus may have been unimpressed by the new-born infant, but he realises that the incarnation changes everything, and he asks:

... were we led all that way for
Birth or Death?


The birth of the Christ was the death of the old religions. Now in his in old age, he realises that with this birth his world had died, and he has little left to do but to wait for his own death.



On their journey, the Magi see “three trees against a low sky” – a vision of the future Crucifixion on Calvary. The Incarnation points to the Cross. Without Good Friday and Easter Day, Christmas has no significance for us at all. The birth of Christ leads to the death of old superstitions and old orders.

The “running stream” may refer to the Baptism of Christ by John the Baptist in the River Jordan, which is also an Epiphany moment.

The “six hands at an open door dicing for pieces of silver” recall both the betrayal of Christ by Judas for 30 pieces of silver, and the dice thrown for Christ’s garment at the foot of the cross.

The empty wineskins recall the miracle at the Wedding in Cana, which is also recalled at Epiphany time.

The early morning descent into a “temperate valley” evokes three significant Christian events: the nativity and the dawning of a new era; the empty tomb of Easter; and the Second Coming and the return of Christ from the East, dispelling darkness as the Sun of Righteousness.

In his old age, as he recalls these events, has the now-elderly Wise Man little left to do apart from waiting for his own death?

He is a witness of historical change, does he manage to rise above his historical moment?

With his material wealth and prestige, has he lost his spiritual bearings?

Or has he had spiritual insights before his time?

The Adoration of the Magi ... a window by Meyers of Munich in the south transept of Saint George’s Church, Balbriggan (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Journey of the Magi, by TS Eliot

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 when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.
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.

The Adoration of the Magi ... a stained glass window in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2010)

We are celebrating Epiphany at the Sung Eucharist in Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin, at 6 p.m. this evening.

The Lectionary readings for the Eucharist today are: Isaiah 60: 1-6; Psalm 72: 1-7, 10-15; Ephesians 3: 1-12; Matthew 2: 1-12.

Canon Patrick Comerford is Lecturer in Anglicanism and Liturgy, the Church of Ireland Theological Institute, and a canon of Christ Church Cathedral, Dublin

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