Thursday, 5 January 2012

Christmas Poems (22): The Magi by WB Yeats

The Magi on top of a confession box in Saint Patrick’s Roman Catholic Church, Skerries, waiting to join the crib scene at Epiphany (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

Patrick Comerford

The Christmas season comes to a close tomorrow with the Feast of the Epiphany. And so, for my Christmas poem this morning I have chosen ‘The Magi’ by WB Yeats.

William Butler Yeats (1865-1939) is one of the foremost figures of 20th century literature and was a driving force behind the Irish Literary Revival as well as a co-founder of the Abbey Theatre. He received the Nobel Prize for Literature in 1923 for “inspired poetry, which in a highly artistic form gives expression to the spirit of a whole nation.”

Yeats was the grandson and great-grandson of Church of Ireland rectors, and was named after his grandfather, the Revd William Butler Yeats (1806-1862), who died in Sandymount Castle, Dublin, a month before Christmas in 1862.

Yeats was born in 1865 at ‘Georgeville,’ 5 Sandymount Avenue, and was baptised in Saint Mary’s Church, Donnybrook. His brother Jack was a celebrated painter, while his artist sisters Elizabeth and Susan Mary – Lollie and Lily – were part of the Arts and Crafts Movement, and are buried in Saint Nahi’s Churchyard in Dundrum, Co Dublin.

The house at 10 Ashfield Terrace (now 418 Harold’s Cross Road), where WB Yeats lived during some of his schooldays (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2012)

Yeats was educated first in England and then at the High School in Harcourt Street, Dublin. But he spent much of his childhood in Co Sligo, which he regarded as his spiritual home. From an early age was fascinated by both Irish legends and the occult – topics that feature in the first phase of his work, although his poetry later became more physical and realistic.

In later life, Yeats largely renounced the transcendental beliefs of his youth, and in Senate debates in the 1920s he defended the place and teachings of the Church of Ireland, the Church of his birth.

He died in France in 1939 at the Hôtel Idéal Séjour, in Menton, and was buried in Roquebrune-Cap-Martin. In 1948, his body was returned to Ireland and he was buried in the Church of Ireland churchyard in Drumcliffe, Co Sligo. His epitaph comes from the last lines of ‘Under Ben Bulben,’ one of his final poems:

Cast a cold Eye
On Life, on Death.
Horseman, pass by!


No 5 Woburn Walk ... the Bloomsbury home of WB Yeats from 1895 to 1919 (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The ‘unsatisfied ones’

Yeats wrote the short poem ‘The Magi’ in 1914 while he was living in Bloomsbury, London. In this eight-line poem, Yeats follows the journey of the Magi or the “unsatisfied ones” and their unrequited search for meaning in the “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.” The religious imagery in ‘The Magi’ helps to convey the themes of desire and dissatisfaction.

Although ‘The Magi’ is a short poem, its meaning is amplified by its rich diction and syntax. The magi seem almost otherworldly as they “appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky” and are constantly in the poet’s head (“Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye”).

His use of repetition reinforces his imagery of the Magi, who are described twice as “unsatisfied” twice (lines 2 and 7). He uses a series of “S”-sounding words such as: stones, stiff, still fixed, helms of silver hovering side by side, and unsatisfied. These are the characteristics of the magi, who are unchanging with “stiff, painted clothes.” In religious art, the wise men are usually shown wearing fine, rich, royal clothing.

The Magi are weary and “pale” with “ancient faces” that resemble “rain-beaten stones” and are forever waiting, “all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more” the events that will satisfy their quest for meaning.

Yeats repeats the word “all” when he describes the Magi, alluding, perhaps, to humanity as a whole: “With all their ancient faces” … “all their helms of silver” … “all their eyes still fixed.” And, perhaps, he uses the wise men, the “unsatisfied ones,” to allude to his belief that humanity has yet to discover meaning and fulfilment in Christ’s time on earth.

Christ’s first coming has left us even more dissatisfied and more fervent in our search for meaning. We cannot be fulfilled until “the uncontrollable mystery” arrives, or the second coming of Christ, when the world is brought to the fulfilment of God’s promises for creation.

Yeats has the Magi not only witness the birth of Christ, but also see his death on Calvary. Yet, despite witnessing these events, they are left unfulfilled, “being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied.” As the wise men in ‘The Magi’ are waiting with their “eyes still fixed,” upon the bright star, they are not going to be satisfied until they are led again to the “uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.”

The bestial or beastly floor is the stable in Bethlehem in the Christmas story. Or, perhaps, it is our world today. It is not the place we would expect as the birthplace of a king. The grubbiness of that stable birthplace – whether it is the stable floor or our earthly dwelling – leads to the cruelty of the crucifixion and of our world, remembered down through the centuries.

Yeats uses the plight of the magi to point out the plight in humanity. They still hopeful of find answers, hope to find the Christ Child as the answer to their quest. Is birth more fulfilling than death? Is Yeats waiting for the promise of a new birth, for himself, for Ireland, for the world? Is there a hint of apocalyptic hope, or doom?

We are all seekers, searching for the answer to this mystery, this contradiction between our hopes for divine, loving deliverance and our knowledge of the cruelties of the world and the stark reality of the human predicament. We too are Magi still searching, and the mystery continues. It may be beyond our comprehension, but our acceptance of it is the beginning of faith.

I think it is interesting to compare this poem by Yeats with TS Eliot’s ‘Journey of the Magi.’ But apart from the very different mood at the ending of each poem, the poetic imaginings are different from each other.

Yeats’s Magi are archetypal, mythic and elite figures, “the pale unsatisfied ones” still searching for the meaning of “The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor” ... which some interpreters say foreshadows Christ’s Second Coming. They are “unsatisfied” with the Death on Calvary and yearn back to the scene of Birth, whereas Eliot’s Magus has found the sought-for Birth “satisfactory.”

Yeats’s Magi seem acutely aware that something mysterious and uncontrolled and new has taken place. Yet they keep returning – at least in thought and imagination – to try to comprehend what may be incomprehensible. How is it they remain, “by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,” and so have to return to the mystery of the birth? On the other hand, Eliot’s Magi are more like ordinary people, complaining of the rigours of the journey, and yet pushing on to reach their goal, the preliminary goal of the “temperate valley,” full of symbols, but yielding no information. They still push onwards, arriving

... at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory.


But then there are those final lines, the end of their old ways and old privileges:

this Birth was
Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.


And yet one writes:

I would do it again but...

Yeats’s Magi hope to find the mystery underlying the coming turbulence. But Eliot’s Magi foresee the coming turbulence, and while dreading it want what the promises it holds out.

The Adoration of the Magi, depicted in the 19th century Oberammergau altarpiece in the Lady Chapel in Lichfield Cathedral (Photograph: Patrick Comerford, 2011)

The Magi, by WB Yeats

Now as at all times I can see in the mind’s eye,
In their stiff, painted clothes, the pale unsatisfied ones
Appear and disappear in the blue depth of the sky
With all their ancient faces like rain-beaten stones,
And all their helms of silver hovering side by side,
And all their eyes still fixed, hoping to find once more,
Being by Calvary’s turbulence unsatisfied,
The uncontrollable mystery on the bestial floor.

Tomorrow: TS Eliot, ‘Journey Of The Magi’

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