In this post I’ll share some thoughts on one of my favorite poems, T.S. Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi.” Today is Mr. Eliot’s birthday, and here’s the poem’s text:
“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 might 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 three stanzas logically divide the poem: The first discusses the long, difficult journey up to its last day; the second the journey’s climax on that day and discovery of the Christ Child; and the third the denouement, with the narrator back home and turning the lesson of the journey over in his mind.
The quoted passage in the first five lines of the poem is taken from a sermon on the Nativity preached at Whitehall on Christmas Day in 1622 by the English bishop and scholar Lancelot Andrewes, which can be read here. The poem’s phrase “set down this” appears in the sermon, too, by the way — and I’ll note , as a matter of sound not substance, that the poem’s words, “set down / This set down / This” can be read out loud two ways, namely as (prosaically) “Set down this. Set down this,” or as (more in line with the line-breaks) “Set down. This set down. This.”
The line, “The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,” evokes the Hanging Gardens of Babylon, does it not? The “silken” girls must be Eastern; the “camel men” are clearly unsaved, with their cursing and drinking and whoring. The line, “A hard time we had of it,” refers back to the poem’s first line, and the last two lines of the stanza pose the hard question that the last two lines of the second stanza will answer, in the poem’s climax.
All of the New Testament words and imagery are closely packed into lines 3-7 of the second stanza: “three trees” (i.e., the three crosses at Golgotha) and “white horse” (ridden by Christ on Revelation 19:11) and “tavern” (cf. no room at the inn) and “vine-leaves” (many mentions of vines and vineyards) and “six hands” (the Trinity — a bit of a stretch) and “open door” (knock and it shall be opened) and “dicing” (the soldiers gambled for Christ’s robe) and “pieces of silver” (Judas’s payment) and “wine-skins” (new wine in old wineskins); one might add line 2 of that stanza, with “running stream” (the Jordan, perhaps; in all events, plenty of references to water/baptism, and note especially “living water” in John 4:10) and “water-mill” (Matthew 24:41, another stretch).
I think we are to understand that the second stanza all takes place in one day: Its first line is “at dawn” and the penultimate line is “at evening.” The imagery in the first three lines of the second stanza tell us we are no longer in a desert or mountains, but in a “temperate valley” that is “wet” and “below the snow line” and “smelling of vegetation.”
The narrator describes the ultimate discovery of the Christ child in a startlingly laconic way: “[I]t was (you may say) satisfactory.” I think that the parentheses communicate that this is a deliberate and ironic understatement, as the third stanza will show.
That Christ’s birth was as advertised is shown in the third stanza in several ways: (a) despite the hardships of the journey, “I would do it again”; (b) the word “birth” is capitalized in both instances where (and only where) the Nativity is referenced; and (c) the narrator confirms, “We had evidence and no doubt” of that capital-B “Birth.”
But, most importantly, implicit in the third stanza is that the journey has turned the narrator’s world upside down, and this can have happened only if, as he says, what he discovered was “satisfactory.”
Finally, what are we to make of the poem’s last line, “I should be glad of another death”? Is it (just) because of how ill at ease the narrator is now, no longer accepting the “old dispensation” and even viewing his own, idol-worshiping people as “alien”? After all, with his new faith, he can look forward to rejoining the Child in His Kingdom, can he not? (The word “Kingdoms” is, unusually, capitalized near the end of the third stanza.)
There are only three words, I think, that might send you to the dictionary. In the same line are “galled” (which in this context means “chafed”) and “refractory” (which means “stubborn”). In the third to last line, the word “dispensation” means “a system of order, government, or organization.”
You can listen to the poem being read by the author here or by Alec Guinness here or by John Gielgud here. Hearing the latter, by the way, inspired a 14-year-old girl named Valerie Fletcher to conclude that she “had to get to [Eliot], to work with him” (quoted in Lyndall Gordon’s Eliot’s New Life, emphasis in the original) — and 17 years later she would marry him. I wonder if Mr. Eliot ever thanked Mr. Gielgud for that?