'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the journey, and such a long journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'...
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...
Then at dawn we came down to a temperate valley...
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...
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
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.
- T.S. Eliot (1888-1965)
The Christmas season does not come to a close until twelve days after the birthday itself. January 6th is called Epiphany, a Holy Day that commemorates the astronomers arrival with their adoration, costly gifts and to complete the Christmas lesson as one magus remembers that ` cold, long, deep, sharp and wintry coming.' Eliot observes the event with an erudite treatment of modern sterility in a three part revelation. On one surface is a chronicle of the search for faith, a conversion, and a transformation. On another it is staged monologue with a spherical trajectory, opening in winter at Christmas' time and concluding at the Epiphany. But there is a pause during the passage, which occurs in spring where Magi glimpse the crucified Christ.
Guide us with thy perfect light
Magi is the Greek word used in ancient times to identify Babylonian astrologers. The opening stanza tells of the perils of the voyage from the unique perspective of one of the Magnus. He is also a Gentile, and notably one of the first seekers find the holy child are those outside of the covenant. 1 In the full text Eliot's poem his Wise Man remarks, "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 towns unfriendly and the villages dirty and charging high prices. A hard time we had of it."
Both obtuse and dazzlingly memorable it transmits an awakening from the disintegration of Edwardian respectability to the birth of modernism. Written just five years after The Waste Land Eliot bases the verse on the Biblical story about the three wise men who show up after the birth of Jesus. 2 In his critical essays Eliot found great value in contemporary poets emerging with a strong rapport with what their forerunners had written. That is to say, he attempted new structures in poetry and produced a singular universe in literature. It was when he was about to be received into the Church of England he was also deeply engrossed in17th century theology and at the time working on a book by the Anglican preacher Lancelot Andrewes. In addition he had recently completed an English translation of St. John Perse's poem Anabase.
Eliot makes liberal use of both of these sources as well as many others in his 1927 composition. The present participles and the paratactic syntax, presenting one thing after another in a simple narrative had already been borrowed from Ezra Pound. He borrows the desert setting from the French poem and sets the magi on the scene with words from a sermon by Andrewes. A distinguished figure of the Anglican Church in Shakespeare's time many compared his homilies to that of the Roman Catholic metaphysical poet John Donne. Both combined powerful knowledge with an effectively persuasive prose that impacted their audiences with direct simplicity. Here is the passage Eliot used from Andrewes sermon. About the journey of the Three Wise Men before the Nativity, it was preached before King James during Christmas in 1622:
First, the distance of the place they came from. It was not hard by as the shepherds--but a step to Bethlehem over the fields; this was riding many a hundred miles, and cost them many a day's journey . . . This was nothing pleasant, for through deserts, all the way waste and desolate. Nor secondly, easy either; for over the rocks and crags of both Arabias, especially Petraea, their journey lay. Yet if safe--but it was not, but exceeding dangerous, as lying through the midst of the "black tents of Kedar" (Cant 1:5), a nation of thieves and cut-throats; to pass over the hills of robbers, infamous then, and infamous to this day. No passing without great troop or convoy. Last we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey in. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio brumali, "the very dead of winter."
Curiously the sermon places judgment on the listeners, perhaps even on King James himself because the main point of Andrewes' sermon is `we have seen and we have come' and then he adds, "To Christ we cannot travel, but weather and way and all must be fair. If not, no journey. But when we do it, we must be allowed leisure. Ever veniemus, never venimus. Ever 'coming', but never come."
The thrill of hope
The next segment of the poetic journey represents enlightenment and conversion. Its optimistic natural imagery of a lush valley and the trees, the old white horse running from the pasture, the vine-leaves over the door of the tavern--speak of "hope and freedom and fruitfulness" It is a pause in the second to last stage of the trail that conveys a short sense of reprieve while evoking a number of significant Christian events. As they enter the temperate valley the Magi unwittingly bring the shadow of the Cross to the stable below the star. The three trees low on the horizon signify Calvary and Jesus' death on the cross. The galloping white horse, here as in the book of Revelation, embodies Christ's victory over death. A tavern as a place of communion with the True Vine of John over the lintel is a reminder of the blood of the Passover lamb marked by the Hebrews on the doorposts of their homes in Egypt. 3 4 The Magnus notes the men dicing for silver as the soldiers cast lots for Jesus' clothes in the shadow of the cross. 5
One critic contends that the word "satisfactory" shows that "every condition of prophecy was met, leaving the alienated magus . . . stranded, suspended between the realization and the consummation of God's plan." Still another offers a different approach. In his essay Revelation in T. S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi.' author R. D. Brown writes, "the obvious meaning (of the word "satisfactory") is 'expiatory,' payment for a debt or sin" Others find 'satisfactory' more ambiguous and "emphasized by rhythm and position, which for (the readers), though not the magus, evokes the Thirty Nine Articles, expiation, and the Atonement."
Sacramental actions like receiving the Eucharist or going to confession are composed of three levels: the basic need for the sacrament; the sacred sign in the sacrament itself and the force of the sacrament in life. For each step there is a much wider range of urgency. In The Sacrament of Penance in T.S. Eliot's 'Journey of the Magi,' A. James Wohlpart makes a comparison of the three part structure of the poem and a regrouping of the steps of the Sacrament of Penance. He uses it to highlight the idea of a continuing spiritual journey. Wohlpart wraps up with: "Instead of beginning with contrition and ending with satisfaction, an order which might connote fulfillment of the sacrament and an end to the process of perfection, Eliot opened with contrition in stanza one, moved on to satisfaction in stanza two, and then concluded with confession in stanza three, suggesting that the soul, in its journey towards Christ and heavenly perfection, akin to the journey of the Magi, can never rest in the certainty of perfection but must be continually engaged in the process of becoming perfect"
Eliot's enigmatic line, "but set down, This set down" quotes again from Lancelot Andrewes Nativity Sermon, "set down this; that to find where He is, we must learn to ask where He is, which we full little set ourselves to do." Andrewes was imploring his congregation to do what the wise men did, to seek-- because if one sits still, like Herod, one will never find Christ.
Whatever happened to the Wise Men?
T.S. Eliot examines that very question in the closing stanza in bleak and barren language. With only a guess as to what might have happened to the Magi it is no sweet Christmas musing and the words are deep with poignancy that give pause. Many years have passed and an aging Magi remembers how it was for him after the departure from Bethlehem. "Birth or Death? he asks, "I had seen birth and death, but had thought they were different." He had knelt before the Christ child leaving him rich gifts. Only to arrive back in Babylonia to discover that this birth had shaken him from his comfortable ways. The knowledge of divinity in the reality of a helpless infant born to peasants; this changed everything. Nothing could ever be quite the same and rather than finding the end of the journey, he realizes that the voyage continues from the joys of birth to the terror of death and despair of the crucifixion to come. The unclear nature of conversion of acceptance and of resignation to a destiny placed the Magnus in a new relationship with God. The world has gone gray, nothing is black and white; even the glory of the birth of Christ has come with a price. One that is almost impossibly hard and painful.
Most scholars suggest that this elegy replicates Eliot's mood in the shift between his old and new beliefs. Adding that perhaps Journey of the Magi is a post conversion story echoed in the phrase `ill-at-ease in the 'old dispensation' and like Gerontion, the poet cannot break loose from the past. In his T. S. Eliot: A Study in Character and Style Ronald Bush sees Eliot's Journey of the Magi as a revision of "the period in Eliot's life that followed his official conversion, when his old ways of thinking and feeling seemed irrevocably alien and his new life as a Christian existed more in intention than fact." Eliot presents the intensity to which his journey impacted his life by adapting his own struggles with conversion to that of his imaginative Magi on the first journey to Christ. He foresees the coming turbulence of his conversion and dreads with a sudden realization that there is now another dimension to life. The writers view of the world becomes an inexact place and as one critic says the imagery of the verse portrays a "type of conversion: a gradual and bitter death to oneself and a growth into Christ" as he wades through it towards Christmas, or faith, and all that awaits him is a hard and bitter agony--the death of the old self. This then is the reality encountered by Eliot's Magnus, the real journey that has only just begun and an epiphany that often the deepest beauty exists in the face of terrible ugliness.
Contemporaries such as Ezra Pound and Ernest Hemmingway mocked Eliot's conversion to Christianity, saying he had "gone over to the ignorant." Perhaps the poem reflects Eliot's personal epiphany. `The way was deep and the weather sharp' he penned as his first marriage unraveled. The verse moved from being an academic application into having an emotional reality of its own. Eliot permanently converted to the Anglican Christian faith in his late thirties and from this time on his work would reflect his religious beliefs. Within six years Eliot and his wife were separated and he remarried some twenty years later.
For a complete reading of the poem please visit The Wondering Minstrels