T.S. Eliot’s “The Journey of the Magi”

I like to think that T.S. Eliot knew something about me, about the ways in which my encounters with God, and faith, have often left me dissatisfied and restless.  Of course he died before I was born, but I think he understood my kind of believer.  It’s all right there in “The Journey of the Magi,” after all.  A belief that’s uncertain, questing, and having to put up with all the discomforts of the journey.  And then, at the end of the journey, encounters something unexpected, and feels both amazed and confused.  A belief that returns home and can’t find comfort in the old life anymore, but doesn’t really have a sense of what the new life truly is.  I think, on this cold winter’s day, that I am one of the magi, and that I’m not alone in that.

The magi in his poem spend a lot of time describing the journey itself.  They’re wise, they see how the things they observe – hands dicing, “three trees on the low sky” – are symbolic, how they predict something mysterious and meaningful, in the future.  Human beings are meaning-makers, and I sometimes think that the main job of the church is to help people make meaning.  But lately the symbols point to some future meaning, to something that I don’t think has happened yet, and all I can do is nod and say, “yes, that is symbolic,” without being able to say what the symbol is for.

And then, when they finally get to Bethlehem, their response to the babe in the manger is strangely cold – “it was (you might say) satisfactory.”  Eliot seems to think that they really weren’t expecting it, and the very strangeness of it made it hard for them to be all that joyful.  In his poem, the Nativity is a weird, disjointed thing.  All it’s usual meanings, the cosy sense given to it by children’s plays and Christmas carols, haven’t been assigned yet.  What they see is a baby laying on a cow’s dinner plate.

But still, it changes everything for them.  They return home but find themselves foreigners in their own countries, and they’re “no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/with an alien people clutching their gods.”  But what has changed for them?  What does it mean, that scene in Bethlehem?

I feel like we’re living in the age of the magi, when the old dispensations seem alien and strange, but the new dispensation – whatever will happen next to the church and to humanity – hasn’t fully been established yet.  To make meaning of it is impossible, because there aren’t enough words on the page, not enough lines in the play, not enough lyrics in the song.  All we have is a half sung tune that we know is important, perhaps the most important thing of all.  But we can’t understand it’s importance until it’s all the way sung.  And in the meantime, we have discomfort and confusion.  “This birth was/Hard and bitter agony for us, like Death, our death.”

Here’s the full poem:

The Journey Of The Magi
by T.S. 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 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 arriving 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.

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