Journey of the Magi

*

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, sorefooted, 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.

*

T.S. Eliot, Collected Poems, 1909-1962 (Harcourt Brace Jovanovich, 1991).

*

Here is a brief summary of ‘Journey of the Magi’; The speaker, one of the Magi, talks about the difficulties encountered by the Magi during the course of their journey to see the infant Christ. It is unconventional to focus on the details of the journey: their longing for home (and for the ‘silken girls’ bringing the sweet drink known as ‘sherbet’), their doubts about the point of the journey they’re undertaking, the unfriendly people in the villages where they stop over for the night, and so on. Eventually, the Magi arrive at the place where the infant Christ is to be found. The poem ends with the poem’s speaker reflecting on the journey years later, saying that if he had the chance he would do it again, but he would add that we remains unsure about the precise significance of the journey and what they found when they arrived. Was it the birth of a new world (Christianity) or the death of an old one (i.e. the Magi’s own world)? The speaker then reveals that, since he returned home following his visit to see the infant Christ, he and his peers have felt uneasy living among his people, who now seem to be ‘an alien people clutching their gods’ (in contrast to the worshippers of the newly arrived Jesus, who worship one god only, in the form of the Messiah). The speaker ends by telling us that he is resigned to die now, glad of ‘another death’ (his own) to complement the death of his cultural and religious beliefs, which have been destroyed by his witnessing the baby Jesus.

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