Sunday, September 26, 2010

T. S. Eliot: Sept. 26, 1888--Jan. 4, 1965

I realize that it's a bit early for T. S. Eliot's "The Journey of the Magi," but the Magi were probably on their journey by the time September rolled around. This is, of course, a slightly different version of the arduous journey undertaken by the Magi. Normally we don't see them until Christmas Eve when they appear in their glorious robes and crowns, presenting gifts to the Christ child. Eliot's poem, on the contrary, is a narrative by one of them, and frankly, he sounds much like any traveler who's had the misfortune of traveling too long in strange lands, especially if it isn't on a guided tour.

In the first part, we hear complaints that have been made by many travelers: miserable weather, poor or inadequate transportation, unfriendly local inhabitants, and exorbitant prices. All this made them homesick and wishing they had never left.

The Journey of the Magi

'A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a 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 in our ears, saying
That this was all folly.

In the second part, as they draw close to their destination, they see signs but don't realize the significance of them, for only those who came after would recognize them. The three trees on the hill suggest the three crosses of the Crucifixion set against a darkening sky at Calvary. The while horse was an early symbol for the second coming of Christ at the end of all days for, according to the Book of Revelation, Christ will appear riding a white horse.
At the inn, they find some people dicing for pieces of silver, an echo, perhaps, not only of the price Judas received for his betrayal, but also of the soldiers dicing for Christ's robe at the foot of the Cross.

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 may say) satisfactory.

The narrator now sums it all up by saying he would do it again, but what they gained from it was not what they expected. They were present at the "Birth," but it was a strange birth for it also meant death for their religious traditions, for their old ways. They returned but they had changed for they were "
no longer at ease here, in the old dispensation,/ With an alien people clutching their gods." In truth, he felt that he "should be glad of another death."

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 last few lines reminds me of another poem, one by Oscar Wilde:

Santa Decca

The Gods are dead: no longer do we bring
To grey-eyed Pallas crowns of olive-leaves!
Demeter's child no more hath tithe of sheaves,
And in the noon the careless shepherds sing,

For Pan is dead, and all the wantoning

By secret glade and devious haunt is o'er:
Young Hylas seeks the water-springs no more;
Great Pan is dead, and Mary's son is King.
And yet--perchance in this sea-tranced isle,
Chewing the bitter fruit of memory,
Some God lies hidden in the asphodel.
Ah Love! if such there be, then it were well
For us to fly his anger; nay, but see
The leaves are stirring: let us watch awhile.

I don't think Eliot would agree with Wilde's last six lines. I suspect that he would say the victory of Mary's son was complete . . . but then again, Eliot is a poet.

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