Wednesday, January 06, 2016

T.S. Eliot & the world-weary Magi

Here it is the feast day of Epiphany and here I am, a little out of step --- neither angry nor despairing. Hopeful, in fact. But bemused by the anxious annual banishing of Christmas light and the speedy laying aside of  "...and on earth peace, good will toward men (and women)."

Here's a poem for Epiphany, an acclaimed work of T.S. Eliot (1888-1965), born in St. Louis of all places, but a whole-hearted convert to British, and from his native Unitarianism to Anglo-Catholicism; the latter conversion resulting in explicit Christian themes in some of his poetry.

"Journey of the Magi" dates from 1927 and the rare audio recording, from a BBC broadcast during the World War II era. Gloomy? A little, but frank, too, about the bitter-sweet passage from old to new.

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 kiking 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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