After the Journey

“Magi” ~ by G.C. Myers

To set out under compulsion, to travel in ambiguity, to depend on little more than dreams and a star for guidance – such was the fate of the Magi.

Tradition tells us the names of those who sought the infant Jesus – Gaspar, Balthasar, and Melchior.  Tradition also describes the nature of their gifts, filled with symbolism and fit for any King, infant or otherwise – gold, frankincense and myrrh.

Matthew tells their story with perfect simplicity, although his narrative lacks the sort of detail that satisfies human curiosity. In his account, the Magi travel, seek, consult, find, and then, fearful of a king named Herod and his murderous intents, “depart by another way”.  Just as they catch our interest, the Magi are gone, disappearing over history’s horizon forever.

In the absence of fact, imagination thrives. Few have imagined the travels and memories of the Magi more powerfully than T. S. Eliot. In this season of Epiphany (celebrated on January 6), I hope you’ll enjoy a last gift of the season – T.S. Eliot himself, reading his powerful and provocative poem.

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 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 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
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

Many thanks to Gary Myers for allowing use of his painting, “Magi”. You can see more of his work and read his reflections on art and life at his blog, RedTree Times.  Comments always are welcome. To leave a comment or respond, just click below.

74 thoughts on “After the Journey

  1. Oh Linda, thank you for the painting and the poem and the reading. All exceptional.

    I have largely irreligious Christmases these days, yet I was brought up with the biblical stories of the nativity and magi, and there is something still very emotional about the journeying and wonder. My family had a cherished nativity set,and the Baby Jesus in his manger did not appear until after midnight mass on Christmas Eve. The three wise men moved across the floor, a few inches each day, until they arrived at the nativity scene in January 6th. A little bit of pageantry in our old farm house.

    1. Rosemary,

      The journey and the wonder are very much at the heart of the story. Arguments about this detail or that (horses vs. camels, and so on) have their place, especially if the goal is placing the text in historical context. But for most of us, inching those magi across the floor, or across our imagination, is about far more than historical accuracy.

      I’m sure Eliot’s own journey contributed to his ability to capture the earthiness of the magi’s travel, and to invite us to partake, ourselves.
      I’m most fond of Eliot’s “Four Quartets”, but this one has become more compelling over the years.

      Linda

    1. Kayti,

      I’ve been trying to find the right word to describe the tone of Eliot’s descriptions here. Perhaps “reserved” would do, or “understated”. Most of us, having undertaken such a trip, would tend toward a more energetic recitation of our difficulties. Here, the piling up of simple details achieves quite an effect, and makes that wonderful line – “it was (you may say) satisfactory” – just perfect.

      He clearly did his research, too. There were camels in Texas prior to the Civil War (I visited what’s left of the Texas caravansary over Christmas) and from what I’ve read, “galled, sorefooted, refractory” is exactly right.

      Linda

        1. It’s roughly between Kerrville and Bandera on Texas 173, then west on Verde Creek Road. The remains of the caravansary are on private land, but there’s not much left to see thanks to fires and such.
          Still, there are plenty of interesting historical photos of Fort Verde, and the Camp Verde General Store is a going concern. I was there over Christmas and have a camel story planned.

          As for those photos of my folks – I think Mom would have been about 20 and Dad 25. You’re right – hardly more than kids, although they’d been functioning as adults for some years.

  2. Such a wonderful poem. I confess to having appreciated T.S. Garp before T.S. Eliot, so things like this are exciting discoveries for me. No star. No Hallmark scene at the manger; but only a beautiful understatement (“it was (you may say) satisfactory”) and a troubling awareness that all that they and their cultures had taken for granted have now been revealed to be false–an illusion or a lie. Once we’ve understood birth, can we ever again be comfortable in a world of death? The image we often use here is from the film “The Matrix.” Once you know what it is, how can you comfortably live in it?

    Thanks for sharing this. I’m preaching this Sunday (as crazy as that may be) and the text, of course, is on the Baptism of the Lord. As I researched Epiphany I was surprised to learn of the varieties of ways it is celebrated. It is interesting that in the Eastern church Epiphany is the traditional date marking Jesus’ baptism, while in the Latin church it marks the arrival of the Magi. Regardless, on Sunday we in the West will remember that famous baptism, and maybe some of us will wonder whether we ought to no longer be at ease here, in this old dispensation.

    1. Bill,

      We picked up on the same thing, regarding understatement – see my comment to Kayti, above.

      Your thoughts regarding birth and death are intriguing. It also seems to me that Eliot’s suggesting our very notions of birth and death often are confused – I read his last line as richly ironic. It isn’t death alone he’d willingly accept, but death in the service of birth and new life – the new dispensation, if you will.

      As for Epiphany, or Twelfth Night, it’s amazing how many people happily sing along with “The Twelve Days of Christmas” without realizing those twelve days mark the period from Christmas to Epiphany. And of course the King cakes are everywhere now. Many associate them with Mardi Gras and the beginning of Lent, but they’re an important part of Epiphany celebrations. Around these parts they’re known as “Gateau de Roi” and they’re delicious.

      I found this in the article I linked, about the celebration in France:

      “A nice tradition: there should be one more piece than the number of guests. The extra portion, “la part a Dieu” – God’s share – is for the first poor person who knocks at the door. The day of the Kings means sharing as well as receiving. Nobody who asks for food or alms will leave empty-handed that day.”

      Linda

  3. Thank you for that. Gifts are welcome.

    As an amateur astronomer, I have heard many attempts to explain the star that guided the magi. None seems to be definitive. Several are possibles. Here is an interesting article.

    Peace to you now and in the coming year.

    Jim

    1. Jim,

      That’s a good article. Discussions about the guiding star fascinate me, partly because I saw the Star of Bethlehem when I was a kid.

      I wish I could remember the specifics of what I was told. I only remembering hearing that, if I did “this” or “that”, I would see the star on Christmas eve. One year, I saw it. On the nights of the 23rd and 25th it wasn’t there, but on Christmas Eve it was. So. What was it I saw? Who knows? But my memory of that star is as clear as my memory of my sandbox or my best friend’s kittens.

      Of course, I also saw a UFO in 1964, and I’ve seen Old Man Bailey down in Brazoria County, searching for his hootch with a lantern, so there you are. More stories to tell – all of which give me a certain understanding of the Magi, if not of their star.

      Linda

      1. My guess for the Star of B includes years when Venus or Jupiter were well positioned in the sky during the Christmas season. They are the two brightest star-like objects.

        I like the vision of the O M Bailey UFO. :-)

  4. When I took the required humanities course in college, the teacher pointed out the difference in style between a passage in the Hebrew Bible (I think it was from Genesis, but I don’t recall which part) and a passage in the Iliad. The account in Homer was full of descriptive human details, whereas the biblical account had few specifics and mostly conveyed ideas.

    Your post suddenly reminded me of that distinction made half a century ago. Matthew says little about the Magi and doesn’t even give their names (I believe names got added to the story only centuries later). In contrast, T.S. Eliot’s account is chock full of earthly (and mostly uncomfortable) details that give us a very real sense of what travel would have been like back then.

    1. Steve,

      As one of my own professors once said, the point of the Book of Genesis was to communicate who created the universe, and why – not to serve as a point-by-point description of how it happened.
      His perspective was discomfiting to some and illuminating for others, but it certainly stimulated discussion.

      “Story” is the operative word here, I suppose. Both Matthew and Eliot were using their chosen forms to tell their version of a story, and if their facts differ – well, so be it. As my beloved Faulkner so famously said, “Facts and truth really don’t have much to do with each other.”

      There’s another passage from his novel “The Town” that’s less well-known but apropos.

      “The poets are wrong of course. But then poets are almost always wrong about facts. That’s because they are not really interested in facts: only in truth: which is why the truth they speak is so true that even those who hate poets by simple and natural instinct are exalted and terrified by it.”

      Linda

      1. A few minutes after reading your reply I came across the following in Stephen Jay Gould’s Bully for Brontosaurus: “Debate, remember, is an art form dedicated to the winning of arguments. Truth is one possible weapon, rarely the best, in such an enterprise.”

        1. Gould’s book has been a rich source of coincidence, hasn’t it? What you’ve shared has been enough to land it on my to-be-read list. Maybe I can beard some insights in its pages!

    1. Thank you, Terry. When I look at Gary’s painting, I can’t help thinking of some of the photos you’ve showed us of your mountains and trails. No refractory camels in your neck of the woods, but I suspect the relief of getting below the snowline has been just as great for some travelers!

      Linda

  5. I admit I have never paid much attention to this poem, so I just spent an hour reading various scholars’ interpretations of it. The symbolism is way beyond me without help (I could benefit from a course in just this subject!). What makes it even more powerful to me is that Eliot had already converted when he wrote this, but he never loses his own questioning, alienated nature.

    I wonder if Eliot could have known that his poetry would be so dissected (same as with a thousand other poets and authors of course, from ancient to modern), and that this is necessary in order for most modern people to understand the imagery. Fascinating…thanks for the inspiration to explore a new subject.

    1. Find an Outlet,

      It’s slightly startling to realize Eliot died almost a half-century ago, on January 4, 1965. It’s particularly startling because I already was out of high school at the time.

      In his Nobel biography, it says Eliot “followed his belief that poetry should aim at a representation of the complexities of modern civilization in language, and that such representation necessarily leads to difficult poetry.” There are plenty of scholars, let alone general readers, who find some of his symbolism tough to grasp.

      I was introduced to his work through “The Waste Land” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. For years that’s all I knew of his work, and while I admired it, I didn’t find it particularly appealing. Then, I found the “Four Quartets”, and began working my way through, exploring sections here and there that were particularly resonant. There isn’t a Mississippi flood takes place that I don’t think of the opening line of “The Dry Salvages”:

      “I do not know much about gods; but I think that the river
      Is a strong brown god – sullen, untamed and intractable…”

      He may have moved to England and turned himself into a man more British than the British themselves, but his roots lie in St. Louis, along that same Mississippi, and it shows.

      I’m so glad you enjoyed the post. Of all the poets in the world, I have to say he’s my favorite, at least partly because his work is so rich and complex there’s always something new, something relevant, to find.

      Linda

    1. eremophila,

      Everyone from my 3rd grade composition teacher on told me the first sentence was important. I guess they were right!

      Gary’s work is wonderful. Did you notice the correspondence between his painting and the “three trees” in Eliot’s poem? Layer upon layer of meaning, for everyone.

      Linda

  6. Linda, this is yet another lesson I’ve learned here. I didn’t know that old TS E. had written anything remotely bliblical. Very interesting.

    You were a teacher were you not and if so what did you teach. You can decline to answer and I will not be offended. :-)

    1. Yvonne,

      This poem was written in 1927, the same year that Eliot was baptized and embraced the Anglican church. You can read more about the place of the poem in Eliot’s life here.

      I mentioned up above that when I was in school, the only poems of Eliot’s that were presented to us were “The Wasteland” and “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”. They’re fine poems, but they were earlier. “Prufrock” was published in 1917 and “The Wasteland” in 1922. I couldn’t find a date for his “Old Possum’s Book of Practical Cats”, but I’ll bet you’ve enjoyed that one, too.

      I’ve done some teaching in the course of my work, but I wasn’t trained as a teacher. When I was in Liberia, for example, I taught a pastoral care course at an interdenominational seminary and supervised students at the hospital, but that was mostly because I was available and had a degree in medical social work. Transferable skills are a wonderful thing – and in an overseas setting, who-can-do-what is more important than who-has-which-qualifications.

      It amuses me to remember how vehemently I rejected teaching as a career when I began college. I wouldn’t undertake it now, even if I were younger, because of what’s happened to the educational system. But teaching itself is fun – even if I’m only teaching someone how to varnish properly!

      Linda


  7. This is an interesting article
    about what the star of Bethlehem might have been, and points out that due to a monk’s math error Jesus could have been born any time between 7 BC and 1 BC by the current reckoning.

    I’m afraid I find Eliot’s accent problematic. He was born in America and lived here until the age of 25 and yet he speaks with the typical Oxford don British accent, what they call BBC English.

    A magus is a rank in the priesthood of the Zoroastrian religion of Persia. The magi would have been learned astronomers as well as astrologers, as astrology was involved in their religious practices. A segment of the silk road ran through Palestine, so it is entirely possible that not all the wise men were Persian. Matthew does not say how many of them there were, nor give their names.

    The Gospel of Matthew, written around 80-90 AD, is the only gospel that records the visit of the Magi and the events surrounding it: The Massacre of the Innocents and the Flight into Egypt. Based on textual evidence, since the Magi told Herod when the star had first appeared, and Herod subsequently ordered all male children in Bethlehem aged two and younger to be put to death, Jesus could have been two years old at the time of the Magi’s visit.

    Eliot’s poem does point out how physically arduous and dangerous travel was in those days. If they set out when they saw the star, the Magi may have been on the road for as long as two years,

    1. WOL,

      I was a little surprised when I first heard Eliot. I expected a British accent, but I didn’t expect him to sound so much like Hyacinth Bucket.
      I’m sure the changes were intentional to a degree, but on the other hand, when I head up to the midwest now, there are people who ask about my “Texas accent”. I don’t hear it myself, but it must be there.

      The business about birth dates intrigues me. In Liberia, I knew many older people who weren’t sure at all when they were born. Some knew the year, but not the day or date. Some knew only that it was “before” or “after” some important event.

      Beyond that, there was an old saying that you should not name your children until the measles had passed. As a result, there were a lot of kids named Tuesday or Saturday – days of the week being convenient substitute names until the “real” ones were given.

      All of which is to say that the thought of getting exercised over the precise date of someone’s birth seems a little silly to me. For legal and other reasons, it’s important. For faith? Maybe not so much.

      Whatever actually happened, it’s pretty clear from the history underlying the Feast of the Holy Innocents that there was anxiety on Herod’s part when it came to getting rid of the usurper, leading to that two-year window.

      I do love the synoptic gospels. It’s like sitting around the dinner table, recalling the year Aunt Alice got into it with Uncle Pete, left the house and disappeared for two months. Everyone’s got their own version of what happened.

      Linda

  8. Wow. Thanks for posting this one, Linda. I’ve never read this poem. It’s sublimely graphic in its details on the rugged way of travel — travel then or in Eliot’s time? I suspect much the same. I love the story — I don’t really care whether it is grounded in fact or legend. I suspect there is little “fact” left from those words long ago that hadn’t been embellished over and over. Think “the telephone game” through generations. And, as Dan Brown stated so well in “DaVinci Code,” “History is written by the winners.”

    Don’t care. I love the story and Eliot’s words only bring a greater depth of understanding to the times and the feelings and emotions of these mysterious characters. I am so glad you shared this one.

    (Of course, I can never think of the Magi without thinking of John Cleese and the others in “Life of Brian.” The last time I saw it, I noted that the elaborate medalions on Cleese’s Magi costume were actually happy faces!)

    1. jeanie,

      By the time of Eliot’s death in 1965, travel was easier – but not in all parts of the world. Even in the mid-70’s, when I spent some weeks traveling from Liberia to London, there were – complexities. Sharing taxis with chickens. Living in a world with no restrooms. Finding a place to stay. Etc., etc.

      Apart from that, when I read the chronicles of pioneer travel in the 1800s, or consider the experience of immigrants from Europe, or think of what was endured by the those seaching for a better life in the 1700s, it’s clear that a couple of thousand years, give or take, didn’t make that much difference.

      Don’t feel bad about not having read the poem. I had to refresh my memory on John Cleese, and I’ve never seen “Life of Brian”. For that matter, I’ve never seen any more than snippets from the “Flying Circus”. I was overseas when that came out, and just back in the U.S. and otherwise occupied when “Life of Brian” came out, and I never caught up. Maybe I should. The thought of a magi sporting happy faces tickles me. It makes me think of Mickey in the “Sorcerer’s Apprentice” too. I do remember that.

      I’m like you. I love the story, and all of the ways it connects to human experience. Making the decision to journey on, with no guarantees, is something each of us does every day – consciously or unconsciously.

      If we actually get weather as cold as they’re predicting for the first part of this week, it may be time for a little Monty Python. I can guarantee I won’t be out on the docks.

      Linda

      1. Life of Brian (if you don’t know) follows the life of a guy named Brian whom was born on the night of Jesus and who has interesting experiences in Judea at the time, some of which parallel. I find it a witty satire. Some find it profoundly sacreligious and quite appalling. It is our tradition to gather with friends, dye Easter eggs and watch Life of Brian on every Good Friday. This appalls some people. But Good Friday is such a heavy day, sometimes a little levity (with a bit of thought behind it) isn’t a bad thing. Consider yourself warned!

        1. I remember your egg-dying tradition, of course, but I didn’t realize you combine it with “Life of Brian”. As for being appalled – not to worry. Having listen to and laughed at a youth group that came up with a memorable Easter parody (“Here comes Jesus cottontail, hopping down Emmaeus trail…”) I think I can handle Brian’s story!

  9. Eliot helps us imagine how difficult and potentially treacherous travel was back then. Travel was not an easy thing even a few hundred years ago – no golden arches or Holiday Inns or silver birds. It required courage to set out on such a journey and perseverance to see it through. So much could go wrong. I’m not sure we appreciate how difficult it was.

    1. Bella Rum,

      When I read your words – “so much could go wrong” – I suddenly thought of the scientists who made that little trek far, far south to measure the disappearing ice. Despite all our advancements, I believe the current count is three ships stuck in the ice, and the Coast Guard’s Polar Explorer is retooling to stop by and help out on its way to McMurdo Station.

      There has to be at least one person in that expedition who’s heard a voice singing in the ears, saying, “This was all folly”.

      The magi, of course, had no GPS, no satellite or video phones, no six-months’ worth of freeze-dried rations and no helicopter to give them a lift home when those camels became just too unbearable. That may help to explain why so many journeys were completed. Once they got started, turning around and going home would have been as bad as going forward!

      Linda

  10. What a gem of a post. You have me reflecting on literary works based on “fact” which may in the end be fiction but still not far off the mark.

    You also remind me that growing up in the States, as we put away all the Christmas decorations by January 1, I did so with the knowledge that the Magi were yet to visit my cousins in Spain. This was among several lessons in cultural differences I learned early on. While we hung up our stockings, they put out their shoes stuffed with hay and water for the camels.

    1. Georgette,

      There’s also the category of “creative non-fiction”, which sometimes can be more creative than fiction itself.

      And of course, revisiting events over time can lead to some interesting discoveries and “re-writes” of history. In the past couple of years I’ve learned more about my family in three specific ways, each of which caused me to see people and events in a remarkably different light.

      Isn’t the richness and diversity of holiday traditions wonderful? Living so close to the Dutch communities of Iowa, we often put out our wooden shoes on December 6, hoping for a visit from Sinterklaas. There often were tiny chocolate wooden shoes, and the cookies called “Speculaas”. In retrospect, our theory seemed to be that if someone had a good tradition, we should participate – especially if it involved sweets!

      I hope you’re all tucked in with a big pile of wood. Poor Froberg’s – they have strawberries coming on already. I went over yesterday and got some of the Myer lemons they picked – it just this minute occurs to me I should get more and make limoncello as well as freezing juice!

      Linda

  11. Morning Linda:

    Tomorrow we celebrate “Día de Reyes” in Panama. It is not a great celebration. It passes almost like a gust of wind in the middle of a thirsty summer afternoon.

    For me it is very important, because it happens to be my wife’s birthday as well. Her name carries the happy occasion of birth; thus, Aura de los Reyes Achurra de Upegui. That’s her full name.

    Just by reading her name you can see the camels of the Magi plodding through amidst the immensity of a desert of dancing sand.

    As always enjoyed your blog post. Such a wonderful beginning in a brand new year as the cycle of life continues.

    Warm Regards,

    Omar.-

    1. Omar,

      Aura’s full name is beautiful. It’s especially sweet that she gets to share her day with such a wonderful tradition. Please give her my regards, and wish her a happy birthday for me.

      I see that one of our local groceries will be offering customers “Rosca de Reyes” and hot chocolate this year. The chocolate will be especially appreciated, as we’re experiencing our first real cold of the year – below freezing. All plants but my two large cactus are happy inside now – we realize it’s much worse elsewhere, but it’s still a bit of a trial for coastal dwellers whose houses and plumbing aren’t made for this kind of cold.

      There’s no snow, but if it only reaches 40 tomorrow, I intend to be as refractory as those camels and refuse to plod outdoors!

      It’s really quite amazing that five days of the new year are gone already. We’d best pay attention, or it will be 2015!

      Linda

  12. What a timely, fascinating post, Linda! We just read Matthew’s account at church last night, and I couldn’t help thinking how many times Matthew pointed out that somebody did something-or-other after being “warned in a dream.” Odd that such warnings don’t present themselves very often these days — or, if they do, we being “enlightened” people disregard them!

    I traditionally mark Epiphany as the time to take down the Christmas decorations (and put up Mardi Gras ones). Mardi Gras falls late this year (March 4, I believe), so there will be plenty of chances to eat King Cakes, watch parades, catch beads and trinkets, and so forth. If the weather cooperates, of course!

    Despite being an English major, we must have glossed over Eliot, for I don’t recall reading this poem of his before. Thank you for aiding my education! I suspect the journey of the Magi was arduous and possibly dangerous — can you imagine carrying gold on a camel across the desert wasteland?!

    1. Debbie,

      Actually, I can’t imagine carrying myself on a camel across the desert. I have a friend who rode one in Egypt. She said it was a memorable experience that she hoped never to repeat. There was a camel with the circus that came to town, and it was available for rides, but I decided to forego that particular pleasure.

      I don’t dream much – at least, I don’t remember many dreams and I certainly haven’t gotten any direct messages. On the other hand, I have had a few experiences of issues being resolved in dreams, and quite concretely at that. It’s very interesting.

      I usually hold off until Epiphany to take down decorations, myself – or at least until the weekend before. This year, it was New Year’s Day. I had such a strong sense of wanting to move on, I decided to change my routine. Besides, the purple, green and gold already is popping up, and there are fun times ahead.

      I’m so glad I’ve introduced you and some others to this poem. I found it fairly recently myself, and have enjoyed it. It’s one of five he contributed to a series collectively titled “Ariel Poems”, and the entire series is worth a look.

      Linda

  13. We are putting away the Christmas decorations today, Linda. All six boxes. Peggy is a Christmas kind of girl.

    As for the when of Christmas, it’s date was apparently based on a pagan holiday that the Christians adopted to win over the pagans.

    Kind of like the idea of “silken girls bringing sherbet”… creates a nice contrast for the difficult journey the magi decided to undertake.

    Most of all, I like your lead in sentence: “To set out under compulsion, to travel in ambiguity, to depend on little more than dreams and a star for guidance.” Sounds like some of the treks I made in Alaska. :) –Curt

    1. Curt,

      Cultural adaptation is a wonderful thing. Celebrations and expressions of faith have to take form – if traditions already are at hand, so much the better. (Now that I think of it, that “have to take form” business may not be true for some Eastern belief systems. But I don’t think I’m either a mystic or a Taoist, and can’t really say. Speaking in terms of creation, incarnation, etc. are more congenial to me.)

      Isn’t “silken girls bringing sherbet” evocative? Sherbet itself is light, silky and cool – as you say, quite a contrast to the realities of the trip. “Silken” is good for another reason – it’s a nod to the existence of the Silk Road, which the three (or six, or twelve, or twenty-two) magi (or wise men, or kings, or bored businessmen ready for a trip) may have been traveling.

      I’m glad you like the first sentence. I suspect all of us have traveled that way a time or two in our life.

      Linda

      1. The Silk Road has always called out to the romantic in me, Linda. I read a book as a youngster, “Caravan to Xanadu” by my Great Uncle, Edison Marshall. The book included a journey over the road. I was forever after hooked on it. :) –Curt

    1. Hi, Susan,

      Peanut butter and jelly. Bacon and eggs. Scotch and water. Blog posts and comments… See? Some things just belong together! I’m glad you enjoyed both.

      We’ve dropped to 41, and they say that will be our high tomorrow – if we’re lucky. Stay warm!

      Linda

  14. Very moving and evocative poem. I’ve not read much Eliot, other than what was force fed to us in high school. That’s a long time ago. I should go to the library and see what I can find.

    Thanks to marmeladegypsy, I now have an incredible yen to watch ‘The Life of Brian’ and shout “Romans, go home!’

    1. Gué,

      If you snoop around, I’m sure you can find a good bit online. Here’s a link to the full text of “The Four Quartets”, and you can find some shorted pieces here.

      Take a look at “Rhapsody on a Windy Night” in that second link (on page 16). I looked at it because it’s flat windy here tonight, but I was surprised to find some lyrics from the song “Memories” in the musical “Cats” in the second stanza. Apparently the lyricists roamed a little farther afield than just Old Possum and his verses.

      And thanks to you and marmeladegypsy, I think I’m going to have to see “Life of Brian”.

      Linda

  15. I’ve been cutting my poetically challenged teeth on this poem the past 20 minutes,reading various commentaries on what TS Eliot meant, while waiting for our cold water pipe to unfreeze (it’s -22 on the thermometer in Iowa this morning). I am starting to get a sense of what he was saying. I feel like a little child in a room full of adults talking about things I barely grasp, but I feel safe admitting that to you. DM

    1. DM,

      A poem is, first of all, a poem. It is what it is – and not a code for something else. One very good book about poetry is John Ciardi’s “How Does a Poem Mean?” It was recommended to me a couple of years ago, and I turn to it rather regularly.

      If your schooling was anything like mine, we were asked time and time again, “What does this poem mean?” Sometimes, the question was, “What does this poem REALLY mean?” In those classes, Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” easily could have been reduced to “Travel is hard, and leads to regrets.” Phooey.

      My advice is to put away the commentaries for a while, and just enjoy the poem. Walk around in it, make friends with it. Notice what resonates, what seems strange. I can’t give you all of Ciardi’s first chapter, but I can offer this, which I happen to agree with:

      “The concern is not to arrive at a definition and to close the book, but to arrive at an experience. There will never be a complete system for ‘understanding’ or for ‘judging’ poetry. Understanding and critical judgment are admirable goals, but neither can take place until the poem has been experienced. Even then, there is always some part of every good work of art that can never be fully explained or categorized.”

      Yes, there are references to other writers in the poem. Yes, the circumstances of Eliot’s life when he wrote the poem are important. Certainly there are historical details that help in understanding some of his imagery. But if that was what I thought was important about the poem, that’s what I would have written about.

      I don’t know about you, but at 27 degrees, I find myself pulled straight into the poem through these lines:

      “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…”

      I’ll bet that resonates for you, too!

      Thanks for stopping by and giving me an opportunity to drag out one of my favorite books while I wait for it to warm up!

      Linda

      1. You totally have your finger on the pulse of my quandary when it comes to poetry (how our teachers taught us) so I do have some ‘unlearning” to do, but I’m making progress :-) Until this Spring when I experienced my first real taste of poetry that drew me in, I would have stayed as far away from poetry related conversation as a fisherman from open water on a frozen river.

  16. So glad Christmas is still being celebrated today. Thanks for this poem. I came across it when I was digging for Seasonal reads. And yes, will definitely explore more of T. S. Eliot’s other poetry, in particular, Four Quartets. But need help in understanding it though.

    1. Arti,

      Just so you know, there are portions of the “Four Quartets” I can recite from memory, because of reading them so often and because of their emotional impact. On the other hand, there are sections that just are beyond me – I’ve read them, and done a bit of studying, and still think, “What…?”

      But, as ee cummings says in one of my new favorite poems,

      “all ignorance toboggans into know
      and trudges up to ignorance again”

      Learning as an afternoon of sledding is a wonderful conceit. I remember those long afternoons. Even when we were cold, caked with snow and hungry, we hated to stop. That’s what the learning process should be like, I think.

      Linda

  17. How rich to read this today, January 6. The tone of this poem, and its voicing by Eliot, speaks to me of the murdered innocents that are a part of this tragic tale. The visit of the magi, like the story of Noah, has these dark undercurrents that demand a taking stock. I’m never altogether sure what to do with this, but the poem invites a sober moment, a questioning why. Allen

    1. Allen,

      One of my favorite posts – which nearly was reposted this year, had it not been for the Magi – focused on the Holy Innocents.

      There’s a natural human tendency to turn away from what distresses us – hawks feeding on songbirds, for example. In the same way, there’s a strong preference for the sweet family in the barn over the murdered children, and a willingness to see the Magi as spiffy, rich kings on an outing rather than as a rag-tag band of obsessives.

      Visionaries can have a hard time of it, and a cold reception in the halls of rationality. So be it. As the narrator of the poem says, he’d do it again. It must have been quite a trip.

      Linda

  18. A beautiful reflection for the Feast of the Epiphany! Wonderful poem, too, by T.S. Eliot! Such a rich and profound poem which gives me another reason to appreciate T.S. Eliot.

    Thank you, Linda, for sharing…

    — Matt

    1. Matt,

      I’m glad you enjoyed it. One of the nice things about posting good poetry is that even people already familiar with a poem often appreciate being reminded of it. And for people who may know the poet but not a particular poem, it’s a wonderful way to share something new.

      I’m glad you enjoyed it, and that it enriched your celebrations.

      Linda

  19. I can’t remember ever having read this poem! Of course, right now when I read it, with ferocious winds whipping around the house all night and the temperature right now a balmy 6 degrees, with a windchill reported of minus 12, is it any wonder that these are the lines that leapt out at me:

    There were times we regretted
    The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces,
    And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

    But we’re lucky–our power didn’t go out, as some have had to face . . .

    1. Susan,

      Amazing, isn’t it, the poems, paintings, music and books that remain over our horizon until suddenly – there they are!

      When I was cross-checking the online version of this poem with the one in my copy of the “Complete Poems and Plays”, I browsed some of his other poems and found several I don’t remember. It’s wonderful – always something new.

      What was new this week was our own little bit of winter. It’s moved on now, and we’ll have more seasonal temperatures for a time. It’s a good thing – even cowgirls get the blues, and even coastal dwellers can get cabin fever.

      Linda

  20. As I said in my last comment, and I can repeat it now – I enjoyed your post and reading all the comments. And again for me this was very different. I also just answered the comment you made on my blog.

    I was born and raised in France and of course, did not speak much English until I learnt it in school then went to England to college. So I read mostly French authors. I did not know this poem of T.S. Eliot and enjoyed reading it.

    As for the Magi I did not know their story much either. I just knew the story that some priests, coming from Iran to Palestine, were called Magi. I was brought up in a “laïque” or secular home – my father was an Armenian Orthodox, and on January 6th, he celebrated the Eastern Orthodox Christmas, but he went to his church in Paris alone as they spoke Armenian there, and both my mum and I did not.

    On the 6th we celebrated the “Chandeleur” with a “Galette des Rois.” But just like Christmas this was more a French traditional feast than a religious one. I wrote a post on it last year giving its history in France. All bakeries in France sell the galette with a paper crown. I think I mentioned some fancy ones in my last post. I usually buy one at the French bakery here but it was so cold today that we did not go out. I’ll get one soon. I enjoy reading stories about all the different religions of the world.

    1. vagabonde,

      I’ve learned a good bit from following little tidbits in your comment. I was caught by the word “Chandeleur”, because of the Chandeleur Islands near to me, off the coast of Louisiana. Now I know that Chandeleur means Candlemas, and that many of the traditions in French-speaking Louisiana are related to yours – especially the “Galette des Rois”. The braided breads decorated with green, gold and purple colored sugars are most familiar here, but the other cakes also are made.

      As you say, many of the traditions surrounding these holidays are more cultural than religious. At least, culture and tradition have braided together as neatly as the breads, and the result is delightful.

      The Magi, too, are hard to pin down. Many traditions interpret them differently, and understand their journey quite differently. In my own Protestant upbringing, they were mostly ignored, although they did show up in the children’s Christmas pageants and on Christmas cards. Perhaps that’s one reason I love Eliot’s poem as I do. By focusing on the human realities of such a journey, he gives them depth and interest.

      I’m anxious to read your post about the Galette. It is delightful to see how these traditions wend their way around the world.

      Linda

  21. I always love this story. I was delegated the setting up of the manger as a kid and changed it every day: moving the shepherds from the fields to the manger…and the 3 kings with their camels took a long time to get there…which was a bit sad. They didn’t get to spend much time with the group – nor did they ever really get to “journey” back home since My mom rushed packing Christmas up immediately.

    Such a nice post to end the season.

    Saw they are already baking King Cakes at 3 Brothers’ bakery and else where. (No sitting around this region- always something to celebrate?)

    1. phil,

      You know, I’ve never really thought about the plight of those kings. We’re so interested in getting them to Bethlehem, but then it’s like, “Whatever…” I laughed at the thought that the mothers of the world, eager to get the holidays over with, actually short-change the poor Magi. It’s something to think about – comings and goings belong together. Best not to truncate the journey at either end.

      I’m beginning to see Mardi Gras colors everywhere, although I suppose Valentine’s Day will overshadow them for a time. I can’t wait to see how the chainsaw Great Dane will spiff up for this year’s festivities!

      Linda

  22. We had a little procession of the Magi at church on Sunday – a far cry from the description in this poem. I love how it lets us imagine what the journey must have been like. And it reminds me a great deal of “O Jerusalem” by Laurie King (one of a series of books about Sherlock Holmes & his late in life wife, Mary Russell – fabulous books!).

    1. Dana,

      I don’t know the Laurie King book, but I did look up the series on Goodreads and was intrigued. I’ve always been fond of the good detective – a new take would be interesting.

      There’s a congregation here in Houston that puts on a knock-your-socks-off performance/pageant/production every Christmas. Real camels. Angels swinging from wires. Professional lighting crews. Real gold crowns, for all I know.

      I don’t mind a little glitz, but, personally, I favor kids in bathrobes and foil crowns – I think it allows a bit more room for imagination and improvisation.

      Maybe that’s the value of Eliot’s poem. It lets us take another look at characters who’ve become comfortable and predictable. Can you imagine what it would be like to get the real Magi back here, and let them see what we’ve imagined them to be?

      Linda

  23. Hi Linda
    I usually read this wonderful, deep, wise, melancholic poem of Eliot’s to myself at Epiphany. So good to have a chance to hear T.S.Eliot himself read it. Thank you! Have shared on Twitter, with a heads-up to you!

    1. Anne,

      No surprise to me that this would be one of your favorites. Thanks for helping to introduce it to people who don’t know of it, and for reminding those who do that it’s still around – and just as good!

      There are certain poems that seem to take on aded poignancy as we age and gain experience. This certainly has been one of those for me.

      Linda

    1. nikkipolani,

      One of my favorite lines in the poem is, “We had evidence and no doubt”. Yet even with that doubt and that certainty, it wasn’t long before our magi was saying “But….” and feeling a good bit of unease. We like to think that if we only had hard evidence we could be certain. Eliot seems to be suggesting quite the opposite.

      Hearing Eliot is wonderful, isn’t it? I especially like the scratchiness of it – “noise” that takes me back to the days when spoken word records seemed equally magical.

      Linda

  24. Considering I do love poetry, I had not really delved into TS Eliot myself. The ‘Journey of the Magi’ makes a wonderful introduction, besides being timely. I had not perceived him to be religious or to write on religious topics so this was an interesting surprise. My favourite part of this poem is simply that he makes us relate to their quest in a more personal and descriptive way than we may have understood in Sunday School. It is true to the nature of any great quest in that it begins with strong belief and evidence while the rigors of the journey may create feelings of doubt only overcome by faith and will to see it through. And, its end finds something which changes everything. Magi, I understand, is a word referring to the priest class of Zoroastrianism who as part of their faith/science reads the stars. Even the three trees of Meyers painting shows the central tree with roots uniting two sides..past and future perhaps..old dispensation to new, the Christ they came to pay respect to.

    I really enjoyed reading this post finally today and the thoughts it provoked.

    1. Judy,

      The way you describe The Quest sounds remarkably like your own journeys into the swamps. You begin with belief and evidence (they WILL be there!), you experience difficulties of one sort or another, and then you see it through and your faith in your own abilities is confirmed by the magical sights you record.

      It may be that you were surprised by this poem because, like so many of us, you were introduced to Eliot with poems written before his conversion. Some of his later work is completely opaque to me, but in the Four Quartets there are passages that are strong, solid and singing at once.

      The “Sunday School” version of events has real value, but as the good St. Paul suggested, once we’re no longer children, it’s good to give up childish things. Not child-like, mind you – but childish. On the other hand, some of my most significant insights are rooted in childhood. Wisdom and intellect aren’t necessarily the same.

      Now that we’re more than halfway through January, I hope you’re feeling even better and getting some decent weather to be out and about!

      Linda

  25. Now this was an amazing post. Your writing first leading to T.S. Eliot’s magnificent poem – I did not know – and his voice and strange accent, as someone mentioned (what would he say about mine…). I simply loved the poem for it opened my imagination and vision of the Magis and all that surrounded their journey. Star or no star, their route was certainly all lit up by their expectations.
    Around our Christmas crib there were three Magis (small Peruvian statues), two leather camels from Niger and one wooden donkey from Palestina. Talk about a long journey !
    Thank you for your wonderful writing that makes me think and see beyond the words.

    1. Isa,

      Such a lovely and true way of putting it – that the Magi’s journey was lit by their expectations. No matter whether they saw a comet, or planet, or super nova – or even nothing, for that matter – it was their expectations, their hope, their curiosity, that led them on.

      I so love a crèche with characters from all around the world. Yours sounds lovely. I’m especially taken with the thought of leather camels. They must be very handsome.

      I’m glad you enjoyed the post. Sometimes, all that’s needed is to use our own words to make a little context for the true masters, like Eliot. It’s not unlike framing a painting, I think. The right frame can make a painting truly shine – like a star!

      Linda

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in:

WordPress.com Logo

You are commenting using your WordPress.com account. Log Out / Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out / Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out / Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out / Change )

Connecting to %s