A society cannot exist without its poets and musicians. At the very least, it could not exist well or for very long. It is in music and poem that man comes closest to expressing the unexpressible, to understanding the unknowable. The book of the Bible that tells us the most about who God is and what He is like is the book of Psalms– the poems and songs of the people of faith. So it should come as no great surprise that when he approaches the great mystery of the incarnation, the blessed saint Luke builds his account around the songs of those involved. Whether it is Mary’s Magnificat, the Benedictus of Zechariah, the Gloria of the angels, or the Nunc Dimittis of Simeon, when men and angels were confronted with the unfathomable, their response was poetry in song. Now, as we think of the unthinkable…as we ponder the infinite Lord of Creation entombing Himself in the womb of one of His creatures…our souls yearn to sing the poems that mark the season. Below you will find yet one more poem.
“The Journey of the Magi”, however, is not to be sung, but to be read. More precisely, it is not to be read but to be entered into. Plunge yourself into this poem and I believe you may very well get a sense of what one of those kings from the east might have felt as he remembered his journey to and from the newborn King. This King did not enter the world with carnal pomp and splendor. His coming was glorious in the heavens, but ominous on the earth. To the angels it was great joy. To the shepherds it was fear and wonder. To Herod it was threatening treason. To mothers throughout the land it was dreadful wailing. And to the Magi? I think Eliot has it right.
“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 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.
Tips for reading and understanding: Read it through once just to get a basic sense of the poem’s contents. Read it through a second time out loud and as prose instead of poetry: ignore the poetic structure and try to read it as if it were in paragraph form. What are the emotions the poem conveys? What are the words and phrases that evoke these emotions? What did the birth of Jesus mean for the Magi? What did it mean for Him? What should it mean to you?
Tips for enjoying: Notice all the Scriptural allusions in the second stanza– there is one in almost every line. Notice how the structure and cadence of each stanza supports the over-all emotional tone of the stanza. Once you realize the main result of the birth of this King, look back through the poem and see all the little details that carry that theme forward.
About the author: Thomas Stearns Eliot (1888-1965) was born in St. Louis and educated at Harvard, but made his name in England as a poet and literary critic. Until his late 30’s he was a cynic who studied eastern religions and philosophy. Yearning for spiritual guidance and fulfilment he surrendered to the authority of Christ and joined the conservative Anglican church in 1927. Eliot would eventually broaden his output beyond literature, to include culture as a whole. If you are content believing that Thomas Kinkade is an artist; that Max Lucado is an author; that Third Day are musicians; or that our children’s moral upbringing should be left to singing vegetables or kindly pirates, you should probably avoid Eliot’s writings. If you have come to the place in your life where you believe the gospel might demand something a little more, I would highly encourage you to read and understand Eliot’s thoughts in his works The Idea of a Christian Society, Notes Toward the Definition of Culture and his essay, Tradition and the Individual Talent.