We are all familiar with the story of the Magi, or the Wise Men, journeying from the east following a star, and bearing gifts of gold for the newly born Christ child. T. S. Eliot’s version, however, slants the familiar story in a direction not usually considered though obviously a part of the backstory. Here is a poem about the actual journey from the east and the naturally occurring unpleasantnesses attendant in such circumstances at that point in history. It also is a poem, as the speaker says directly, about death as much as it is about life. In line 31, the climax of the difficult journey, the seeing and worshipping of the baby Jesus is recorded in colorless understatement: “Finding the place; it was (you may say)/ satisfactory.” Make of it what you will.
T. S. Eliot (1888-1965)
Journey Of The Magi
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,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.
Then the camel men cursing and
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
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.
Then at dawn we came down to a
Wet, below the snow line, smelling of
With a running stream and a water-mill
beating the darkness,
And three trees on the low sky,
And an old white horse galloped in
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 imformation, and so
And arrived at evening, not a moment
Finding the place; it was (you may say)
All this was a long time ago, I
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,
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
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.