The Journey of the Magi

It’s the Feast of the Epiphany in the West and of the Theophany in the East, and though T S Eliot’s Ariel Poem, “The Journey of the Magi,” gets trotted rather often this time of year, there’s still something in the words that makes me shiver. From the slightly modified excerpt from Lancelot Andrewes’s 1622 Christmas Day sermon that comprises the first five lines to the troubled thoughts of the speaker at the close (and from which Chinua Achebe took the title of his 1960 novel, No Longer at Ease), this is a dramatic monologue in conversation with the living and the dead.

The text is below. You can also hear the poem in Eliot’s own, rather peculiar voice, or watch a lovely recitation by a young woman who seems wiser than her years.

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 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.

Image: French Book of Hours, thirteenth century, Morgan Library and Museum