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The Journey of the Magi, by T.S. Eliot

Journey of the Magi image Journey of the Magi by TS Eliot

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Adoration of the Magi

Adoration of the Magi, from a fresco in Cappadocia.1

“The Journey of the Magi,” by T.S. Eliot, was published in 1927.

Eliot derived the first several lines of his poem from Lancelot Andrewes Christmas sermon of 1622:

A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio brumali, the very dead of winter. Venimus, we are come, if that be one, venimus, we are now come, come at this time, that sure is another.

And these difficulties they overcame, of a wearisome, irksome, troublesome, dangerous, unseasonable journey; and for all this they came. And came it cheerfully and quickly, as appeareth by the speed they made. It was but vidimus, venimus, with them; they saw, and they came; no sooner saw, but they set out presently. So as upon the first appearing of the star, as it might be last night, they knew it was Balaam’s star; it called them away, they made ready straight to begin their journey this morning. A sign they were highly conceited of His birth, believed some great matter of it, that they took all these pains, made all this haste that they might be there to worship Him with all the possible speed they could. Sorry for nothing so much as that they could not be there soon enough, with the very first, to do it even this day, the day of His birth. All considered, there is more in venimus than shews at the first sight. It was not for nothing it was said in the first verse, ecce venerunt; their coming hath an ecce on it, it well deserves it.

And we, what should we have done? Sure these men of the East will rise in judgment against the men of the West, that is with us, and their faith against ours in this point. With them it was but vidimus, venimus; with us it would have been but veniemus at most. Our fashion is to see and see again before we stir a foot, specially if it be to the worship of Christ. Come such a journey at such a time? No; but fairly have put it off to the spring of the year, till the days longer, and the ways fairer, and the weather warmer, till better travelling to Christ. Our Epiphany would sure have fallen in Easter week at the soonest.2

More analysis: http://www.english.uiuc.edu/maps/poets/a_f/eliot/magi.htm.

“The Journey of the Magi,” by T.S. Eliot in digital form —

‘A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For the 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.

© 2013, Mark Adams. All rights reserved.

  1. http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Magi_capp.jpg. []
{ 2 comments… add one }
  • Michael December 25, 2013, 10:46 am

    Excellent presentation, Mark. Though I am not religious, these writings touch me. The comparison is thoughtful, too. 1622, eh? Good work.

    == Michael Höhne

  • Steve K December 25, 2013, 12:09 pm

    Yes, magical. The writing really takes you on that journey. 🙂

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