Rounding the Next Turn
Wodehouse: Ring For Jeeves

A Question About Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"

This poem is now in the public domain. So I've copied it from another site. It is of course appropriate for today, the Feast of the Epiphany in the Catholic calendar. Normally I set off quotations longer than a sentence or so as "block quotes," which means that they're indented on the right, which means, if line breaks are significant, as they are for a poem, they may not appear as they should. Just how they appear may be partly dependent on the browser. To avoid that, I'm not making this a block quote, but will switch typefaces instead. It probably won't look right on your phone anyway, but that's the price you pay for reading on your phone.


T.S. Eliot: 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.


I've always been a little puzzled by that last line. The last two lines, really. The Magi (or this Magus at least, but I'll keep it plural because he keeps saying "we"), have understood that the coming of the child means the end of the culture or civilization of which they are a part, and in which they have a privileged place. That's the "hard and bitter agony."

But do they know something pretty specific about what is coming? Have they, in some sense, been converted? Why else are their own people now "alien" and "clutching...gods" for whom the Magi seem to have no respect? Surely these people and these gods were their own before their journey, but that no longer seems to be the case. 

And what death would he be "glad of"? His own? That's probably true. But he doesn't say so, and the vagueness of the reference makes me wonder. Is he glad that his culture has received its death warrant and looking forward to its actual death? That seems a little odd, but maybe it's just a measure of his sense of exhaustion. Maybe it's both, just a broad resigned Let's  just get it over with. But it seems to me that there is an intimation of the Child's death, and what it will mean, and why the birth, the necessary first step toward that death, is hard and bitter, but at the same time something to be glad of.


Journey of the Magi, Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni). Image lifted from The Metropolitan Museum, where you can see a much larger version


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Hello Maclin,
I've always regarded the first "death" as the death of their old "dispensation" and thus death to their old world and ways of which they are now strangers and aliens having been reborn. The death he will be glad for I've read as his physical death and a final going home to the Kingdom in which they already belong spiritually. Your perspective of the Child's future death I hadn't thought of, and that adds a rich layer of meaning, though the "gladness" would be bittersweet.
~ Dora

"the Kingdom in which they already belong spiritually" So you also see them as being in some sense converted, having at least some intimation that the child is not just a new king but something more?

'...though the "gladness" would be bittersweet.' Indeed.

At Mass on Sunday the priest made that point in his homily (that they were in some sense converted). He pointed out that "they fell down and did him homage," which is not how one king salutes another.

Hmm, excellent point.

~~He pointed out that "they fell down and did him homage," which is not how one king salutes another.~~

I've always just sort of presumed this, as there is a lot of this type of language in the Eastern liturgics for Nativity. In fact, it's mentioned in the Christmas troparion (the hymn for the day):

"Thy Nativity, O Christ our God, has shone to the world the Light of knowledge; for by it, those who worshipped the stars were taught by a star to adore Thee, the Sun of Righteousness, and to know Thee, the Dayspring from on High. O Lord, glory to Thee!"

"taught by a star to adore Thee"--that idea definitely occurs in Catholic liturgies. "to know Thee"--if that does, I've missed it. But I'd be surprised, now that it's been pointed out to me, if it doesn't occur in liturgical texts not typically used in the average parish.

That makes sense. In the Orthodox Church there is a lot of material in the Vespers services that the average person, if he doesn't attend Vespers, wouldn't generally hear.

The Magi being converted also fits with the idea of salvation being offered universally. If the Gentiles travel "such a long journey" to see the Messiah of the Jews, but don't accept him as having come to earth for them as well, the lesson seems kind of lost.

True. I just had always thought of them as seeing him as a king of this world, and not as a religious figure.

But then they wouldn't have given him incense!

That makes sense. But are you sure incense wasn't used to honor regular kings?

"Gold was for a king, frankincense was for a god, myrrh was for a dead man, funny gifts to bring a child!"

Lyric from a 1980's Christian rock song, based on an old tradition about the meaning of the gifts.

And I totally forgot one of my favorite Christmas carols, "We Three Kings":

"Frankincense to offer have I
Incense owns a Deity nigh"

Is that what St. Matthew meant by the three gifts?

I guess it's possible -- I never really looked into that tradition and don't know how far back it goes. Of course it could still be accurate even if Matthew didn't specifically "intend" it.

Mac --

I think, in your concluding paragraphs, that you are dead on about this poem, as are the intuitions of several of your commenters. Especially your characterization of how the death the Wise Man is haunted by is the Child's own death, and how the Nativity is just "the necessary first step towards that death." It's a chillingly accurate description of the working of God's providence. The redemption of the human race is going to be accomplished about 33 years from the events narrated in the poem, but we have to get all of that done first. It's reminiscent of a remark that Bishop Sheen makes in his Life of Christ, when he says that Jesus of Nazareth was the only human being who was ever "born in order to die." In that sense, death pervades the Nativity, as the speaker in Eliot's poem understands now in his old age. It's the reason a number of medieval and Renaissance painters had a crucifix hanging in the Bethlehem stable. These dramatically anachronistic paintings, like this one:

...always give me the same chill that the end of Eliot's poem does.

Quite literally and absolutely born to die, not just in the sense of destined but intended. It is chilling to put it like that.

I don't know much about painting and if I've ever seen one of those you mention I didn't notice the crucifix. That one is very striking. Who's it by?

I'm currently trying to place a poem which is the thoughts of one of the shepherds 30 years after the event.

Good to hear from you again!

I remember a Southern gospel song from my childhood called "Born to Die" that is built on exactly that idea:

Did not know until now that the song is really the old country song "Born to Lose" with new lyrics. I knew the latter, of course, but never put the two together, probably because I haven't "Born to Die" since I was a kid.

"It's the reason a number of medieval and Renaissance painters had a crucifix hanging in the Bethlehem stable."

One also thinks of the well-known Greek icon "The Virgin of the Passion," known in the Western Church as "Our Lady of Perpetual Help." The image features the Christ child on the Virgin's lap, looking up apprehensively at two angels holding the instruments of the Passion, while being comforted by his mother.

That is some real old-school country.

I heard a homily on Epiphany that said that the wise men arrived pagan and left pagan. The point was that Jesus brought salvation for all, no matter what religion.

Never heard that before, and doubt it precisely because of the incense.

Strikes me as highly dubious.

I think the key to the Christ Child's being "born to die" is Eliot's use of the word "satisfactory" at the end of the second stanza:

And arriving at evening, not a moment too soon
Finding the place; it was (you might say) satisfactory.

That has to be an allusion to Anselm's satisfaction theory of atonement :

“According to this theory, which is based upon the feudal structure of society, finite humanity has committed a crime (sin) against infinite God. In feudal society, an offender was required to make recompense, or satisfaction, to the one offended according to that person’s status. Thus, a crime against a king would require more satisfaction than a crime against a baron or a serf. According to this way of thinking, finite humanity, which could never make satisfaction to the infinite God, could expect only eternal death. The instrument for bringing humans back into a right relationship with God, therefore, could be rendered only by someone who was both God—because God could overcome sin by sinlessness—and human—because humans were those who were guilty of sin. Anselm held that the death of the God-human (Christ) on the cross was the only rationally intelligible way in which sinful humankind could have been reconciled with God. Atonement is made possible through Christ, by whose infinite merits humanity is purified in an act of cooperative re-creation.”

Found an interesting article on the theory with this in it:

“So influential has Anselm’s ‘satisfaction theory’ been that Joseph Ratzinger, in his Introduction to Christianity, says it ‘molded the Western consciousness more and more exclusively.’ Ratzinger criticizes the unfair situation in which precedence has been given to Anslem’s model over others (say Augustine’s, for example). ‘Even in its classical form,’ says Ratzinger, ‘it is not devoid of one-sidedness, but when considered in the vulgarized form that has to a great extent shaped the general consciousness, it looks cruelly mechanical and less and less feasible.’ . . .

Ratzinger, after finding whatever good he can in Anselm’s model, is forceful in his conclusion: ‘But even if all this is admitted, it cannot be denied, on the other hand, that the perfectly logical divine–cum–human legal system erected by Anselm distorts the perspectives and with its rigid logic can make the image of God appear in a sinister light’.”

Very good point, thank you. The word "satisfactory" has always seemed out of place there to me. But that makes sense of it. Interesting, too, that Ratzinger finds that strict :)

I once heard Fr. Patrick Reardon say that one of the problems with St Anselm's theory was that it was written primarily in an apologetic vein, but eventually came to be viewed as "positive" theology. Fr. Reardon stated that ideas that serve well in apologetics do not always transfer to theology proper, and thus basing theology on apologetic ideas must proceed with caution.

This is similar to what has been said about sola scriptura: it's fine as a sort of ad fontes rallying point, but it doesn't work as a basis for epistemology.

I've always thought it pretty obvious that sola scriptura inevitably destroys any semblance of Christian unity. Every man his own pope. By "always" I mean since I was able to think about it as an adult.

Fr. Reardon's point seems sound.

Thank you, Rob. Fr. Reardon's point explains why, back in our homeschooling days, I often felt suspicious of my children's friends claims they were studying theology. Now I can see that they were really doing apologetics.

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