Poetry Project VI: “The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot

This is the sixth installment of the occasional poetry series. The analysis is written by Bishop Richard Williamson. You may find the others here on TrueRestoration.blogspot.com. If you are interested in specifically Catholic poetry by a contemporary author, you might consider picking up Fr. Lawrence Smith's We Call Thee Blessed, a collection of Marian sonnets.

After giving due deference to the birthplace of English poetry, I persuaded the Bishop to look at an American poet, T.S. Eliot (I will gently ignore the fact that T.S. Eliot relocated to England later in life - but it might indicate where his heart really lay, and perhaps, where all good English poetry ultimately comes from). We chose a poem fit for the season of Epiphany. You should read the poem, linked here, before reading the analysis.

As the apostasy of the nations in modern times takes the whole world further and further away from God, so there are ever fewer artists and writers who have kept any sense of the things of the human spirit. All that matters henceforth is things material, which is why poetry is widely despised, and serious art, literature and music are all dying or dead. In this land of the blind, the American-born poet, dramatist and critic, T.S.Eliot (1888-1965) is a seer, but his well-known poem, “Journey of the Magi”, shows how he too lost one eye in his struggle with the modern wasteland.

That struggle is reflected in the main event of his life: his move at the age of 26 from the United States where he was born and bred, to England where he was based for the remainder of his life, hardly re-visiting the land of his birth. He once said that while his poetry represented a combination of his being born in the USA with his staying in England, nevertheless “in its sources, in its emotional springs, it comes from America.” Surely what he meant was that the problem set for him in his early years by the materialism of modern civilisation remained the driving force of his writing, like the grain of sand by its irritation generates the pearl in the oyster, but it was his move back from the New World to the Old that enabled him to get a handle on the problem, and to express in his poetry an at least partial solution.

But the spiritual problem set by the mass of men giving themselves over to materialism runs deep, and that is why many of Eliot’s poems are not easy to understand. He would say that poetry in modern times “has to be difficult”, meaning no doubt that if it is easy, it can hardly be true to the world around us. Thus his first published poems, written around the time of the first World War, already so broke with the century-old tradition of Keatsian romanticism that they were accused by some critics of not being poetry at all ! See for instance in the “Journey” how there are no rhymes at all, nor regular length of lines, nor regular rhythm.

Yet it is enough to read the poem aloud to appreciate the approximate four beats to a line which do make the “Journey” a poem, as opposed to mere prose. The comparison with Matthew Arnold’s “Dover Beach” is interesting. Observably Arnold is already (1851) loosening classical poetic discipline as to rhyme and rhythm, and Eliot loosens it still further. But Eliot does still have discipline. Alas, successors of Eliot can pretend to be following him when they have no discipline at all !

However, if one stops to think about it, old-fashioned rhymes would be too pretty for the problematic monologue of Eliot’s Magus (singular of the Latin plural “Magi”), whose modernity in search of the Christ Child requires a re-working of the Gospel story, found in Matthew II, 1-12. Then the three Magi, or astrologers, Kings from the East, followed a miraculous star over a long distance to pay homage and bring precious gifts to the new-born King of Kings, still a little child in the arms of his blessed Mother. Now we have in Eliot’s “Journey” an old man (line 32) recalling from long ago neither star, nor gifts, nor Mother, but in the poem’s three sections only the painful travelling (l.1-20), the arrival (l. 21-31) and the huge question of what it all meant (l. 32-43). Eliot’s is no Christmas card poem, nor short cut to comfort !

The poem’s first section (1-20), easy enough to understand, recreates the physical discomfort of the long journey from the East to Bethlehem, not mentioned. Nor does Eliot suggest there were any of the spiritual consolations that no doubt sustained the three original Magi on their historic journey. On the contrary (l.19,20), their modern successor has only the voices singing in his ears to tell him that he is crazy to be making such a journey.

The poem’s middle section (l.21-31) is less easy to understand. As the journey draws to its close, so the scenery has more warmth and life (21,22). In the next six lines (23-28), the “three trees” evoke the three crosses on Calvary while the “pieces of silver” evoke Judas Iscariot. All other details, e.g. the stream, mill, horse, tavern and wineskins, no doubt had a particular significance for Eliot himself, so that they are somehow suggestive, but of exactly what, it is difficult to say. Together they create a surreal scene which serves as transition from the material discomfort of the first section to the mysterious discomfort of the last section, for (28-31) our modern Magus is not necessarily happy to have arrived at his destination – “you may say” the place was “satisfactory”, he himself seems not so sure…

Indeed, in the poem’s third section (32-43) the old man is sure that the journey was worth the trouble (32,33), but it left him nevertheless with a huge question mark (35-39): how could a scene of birth, the scene of a new-born child, have left him at the same time with such a sensation of death, of “hard and bitter agony” (39) ? Because when the Magus got back to his kingdom (40), he found he could no longer live as he had lived before. He found his own people now “alien” to him, clutching hold of the pagan gods of his old way of life, which could no longer satisfy him, because after meeting the Child he could no longer be a pagan. But he had gone through no rebirth of his own into any new dispensation, so that the whole experience felt only like death. In conclusion (43), he would not be unhappy to die.

Contrast the story of the Magi as told by St Matthew. The Magi make the journey, full of faith that the star will lead them to the Child they mean to adore. It disappears when they visit the court of the treacherous Herod, but when it appears to them again on their way to Bethlehem, “they rejoiced with exceeding great joy” (v.10). It stands to reason that their faith and perseverance were rewarded by the divine Child with a flood of light and joy. They died as Saints, and their sacred relics are honoured to this day in the great Cathedral of Cologne which is dedicated to them.

Why then does our modern poet present such a different version of their journey to find Christ ? Because he does not have the faith of the original three Kings. Experts in the life and works of T.S.Eliot are unanimous that the “Journey of the Magi” is a largely autobiographical poem, having been published in August of 1927, just two months after Eliot had converted at 39 years of age to Anglicanism (Episcopalianism in the USA). Let us illustrate the poem by the life.

Eliot had begun life immersed in the “old dispensation” of Protestant Mid-west America (188-1906), Calvinist Harvard (1906-1910; 1911-1914) and liberal Oxford (1914-1915) which he quit after a year – “It’s pretty”, he said, “but I don’t like to be dead”. In 1915 he made an unfortunate marriage which caused him untold stress until (and after) he and his wife separated in 1933. From 1917 to 1925 he worked in a London bank, during which penitential time he published in 1922 what was no doubt the single most influential poem in English of the entire 20th century, “The Wasteland”.

In this poem Eliot could not have given expression to so much of the disorder of an “old dispensation” dying unless he had sensed that disorder, and he could not have sensed that disorder had he not had within him a considerable sense of the order that was missing. This sense of that order he had from the past and its masters. The “Wasteland” is steeped in quotations from them, notably Dante and Shakespeare, Eliot’s two favourites. Scratching his way back to the source of their order, Eliot nearly converted to Catholicism, but he stopped short at Anglicanism, partly because of Pius XI’s controversial condemnation in 1926 of “Action Francaise”, partly because Eliot wished to remain loyal to the country of his adoption. Five months after joining the Anglican Church he took out British citizenship.

This was the same year in which he published “Journey”, and now we can understand why Eliot’s Magus was so lacking in joy. Full marks to Eliot for not contenting himself with the plentiful delights of the disintegrating West (l.10); full marks for persevering on the journey towards Christ (l.33); full marks for never again being “at ease” in the “old dispensation”; but – mystery of grace and free-will – Eliot never made it all the way to Christ in his one true Church, and that is surely why his Magus never “rejoiced with exceeding great joy”.

Yet “God writes straight with crooked lines”. Many readers today immerse themselves in Eliot and feed on his poetry because it grapples with, and grasps, their dying dispensation, without imposing on them any of the demands of Christ’s dispensation. In this way Eliot must have served as at least a first step towards order and salvation for many souls who might not have gone near him had he made himself openly and fully a “Papist”. The same applies to a number of writers and artists who combine a grasp of modern disorder with a more or less disguised conveyance of the values of Christian order. If we should be grateful for small mercies, we should certainly be grateful for a large mercy like the poems of T.S. Eliot even if they are not always easy.

Stephen Heiner

Stephen lives in Paris, France, where he attends Mass celebrated by the clergy of the IMBC. He founded True Restoration in 2006.

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1 Response

  1. LYSSE BLANC says:

    MON ÉVÊQUE

    Oui l'article est très bien,j'ai remarqué en vous un historien qui a une grande intelligence,les mages donc les reliques,sont dans la cathédrale de COLOGNE en Allemagne les croisés les on ramenés dans ce pays pour les mettre a l'abri des ottomans,on vénère ces reliques des restes mortel le 6 Janvier.
    Petite parenthèse concernant l'action française le Pape l'avait condamné par erreur;cette erreur promulgué par ce Souverain Pontife a été rétabli par le Pape suivant et le décret de la condamnation a été lever et l'action française a retrouver ses droit et sa place .
    (j'en fait moi même parti )ce n'est pas un parti religieux mais politique.