“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, 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 arriving 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.
Things have been too busy to blog this week, but the one plus has been that I have been able to keep this, my favourite poem, from where it would normally have gone, on the feast of the Epiphany, until now.
It’s an odd poem to love because on the surface it is bleak. The epiphany appears to be that death would be welcome because it would bring an end to the torment and unease the unnamed Magus has felt since his encounter with the Nativity. It upturns the usual context in which we see the Magi – which is most commonly as part of our celebrations of the Nativity, in Christmas Nativity Plays and on cards. Eliot cuts to the heart of the matter.
We are told next to nothing about the “Three Kings/ Wise Men / Magi” and so Eliot has a clean canvass on which to paint. He evokes marvellously the “old dispensation” from which the Magi came – the summer palace, the “silken girls bringing sherbet”. The journey requires them to exchange these things for sets of unpleasant and trying experiences, to the point it all seems “folly.”
So far so good, that, you might say, was what is to be expected on a spiritual journey, even if you don’t know it. It’s familiar territory to us from Cavafy and Thomas – it is the journey that matters. But Eliot here takes his text from a sermon given by Bishop Lancelot Andrewes on Christmas Day 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 solstitio brumali, ‘the very dead of winter.’
But where for Andrewes:
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.
Eliot is more, I want to say so I will say, realistic.
There is a fleeting, almost poignant note of release at the beginning of the second stanza, but the initial optimism is replaced by signs which puzzle the Magus, but not us. The “three trees” evoke for us an image of Golgotha. Then there are the vine leaves and the empty wine-skin, the men gambling with piece of silver. There is even the spectre of the white horse of the apocalypse. These things, hidden from the Magi, foreshadow what is to come.
But you might say, weariness, sore feet, bad hostels, grumpy guides, all these are common to any pilgrimage, suck them up pilgrim and concentrate on what is at the end. And here, for the Magi, it is the new-born Christ child. And yet, and yet, there is no revelation, no overwhelming feeling of “knowing”; indeed what is known, or at least intuited evokes the opposite of good cheer.
Is that it? Was it all for that? But there is more. Back home the Magi cannot feel “at home”. The world they knew feels somehow wrong, alien, full of idols and false gods. The birth felt like a death, and the Magus intuits that what has died in the world he knew – but whilst it dies, the new one is not clear to him. He knows inwardly that a new life comes only with death.
In his sermon, Bishop Andrewes said:
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. . . . 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.
Yes. We crave comfort. We know the spiritual journey will not contain it, so we put it off, or we tell ourselves it will be okay, and all things will be well in the end, and that if it is not all well then it is not yet the end. But Eliot offers us naught for our comfort. In this broken world there are costs in spiritual rebirth, and if we expect to be at home here afterwards, we shan’t be. The way is hard and only our faith keeps us on it.