There and back with a difference: T.S. Eliot’s Journey of the Magi
by Sr M.Jadwiga Swiatecka
The poem has, I think, become something of a cliché, and has, perhaps, lost something of its impact through familiarity: ‘a cold coming we had of it’, we could now say even about many winter journeys (Though not this year, maybe. Wet, would be more appropriate) Nevertheless, it remains a poem worth rereading and questioning. It is a poem in which Eliot has been able to embody a new dimension to the familiar story of the three kings – it isn’t usual to think of what the journey, or its aftermath, might have been for them. We glimpse them in the Scriptures only in the short moment of their arrival, supported by art which sees them arriving with comfortable retinue. Eliot’s poem is one in which, in its juxtaposition of realism (the camel men cursing and grumbling) and symbolism (the three trees on the low sky, the hands dicing for silver) Eliot has also been able to encapsulate, or at least point to, journeys of Christian conversion, of meeting the incarnate Christ, which always means leaving the familiar for the unknown, in which, in the difficulties we meet, as of hostility and unfriendliness, we long for the comfort of what has been left behind – of whatever, for us, are ‘the summer palaces and the silken girls bringing sherbet,’ and, like the magi, surely hear the voices singing in our ears that this – the Christian undertaking, the search for Christ (or even more widely, Dominican life or whatever the ideal we embark upon) – is all folly.
For the magi, as, I think for the Christian pilgrim, the recurring nights of doubt are replaced, eventually (or perhaps recurrently), by a dawn in which they become aware, however distantly, of Christ’s suffering and death – and it is about this, as much as about the destination of their journey, that they receive no information - of course, for what information could there be?
And when they arrive, finding the place? ‘It was (you may say) satisfactory’. Is this an English reticence foisted by Eliot onto a different culture? Surely not – only – that. Would we want hyberbole? Even if we could find them, hyperbole express, on the whole, only an instant reaction. Whereas this, as the next line tells us, is something remembered, weighed and lived with: and perhaps, if we were as aware of language as Eliot was, satisfactory is what makes us fulfilled. It was, in the narrator’s considered judgment, what it should have been. And, he would do it again – in spite of the fact that this birth, which they had come to find, had been for them ‘a hard and bitter agony...like Death’. They return – with, of course, a difference: ‘no longer at ease in the old dispensation/ With an alien people clutching their gods’. (In face of this, we might reflect if we, unlike the narrator, find ourselves too much at ease in the non-Christian dispensation we mostly live in, whether, somehow, being at ease in it isn’t considered even something of a virtue.) So, the narrator would be ‘glad of another death’ . His own? Another coming of Christ – which was like a death for them? Another redemptive death? After all, the one they experienced was ‘so long ago’. All three, perhaps. And glad ’they would be. What tone is this said in? Is it resignation, or joy? And do we join them in this wish for another death?