Current Events XIII
Death Pen. 2007 II
E. O. Wilson I
E. O. Wilson II
Charleston, SC (I)
Charleston, SC (II)
Savannah, GA (I)
Savannah, GA (II)
A Visit to HOOTERS
Notre Dame Losses
The Price of Sugar
Cats of Mirikitani
Shadow of Moon
Make Haste Slowly
Kindling a Memory
Sen. Craig's "Stall"
A Beloved Beagle
Greensburg KS I
Greensburg KS II
Just the Guys
Photographic Mem I
Photo Memory II
Photo Memory III
Photo Memory IV
Photo Memory V
Photo Memory VI
Photo Mem. VII
Photo Mem. VIII
Photo Mem. IX
More on Learning
I Give the World...
Romney on Religion
No Country (Coens)
Lars & the Real Girl
NJ Abolishes the DP
Free Rice I
Free Rice II
Free Rice III
Oregon St. Bar
Or. State Bar II
Lucky the Monkey
Next Bourne Flick I
Next Bourne II
Great Cats Act I
Great Cats Act II
Diary of Free-Range Chicken
Arirang and Larry Norman
T. S. Eliot's The Journey of the Magi
Bill Long 1/6/08
An Epiphany Reading
Even though I have been attending an Episcopal Church for a few years, I don't consider myself very gung-ho on Christian festivals or even the "Church Year," as it is called. Yet today, after begin asked by Terri Hoffman of my congregation to lead the adult study group, I decided to focus not just on the famous epiphany text from Mt. 2 (the visit of the Magi) but also on Thomas Stearns Eliot's memorable 1927 poem, "The Journey of the Magi." Reading Eliot opened up the Biblical story to us in a fresh and insightful way. In this essay, I would like to share some of these thoughts--as well as some memorable lines from his poem.
A Word on the "Journey of the Magi"
I hadn't known until today that Eliot penned this 63-line poem in his late 30s in August 1927, just after his recent (June 1927) baptism into the Anglican Church. He was a "high" Anglican, and he always believed that the structure and dignity of that tradition stood as a bulwark against the disintegration, dissolution, disillusion and chaos he saw not only in his own life but also in the life of the world. Part of that chaotic spirit is reflected in this poem. It is told from the perspective of several years distance by one of the Magi. Its tone, rather than exultant or rejoicing, as is the case of the Magi in Matt. 2, is one that recognizes the hardships of the journey and the way that the Magi were relatively unimpressed by what they actually saw. Yet in a curious sort of way, the visit to the Christ child changed their lives, and, after returning to their kingdoms, they realized their spiritual distance from their contemporaries--who were described as "an alien people clutching their gods..." Thus, Eliot's "take" on this first Epiphany journey is influenced by at least three things: (1) his newly-found Christian faith; (2) his continuing bleak assessment of the realities of this life; and (3) his sense that the poet is free to re-interpret or "play" with the Biblical story as he tries to make it meaningful for himself.
The First Stanza-20 Lines
We get right to the action in the opening lines:
"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."
I read the entire poem to my "class" (about a dozen people) this a.m., but we began with comments on this section. Several noted Eliot's focus on the difficulty of the journey. While nothing is said about this in Matt. 2, Eliot's description of the arduousness and asperity of the trip has an air of verisimilitude. We spent several minutes looking at the line: "And the camels galled, sore-footed, refractory..." because one person asked, "What does refractory mean?" Asking me what a word means is like asking a mother about her children, and so I decided to take a long digression (I am very good at this) on each of the three words: galled, sore-footed, refractory.
I said that when you run across a word you don't know, focus on the context, and then begin with the words you do know. Everyone admitted s/he knew what "sore-footed" meant, but then I asked them about "galled." We began with a "gall," which is a pustule or blister, especially on a horse, though also on a tree. I mentioned how words sometimes "evolve" in English, from a meaning that originally was tangible or visual to something that is "abstract." So, we traced the way that "gall" evolved from a noun to a verb to the abstraction of being "bothered" or "irritated." "Galled" horses would be horses afflected with galls or painful swellings.
Then, when we looked at refractory, I urged them to take the word apart--by examining the second syllable. What, I asked, does "fract" mean? Someone said "break," and then I was off to the races. I spoke of a "fraction" (broken number) or a "fracture" (broken bone), and then returned to a discussion of the opposite of a "fraction." It is an "integer." An "integer" is "whole," while a fraction/fracture, is something that has been "broken." A person who is whole has "integrity." A refractory camel (the OED says that the original word in English was refractary, derived from the Latin adjective "refractarius," is obstinate or stubborn. That is what the camels were. I urged them to memorize this troika of words--in fact, I suggested to them that they might not be able to get these three words out of their minds in the future.
This led me to a small digression on memorization, for which I have a Billphorism (# 305: 'Tell someone that you are memorizing things, and they think you are wasting time; demonstrate the fruit of memorization and they think you are a genious').
The Second and Third Stanzas
So, I read on. Here are the second and third (last) stanzas:
"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 lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have 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."
We could go on for some time expositing the poem, but suffice it to say that we paused on the line: "And three trees on the low sky." Was this pointing to the crucifixion, where Christ was executed in the middle of two other criminals on crosses (trees)? Or, was it just Eliot's way of giving minimal artistic description as a way of encouraging the reader to "fill in" the details? Maybe both but probably more the former than the latter.
Then, finally, we talked about the notion of joyful journey in Matt---esp. Matt. 2:10--as being quite different from the description here. The Magi were seeing death in life; the visit to the Christ brought their death to their minds. It changed them; the interaction with common elements (camels, towns, etc.) transformed their lives so that they felt they now had some kind of secret, that they lived life "no longer at ease" here on earth in the "old dispensation." Such encounter with life made death more vivid--the death to this world they experienced.
So, on this Epiphany Day 2008 we eventually got to Gospel text, but we stayed a good long time in Eliot's world. We all were glad we did--and I hope you were able to experience and enjoy it a bit, too.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long