The Journey to the Center

While re-reading Eliot’s Collected Poems and Plays I discovered another poem besides “The Hollow Men” that I truly liked. In fact, I was surprised how much I liked “Journey of the Magi” for I’m sure if I’d seen the title in an anthology I would have skipped right over it. It’s perhaps even more surprising considering the fact that, unlike Eliot, I find myself drawn more and more to Unitarianism, at least to its underlying beliefs, and less and less drawn to established religions and the accompanying rituals he found so powerful.


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 when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.
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 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.

Although the beginning of the poem was “lifted from Lancelot Andrewes’s Nativity Sermon of 1622, and modified”, most of the poem is immediate and straightforward, not a patchwork of allusions. While the opening descriptions are obviously symbolic, they are presented as concrete narrative, with little commentary. Imagery carries the poem, and to a large extent the reader is allowed to draw his own conclusions from the images. It is only in the final stanza where the narrator is looking back that “ideas” are directly introduced, and even here they seem to be an integral part of the narrative.

More importantly, the message of the poem is more amiable to my own vison of the world and of Christianity than most of Eliot’s poems. Though I came to the poem expecting a typical Christmas Eve poem, I left with a very different impression, a good thing because I value poems that surprise me, that force me re-examine my beliefs, rather than merely reinforce them.

The first stanza vividly conveys how difficult it is for person to reach Christ, particularly with ” voices singing in our ears, saying/ That this was all folly.” And because Jesus calls us from the things of the world, from the “the silken girls bringing sherbert,” most of us find ourselves resisting the call at some point in our lives.

Many of us have found, at least temporarily, an inner place like the one described in the second stanza. For some it’s the moment they’re baptized or enter into a particular congregation. For others, it’s finding something that makes them feel at peace with themselves, a spiritual center that sustains them.

The greatest question, the one Eliot addresses in the third stanza, is whether you must deny your “old self” in order to be true to the new self. Doesn’t “reborn” suggest both death and life? In order for the new self to be born, it would seem that the old self must first die, or perish. If you must return to your old “kingdom,” your job, say, in order to live, can you ever feel comfortable in “the old dispensation,” with people who suddenly seem to cling to old values, to Moloch, sacrificing their very lives and beliefs to the demands of everyday existence, “Christians” rendering unto Caesar their very existence?