Thursday, December 23, 2010

Journey of the Magi (TS Eliot)

Although this poem is far from the exalted and breathless tales in the New Testament, I love it. It's more somber, more reflective, more appropriate (to me) in this, our midwinter. I suspect that the medieval artists, whose paintings I am posting here, would resonate with the emotions if they had the freedom to do so. Theirs was a cold and bitter world, full of class divisions, poverty, war and suffering, political oppression and religious bigotry - much like our own. A few days ago, I was cleaning out the back of a closet and came across a sack of books that I hadn't looked at in 30 years. They were full of the optimism and hope for the future that so many of us had in the 70's for we were going to change the world for the better. The first decade of the 21st century draws to a close and I am not particularly optimistic for the future.

Madonna and Child. Italian. 1485, Jacopo del Sellaio

A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a journey:
The ways deep and the weather sharp,
The very dead of winter.'
And the camels galled, sore-footed,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times we regretted
The summer palaces on slopes, the
And the silken girls bringing sherbet.

Then the camel men cursing and
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
And the villages dirty and charging high
A hard time we had of it.
At the end we preferred to travel all
Sleeping in snatches,
With the voices singing in our ears,
That this was all folly.

Then at dawn we came down to a

temperate valley,

Wet, below the snow line, smelling of


With a running stream and a water-mill

beating the darkness,

And three trees on the low sky,

And an old white horse galloped in

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)


 The Adoration of the Christ Child by Master of the Retable of the Reyes Catolicos. 15th century.

All this was a long time ago, I
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,
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
But no longer at ease here, in the old
With an alien people clutching their
I should be glad of another death.

Rodrigo de Orsina the Elder, Adoration of the Magi.
All images from the Legion of Honor data base. 
Legion of Honor


Zoomie said...

Oh, my, such beautifully written sorrow. What would make you feel more optimistic?

JP said...

Eliot for Christmas. What a treat!