Death in Life at Christmas: T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"

By Boersma, Gerald P. | Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture, Winter 2020 | Go to article overview

Death in Life at Christmas: T. S. Eliot's "Journey of the Magi"


Boersma, Gerald P., Logos: A Journal of Catholic Thought and Culture


ONE OF T. S. ELIOT'S MOST RECOGNIZED POEMS is "Journey of the Magi." (1) The poem first appeared inside a Christmas card. Richard de la Mare, who served with Eliot as director for the publishing house Faber & Faber, had the entrepreneurial idea of sending Christmas cards to those who had business with the press. In the spirit of Shakespeare, the series was called "Ariel Poems." The inside page of the card contained an unpublished Christmas-related poem from a contemporary poet, and the exterior was accompanied by an illustration from a noted contemporary artist. Between 1927 and 1931 the press released thirty-eight "Ariel Poems" by figures such as Thomas Hardy, G. K. Chesterton, Siegfried Sassoon, W. B. Yeats, and D. H. Lawrence. T. S. Eliot wrote five of the poems during these years, of which four were matched with illustrations by the avant-garde American poster artist, Edward McKnight Kauffer. A 1936 collection of Eliot's poetry for Faber & Faber included his contributions to the cards under the heading "Ariel Poems."

Eliot's "Ariel Poems," while written for Christmas cards, are a far cry from the maudlin warm and fuzzy Hallmark cards typical of the season. As in most of Eliot's poetry, a deep melancholy pervades the lines. Unfulfilled longing and a searing awareness that this life is a penultimate season of ennui mark the "Ariel Poems." Eliot's casting of Christmas is not typical of what comes to mind when we think of Christmas. Nevertheless, Eliot points his readers toward an essential aspect of Christmas not often considered.

The joy of Christmas is the celebration of God entering into human life, the feast commemorating the moment when the immortal becomes mortal and eternal life breaks into the cycle of temporal existence. For Eliot, however, the joy of Christmas also introduces profound discomfort and angst. The light of life illumines the dark truth that life as we experience it is ultimately incomplete, that considered on its own it remains a riddle of brokenness and death. In the light of Christmas, we can no longer evade the reality that our life (in St. Augustine's words) carries death around with it (mortalitatem circumferens). (2) In "Journey of the Magi," the first and most familiar poem of his Ariel cycle, Eliot explores the dark reality that Christmas illumines. For Eliot, the mystery of the light of Christmas becomes intelligible from the darkness of the Passion. The three stanzas of this poem enter into the darkness of Christmas.

"Journey of the Magi" is equally Eliot's own journey into the Christian faith. He composed the poem shortly after receiving baptism in the summer of 1927. Throughout the poem one can hear an unmistakable echo of Eliot's recent reading of St. John of the Cross's Dark Night of the Soul; the darkness of faith, to which the Magi give expression, is also Eliot's darkness, even after formally entering into the Church. He wrote "Journey of the Magi" in one sitting. Eliot explained to his wife, Valerie: "I wrote it one Sunday after matins. I had been thinking about it in church and when I got home I opened a half-bottle of Booth's Gin, poured myself a drink, and began to write. By lunchtime, the poem, and the half-bottle of gin, were both finished." (3)

Everything is contained in the title, "Journey of the Magi." To read the title is to have the whole narrative of Matthew 2 cascade into our minds. In three stanzas, Eliot depicts the journey, the arrival, and the return. In a world-weary tone, the voice of one of the Magi describes the journey undertaken in the first stanza. It is an arduous journey, fraught with challenges. Nature and man conspire against the Magi. The first five lines of the poem are a quotation from a 1622 Nativity sermon preached by the Anglican divine, Lancelot Andrewes, before King James I on Christmas Day. The speaker adopts Andrewes's description of the Magi's journey ("and such a long journey"). (4) The Magi travel in the "dead of winter," through inclement "sharp" weather, contending with intransient camels and stinging cold. …

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