A Christmas journey


Happy New 2014!

The most famous poem about the Epiphany is probably “The Journey of the Magi” by T.S. Eliot.  The picture it draws is so unlike that of the famous paintings of the Nativity. While the latter are usually full of rich, colourful detail, Eliot’s scene seems to be only sketched outlines, or, at most, in shades which are muted and sombre.  

The first stanza brings in a few details about the physical journey made by these Three Wise Men, the places they saw and the people they met.  It was a demanding journey and many things were exasperating. The conversational list contrasts at the end with the narrator’s reference to “the voices singing in our ears” during their night-time travelling.  Are these the angels who are calling to the shepherds? It is now almost morning.

The second stanza has some striking images which foreshadow Jesus’ adult life: the “three trees” hint towards the crucifixion at Calvary and the “dicing for pieces of silver” either to the Roman soldiers’ gambling for his clothes or to Judas’ betrayal; the “vine-leaves” and “empty wine-skins” might anticipate either his first childhood miracle at Cana or the parable reference of new wine in old wine-skins. It starts with the momentous-sounding “Then at dawn…” and ends with the famous understatement that “the place…was (you might say) satisfactory”.

The final stanza, reflecting that “All this was a long time ago…” has a tone of loss and regret which suggests that the famous journey of the title is greater for what it has changed within these men, a change which has not brought comfort and happiness, or at least not yet.

For me, Eliot’s distinctive voice suits this a little less well than “The Wasteland”. I enjoyed Saeed Jaffrey’s delivery and the TV report format used in the BBC programme Essential Poems for Christmas of a few years ago. Fred Proud also catches the mood well.


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