'...But tellingly, both the Magi, and Eliot, repeatedly said “I would do it again.” Elizabeth Oldfield - 07/01/16
I'm going to admit that I didn't manage to read all of The Poems of TS Eliot ahead of the anniversary of his death this week. The two thousand and thirty two page new edition was released late last year, and is a sign of the ever increasing interest in this Nobel Prize winning poet.
I did read his poem ‘The Journey of the Magi’, on Epiphany, yesterday. Like much of Eliot’s work it’s an unsettling poem, very far from the chirpy “we three kings” carol.
It was published shortly after Eliot converted to Christianity at the age of 38. Many people read the magi’s musings on their physical journey as reflective of Eliot’s own spiritual journey. And neither seems particularly easy. They had, in the poem’s famous opening “A cold coming... of it” after “such a long journey: The ways deep and the weather sharp”.
Much of the poem deals with the interrelated themes of birth and death. When Eliot became a Christian there was much that he lost. He was clearly no intellectual slouch, having taken a philosophy PhD at Harvard, but he was derided by his clever friends. Virginia Woolf declared that he must be “dead to us all”, and added “there's something obscene in a living person sitting by the fire and believing in God”. The magi speak of “voices singing in our ears, saying That this was all folly”.
After their long journey Eliot’s magi return to the place of these voices, no longer at ease with what he describes as “an alien people clutching their gods.”
Eliot the new Christian was born into a world in which he no longer felt at home. This is the experience of many of us in our seekings after God, or after truth. Eliot had sought and he thought, been found by, the most important thing in the world- but the world was not even faintly impressed.
This is a rather bleak vision of both Eliot’s conversion and the Magi’s encounter with the Christ child. But tellingly, both the Magi, and Eliot, repeatedly said “I would do it again.” The birth was worth the death. The arrival worth the cold coming of it. Many, if not all of the most valuable, true and beautiful things in life are impossible to gain without a journey of struggle, sacrifice, confusion and loss. A journey like that of the Magi.