Tuesday, 22 December 2015

A Favourite Poem

This is still one of my favourite Christmas Poems. I am not quite sure why. But it has that haunting quality - hanging around in the back of your mind and leaping out at you occasionally and surprising you -  that marks the very best poetry, in my opinion.

The Journey of the Magi 

"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 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 hostile 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 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) 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 lead all that way for
Birth or Death? There was a Birth, certainly,
We had evidence and no doubt. I have 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.

T S Eliot

When I published this last year, Ttony, of The Muniment Room, commented:
Were you aware that the start of the poem was inspired by a couple of sentences in a sermon originally preached to the Royal Household on Christmas Day 1620 by Lancelot Andrewes, who had led the team of translators which produced the King James Bible? 
"A cold comming they had of it, at this time of the yeare: just, the worst time of the yeare, to take a iourney, and specially a long iourney, in. The waies deep, the weather sharp, the daies short, the sunn farthest off in solstitio brumali, the very dead of winter."

To which I replied:
I think I have known that: it resonates with some vestigial memory deep in the recesses of my brain. But I could not have told you, if asked. Yet I do vaguely recall investigating those quotation marks. On the other hand there is no footnote or reference in my Eliot, and I can't believe in pre-internet days that I would have looked much further.

To which Ttony replied: 
And guess what: I've never noticed the quotation marks before! 
With Betjeman for Christmas and this for the Epiphany I have more theology of the Incarnation that I have had in many, many, years of sermons.

1 comment:

umblepie said...

A moving and evocative poem. When reading this I am always reminded that Our Lady and St Joseph suffered the same hardships in their journey to Bethlehem.