T.S. Eliot’s Christmas-themed poem “Journey of the Magi” was written in August 1927, only a few months after his formal June conversion to the Church of England. It’s a dramatic monologue in the style of Robert Browning; from old age, one of the magi recollects the long journey to the scene of Christ’s nativity, from the relative splendor of “summer palaces” and “silken girls bringing sherbet” to the more difficult and humble place of his birth. The magus feels ambivalent about the meaning of the birth: “There was a Birth, certainly, / 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.”
A bit of a downer, that, for what we’re used to celebrating with joy. And we should celebrate, though for both Eliot and Chrstianity, it’s not that simple. Former Archbishop of Canterbury Dr. Rowan Williams, a rather splendidly readable Christian apologist, theologian, and critic himself, had this to say about the poem:
Eliot never wanted to present religious faith as a nice cheerful answer to everyone’s questions, but as an inner shift so deep that you could hardly notice it, yet giving a new perspective on everything and a new restlessness in a tired and chilly world. The flatness of the rhythms and phrasing, the utterly prosaic way of describing a miracle, all contribute to what turns out to be an intensely imagined and challenging poem that I first read as a boy and that still moves and disturbs me as much as it did then.
Below, Sir Alec Guinness reads the poem; you can follow along with the video. More information on “Journey of the Magi” can be found here.