Kevin Saving on
'Journey of the Magi'
by T.S.Eliot (1885-1965)
'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 melted 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 wine-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 led all that way for
Birth or Death? 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.
We returned to our places, these kingdoms,
But no longer at ease here, in the old dispensations,
With an alien people clutching their gods.
I should be glad of another death.
Thomas Stearns Eliot was thirty-eight years old when he wote 'Journey of the Magi' (featured above). His magnum opus, The Waste Land, had been self-published in The Criterion (a literary journal which Eliot had both founded and edited) five years earlier, to great acclaim - and some notoriety.
'The Journey of the Magi' was commissioned by Eliot's 'boss' Geoffrey Faber and published by his employers, Faber and Gwyyer (later Faber and Faber) in August, 1927, shortly after its composition. Part of the Ariel series (38 illustrated pamphlets by contributors as varied as Thomas Hardy, Henry Newbolt, G.K.Chesterton, Edith Sitwell and D.H.Lawrence) Eliot's was the ninth off the press and included drawings by E.McKnight Kauffer. Its author was heavily influenced during this period by the writings of the prelate Lancelot Andrewes (the poem's first five lines were 'lifted' from the latter's 'Nativity Sermon' ). Eliot would contribute to Faber's For Lancelot Andrewes: Essays on style and order of the following year.
At the time of 'The Journey of the Magi''s writing, 'Tom' Eliot had been married to Vivien (nee Haigh-Wood) for twelve years. They lived during this period at 57 Chester Terrace, Belgravia. Theirs had been something of a whirlwind courtship, which had brought neither of its principals any lasting happiness. There are hints of dalliances on both sides (homosexual on Tom's part) and stories of his wearing make-up - rather in contrast to the prim, three-piece-suited public persona Eliot adopted. A former governess, Vivien's role in the composition of The Waste Land has often been overlooked. She had also contributed (pseudonymously) to The Criterion - whose titled she'd suggested. Though by 1927 the marriage was unravelling, Vivien had never ceased to believe in her husband's genius. Their problems seem to have been exacerbated by her hormonal imbalance (excessive menstruation) and his probable heterosexual naivety, possible aversion. Neither was their marital misery much alleviated by Vivien's reputed infidelities with Eliot's erstwhile friend, the philandering philosopher, Bertrand Russell. A slightly sinister figure, the elderly ex-detective William Janes entered the Eliot's life around this time. Part Handyman, part servant, Janes would report on Vivien's behaviour to her husband.
Eliot would often visit churches in the early years of his marriage, partially for aesthetic reasons but also, perhaps, in search of spiritual sanctuary. In 1926 he had surprised his in-laws by kneeling in front of Michelangelo's 'Pieta' whilst sight-seeing in Rome. On 29th June, 1927, he was baptised into the Anglican-Catholic church and confirmed the next day: Vivien was known to be unsympathetic to his conversion. In November of the same year he formally took on British citizenship, which would have been facilitated by his marriage to an English National.
The Eliots formally separated in February, 1933, though the increasingly unstable Vivien was by no means reconciled to her husband's rejection of her. She would be committed to an asylum, Northumberland House, North London, in 1938 through the offices of her brother, Maurice (though with Eliot's acquiescence, if not connivance). Tom would never see her again before her death some nine years later, which (it has been speculated) may well have been the result of an overdose.
T.S. Eliot would, in time, become a warden of his parish church, 'St. Stephen's, Gloucester Road, London. He would go on to win the Nobel prize for literature, the year after Vivien's death. He would be invested with the Order of Merit and enjoy a happier (second) marriage to Valerie, his secretary at Fabers - and his junior by nearly 38 years.
'The Journey of the Magi' was to become Valerie's particular favourite of all his works. She had heard a (John Gielgud) recording of it - long before they were married. When she asked Tom about how it came to be written he replied: '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'.
Ackroyd, P. (1984) T.S.Eliot, Penguin.
Gordon, L. (1999) T.S.Eliot: An Imperfect Life, Norton.
Johnson, P. (2010) Brief Lives, Hutchinson.
Seymour-Jones, C. (2001) Painted Shadow, A Life of Vivienne Eliot, Constable And Robinson
Kevin Saving © 2012