A scene from Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night

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, sorefooted, 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 arriving at evening, not a moment too soon

Finding the place; it was (you might 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 dispensation,

With an alien people clutching their gods.

I should be glad of another death.

   TS Eliot

Christmas ends today.  It is Twelfth Night, celebrated as the Twelfth Day of Christmas, and it is the official end of the Christmas season.

To the Christians, it is the Feast of Epiphany in the Christian calendar, the day on which the Three Wise Men, the kings from the East known as the Magi visited Jesus Christ at his birthplace, acknowledging him as the Messiah. On this day “the King of Kings and Lord of Lords” was “revealed to the gentiles” in his true identity.  TS Eliot’s great Christmas poem, “Journey of the Magi is based on this.

To everybody else it is the day on which all Christmas decorations are taken down and the season is brought to an end. In years gone by in Europe it was marked by grand feasting and festivities, as the last feast day of the Yuletide festival. 

It is linked to several traditions, most of them developing in the mediaeval period (the Middle Ages) when the great Yuletide festival was evolving. These include the various “feast” days and the 12 days of Christmas. December 25 – Christmas Day as we know it, is only the first day of Christmas. Boxing Day on December 26 is the second, known as the Feast of St Stephen. It then ends with the Feast of Epiphany on January 6. The incidents in the carol “Good King Wenceslas” took place on Boxing Day. (“Good King Wenceslas looked out// On the feast of Stephen// When the snow lay round about// Deep and crisp and even…”)

The foregoing account is a simplification of rather complex factors relating to the origins and evolution of Christmas and of Christianity itself in the Old English (Anglo Saxon) and Middle English (Middle Ages) eras. Many of these factors were secular and even pagan. The date of January 6 is not clear-cut, since Twelfth Night is also recognized as January 5. That is because a day begins on its eve – the evening before; so Epiphany starts on the eve of Epiphany (evening of January 5). Christmas Eve is December 24, the evening before Christmas Day.

There are very famous works of literature about Twelfth Night. The most outstanding of them is William Shakespeare’s classic comedy Twelfth Night. It is believed that Shakespeare wrote it to celebrate the grand feast day and contribute to its revelries, although it was actually first performed in London in February 1602. It is definitely set at that time, evidenced by the opening scene which begins with Duke of Illyria Orsinio’s famous speech “if music be the food of love, play on”.

Another is the ground-breaking poem by Eliot, published by Faber in 1927 and known as one of the greatest Christmas poems. “Journey of the Magi”, however, is not easily pinned down and categorised. It might more appropriately be called an Epiphany poem – narrating the visit of the wise kings of the East. Yet the poem talks as much of death as of birth and has as many references to Easter and the crucifixion as to Christmas. Its interests and preoccupations are deep and complex; but it is a Christmas poem anchored on the events of Twelfth Night, in the end acknowledging a change in the world – the death of the old order brought about by the nativity.

The poem is free verse and modernist. Eliot, himself, as critic and poet, was the flag-bearer for the arrival of modern poetry, most specifically identified as 1922 with the publication of his “The Wasteland”. It is also a narrative in the order of Eliot’s “The Love Song of J Alfred Prufrock” and “The Wasteland”. More than a narrative, it is a dramatic monologue reminiscent of the Victorian Robert Browning from the nineteenth century.

The narrator is one of the Magi, and he is speaking many years after Christ’s birth, decades after he and his colleagues made the long journey to Bethlehem. The story is told from the point of view of this Magus who was not a Christian. With this narrative point of view, Eliot achieved a great deal of irony.

The dramatic monologue allows us to see the character of the narrator and Eliot made him a non-believer from a foreign land. He was one who did not waste emotions on euphemisms and painted the picture as bleak and as unflattering as he saw it. He was unimpressed by the bitter journey and by the place they sought for and found. He entertained doubts about the power and lofty claims of the birth and questioned why they had voyaged so far for what seemed a dubious event.

Eliot’s imagery throughout is noncelebratory and in keeping with the mood of the narrator. It is there in the harshness of the weather: “the very dead of winter”. Then the narrative is charged with understatement. They found the place and “it was (you might say) satisfactory”. All of this is out of step with the upbeat tone of the story as recorded in the Bible.

But despite its Dantesque and Virgilian journey through hell, the poem raises us up at the end.  The Magus ends in his own offhand manner by stating that his world was not the same after the birth, and he realizes this on reflection, long after he returns home to his kingdom. Note, too, the way he describes his own society and people in that same dry, unflattering fashion. Unimpressed by the state of his own kingdom, he is glad for change and for the new order that seems to have come after the birth.

This then becomes very telling acknowledgement of the liberation of the world by the birth of Christ. Told from the point of view of this cynical skeptic it has much more force than if it was told by someone gloriously converted, full of praise and rejoicing in the way the story of the nativity and its effects are usually told.

Eliot’s “Journey of the Magi” is a dramatic masterpiece. From the Christian standpoint it tells of triumph. It is a most fitting narrative to be told on Twelfth Night – the anniversary of the day the Magi paid their visit, and according to the Christians, the nativity was revealed.

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