Long ago, I was an English major. I had already fallen in love with T.S. Eliot in high school, and in college I took a couple of courses in 20th century poetry. I wrote many papers on poetry, ranging from the introductory work we did on Beowulf to the confessional poets so popular in the 1970s. No doubt some of those papers contained sentences referencing Eliot's capacity for the wide sweep of western mythology, his articulation of the universality of the experience of alienation, and his conversion to Christianity (which at the time would have seemed mythological and alienating to me!). These days, I find the symbolism much more accessible and the language an easier slide ~ but, in a life which has become foreign to me, the overall evocation of the difficult journey and the confusing mystery of life and death is much more significant than the details of poetic skill that underlie them.
It's a beautiful, beautiful poem, regardless of the ground from which you approach it.
"A cold coming we had of it,
Just the worst time of the year
For a journey, and such a long journey:
The snow was 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 gong 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.
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.
(Image: Gentile da Fabiano, The Adoration of the Magi, 1422, Uffizi)