Journey of the Magi
by T.S. Eliot
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Having just re-read some of E.E. Cummings’s best poems, I know why T.S. Eliot often leaves me cold. While Cummings questions everything and shies and rears at any hint of the conventional, Eliot has the sort of personality that loves tradition. Both Cummings and Eliot might love a cathedral because it is beautiful, but Cummings will be suspicious of the motives of the builders while Eliot will be drawn to the cathedral simply because it is old.
Now is not the time for an extended debate about the differences between convention and tradition. Suffice it to say, I would rather Christians were skeptical of every tradition than that they embrace even one habit or idea that is unbiblical. Eliot swallows far too much when he finds it sugar-coated in tradition.
All of which is only to say that I am suspicious of much of Eliot’s literary criticism and his ideas about culture in general. When it comes to his poetry, I am simply in awe. Before he trusted Christ, Eliot perfectly portrayed timidity, self-consciousness and modern despair in “The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock.” After he trusted Christ, Eliot effortlessly forces us to re-consider our position as created beings and our desperate need for self-denial in “The Journey of the Magi.”
The narrator of this poem, one of the wise men, describes his journey and concludes,
\"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.\"
Though Eliot loves tradition, his treatment here of the Advent of Christ is anything but conventional. You won’t find these sentiments on a Hallmark Christmas card; nor is this the easy Dickensian answer that everything will work out fine if we just learn to love one another. “The Journey of the Magi” is Eliot at his best, with his eyes focused on Christ rather than on tradition.
by Jeff Baldwin