'The 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 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.

All this was a long time ago, I remember,
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.

Eliot's reading of 'The Journey of the Magi'

'The Journey of the Magi' - Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni)
'The Journey of the Magi' - Sassetta (Stefano di Giovanni)

Brilliant to hear Eliot read his own poem. Now can we see where Mr Harkin's rhythmic booming comes from? I was struck listening by a few things, including the lines "now set down this, set down this" indicating a preoccupation with recording an event, or observation. Here is less a memory poem or kind of elegy for a hard journey and more a record in the manner of a biblical verse or historical narrative an archeologist might dig up on a scroll or tablet. What is it with Eliot and the urge to voice characters' need for remembrance? Also "the voices singing in our ears, saying" suddenly played like Handel's Messiah in my head (a central piece of English musical culture with which surely Eliot would have been familiar, or else the biblical verses on which the libretto is based) -
Accompagnato (Soprano)
And suddenly there was with the angel, a multitude of the heavenly host, praising God, and saying:
(Luke 2 : l3)
Glory to God in the highest, and peace on earth, good will towards men.
(Luke 2 : 14)
But lo and behold, Eliot does not give us this celebration of faith, does he? Instead the voices are inside the Magi's heads and profess nothing more than nagging self-doubt yet again, that "this was all folly". Have a listen to this usually euphoric bit of the Messiah here: http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=kkEpSfusMx0 and the chorus http://www.youtube.com/watch?v=_2xWuIXb6rM&feature=related. Sorry it comes in two bits - but this version is much better than many others available. It conveys the sense of barely restrained excitement which characterises Handel's writing in contrast to Eliot's once again muted tones.