The Christian character of T. S. Eliot’s poetry is a common subject for discussion in religious periodicals. Professor James Wesley Ingles has commented eloquently on this topic in his article, “Christian Elements in the Poetry of T. S. Eliot” (CHRISTIANITY TODAY, October 13, 1961). Nowhere is Eliot more explicit in delineating his Christian beliefs than in the short poem, “Journey of the Magi.” Here his grasp of the inherent soteriological truth, that Jesus Christ was born to die, makes relevant the reading of this poem at this Christmas season, when all the world concentrates on the manger, as if to blot out the cross.
In “Journey of the Magi” we hear the reminiscences of one of the Wise Men. Now an old man, he appears to be recounting his memoirs to an amanuensis. The words “but set down/This set down/This” are directed to the secretary, and the first five lines of the poem, enclosed in quotation marks, are a partial transcript of the record already written. This would seem to be a valid interpretation from the text, although Eliot in one of his essays has attributed these opening lines to a paraphrase of a sermon by Lancelot Andrewes (1555–1626), one of the translators of the Authorized Version. As it appears in the poem, however, the passage belongs to the aged Magian.
His attitude, shown in the first stanza, toward his memories is important to observe. He recalls very little about the journey that could be considered pleasant, even in the romance of retrospection. The season was “just the worst time of year.” The journey, “such a long journey.” The functionaries on whom he depended—the camels and the men who drove them—are remembered as having been “refractory.” The animals lay down in the melting snow, refusing to go ...1
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