Have you made your New Year’s Resolutions yet? How many items did you mark off your list because they were too hard? How many items have you switched around because “I can’t do that in January: the time’s not right”?
Let me give you a poem to read.
Yes, yes, I know.
But you’ll like this one.
It’s T.S. Eliot. Thomas Stearns Eliot. TSE (one of the few writers that English teachers recognize by initials alone: EAP and GBS are two others).
“Ugh, I don’t like him,” you say.
Well, I didn’t either.
I came late to an appreciation of T.S. Eliot. In high school I didn’t care for his famous “Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock”, and by college I just rolled my eyes at “The Wasteland”. This is great poetry? Are you kidding me? No. “Hotel California”, now that’s great poetry.
Maybe the lack happened in high school; TSE always occurs in May. My teachers were as tired of the song-and-dance of teaching as we students were of watching that song-and-dance. “What do you have for Number 3? Okay, have you got Number 6?”
Maybe, as an arrogant late teen-ager/young 20-something, I couldn’t tolerate his seeming arrogance. Listen to one of the recordings of TSE reading his poems, and you’ll hear it. We have a tendency to hate and to mock what we ourselves are most guilty of.
Or maybe I didn’t understand TSE because I hadn’t lived enough.
It takes some living to understand Prufrock’s problems and his famous “I should have been a pair of ragged claws / Scuttling across the floors of silent seas”.
I certainly didn’t have enough literature in my head when I was struggling through “The Wasteland”, even an annotated copy.
Whatever the deficiency, in the past decade, by circuitous routes of cats and tongue-twisters, I have fallen in love with his poetry. “The Hollow Men” and “Burnt Norton” and, yes, even Prufrock’s Love Song. But I particularly love “The Journey of the Magi” with its strong persona, resolved to reach his destination, no matter what difficulties, remembering the trials and the success and considering whether to make that journey again.
And that strong Magi persona can speak to us. We are on the journey to our destination. We struggle through difficulties and confront trials, stumbling through events we only in hindsight realize were successes. And we wonder what on earth we have to do next and why we have to repeat the same thing over and over again.
So, here, at New Year’s, when we are all considering what we should write as our resolutions and trying to reach our own revelation, is TSE’s poem for the Epiphany:
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 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.