Christmas in Poetry and Painting: T. S. Eliot and James Tissot

The Journey of the Magi was written by T. S. Eliot in 1927, the year he became the British citizen and converted to Anglicanism. Somewhat in line with his adherence to the European legacy and bearing in mind the age, Eliot’s lyrical hero is Melchior, the oldest of the Magi who traditionally represented Europe. The hero is brooding over the lengthy journey and the splitting effect the newborn baby was to have on the world as it had been.

Some thirty years before Eliot, James Tissot depicted a similar scene in The Journey of the Magi (1894). His magi appear tense and regal, riding camels and leading a caravan. The depiction of the journey was less frequent in painting than that of Adoration, thus Tissot’s treatment was certainly unique. It is very likely (starting with the title of Tissot’s painting and Eliot’s poem) that T. S. Eliot knew the painting, and that it provided him with inspiration by offering a clear parallel to themes that interested Eliot as a poet, particularly at that stage of his life and career. Alienation, spiritual and religious crises, and the pre-empting of the new catastrophe are the topics that were as important in Eliot’s time as they had been at the time of Nativity.

You can listen to T. S. Eliot’s reading The Journey of the Magi at Poetry Archive. There is more to read about Eliot’s poem.

James Tissot, The Journey of the Magi, 1894
(Minneapolis Institute of Arts, USA)

– T. S. Eliot, The Journey of the Magi, 1927 (from ‘Ariel’ poems)

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, sore-footed, refractory,
Lying down in the melting snow.
There were times when 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 dirty 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 wineskins.
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 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.

 

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