Through T.S. Eliot’s use of symbolism in “The Journey of the Magi” there is a call to a world beyond words—just as the mystics of historic Christianity beckoned to Eliot from the beginning of his journey… 

In the summer of 1927, just after his baptism into the (Anglo) Catholic faith, T.S. Eliot wrote “The Journey of the Magi.” It was one of five poems he contributed to a series of pamphlets published by Faber and Faber called Ariel Poems. Along with Ash Wednesday it can be read as Eliot’s public witness to his Christian commitment, but it is also a testament to his own long journey to historic Christianity.

Eliot’s family were members of an old Boston Puritan clan who had adopted Unitarianism—that urbane form of the Arian heresy that denies the divinity of Christ, the existence of the Holy Spirit, and the need for sacraments and liturgy. Eliot’s paternal grandfather, William Greenleaf Eliot, had moved to St. Louis, Missouri, to establish a Unitarian Christian church while his father, Henry Ware Eliot, was a successful businessman in St Louis. His mother, Charlotte, wrote poetry and was a social worker.

Born in 1888, Eliot was therefore brought up in an American society brimming with an optimism about the world on the brink of a new century. The religion of the Unitarians had grown out of the romantic transcendentalism of the nineteenth century. It was a religion that had shed the superstitions of both the medieval Catholicism and the Biblical Protestantism that had supplanted it. A turn-of-the-century, moralistic, therapeutic, Deism, it espoused a rationalistic religion in which Jesus Christ was a good moral teacher and the Christian story provided a robust ethic of good works, good manners, good hygiene, good contacts, and respectability.

The bookish boy’s path was set before him. He’d head back to Boston, and after a successful career at Harvard he would marry a nice girl like the eminently suitable Emily Hale and settle into an academic post. The young Eliot even completed his doctoral thesis on the philosophy of F.H. Bradley, but having moved to Europe, he decided on a different path. After some bohemian student days in Paris and Germany he wound up at Merton College, Oxford. Then, rejecting the comfortable option of a university career, at the age of twenty-six, in “the awful daring of a moment’s surrender which an age of prudence can never retract,” he married a neurotic dancer—Vivienne Haigh Wood. Thus began a tortured private life and a series of teaching and desk jobs that would define his existence for the next thirty-three years.

It should not be overlooked that Eliot’s marriage took place in the midst of the apocalyptic First World War. The new century which was to be such an age of promise opened instead with a war that annihilated Eliot’s generation and plucked the heart from Christian Europe. Coming from the naive Unitarian optimism of the American mid-West, the sensitive poet must have been even more devastated. It was this mindless slaughter combined with the torture of his own marriage and alienation from his family that helped to produce his personal Ash Wednesday.

Eliot’s journey to Bethlehem had been a long time coming. In her biography of the poet Lyndall Gordon tracked down the books Eliot was reading while still an undergraduate at Harvard. Even then he had been reading deeply in the Christian mystics—Julian of Norwich, Saint John of the Cross, The Imitation of Christ, and Dante. He may have been Unitarian, but he was drawn to the fullness of Catholic Christianity, and his assessment of modern Europe in The Waste Land was not so much a song of despairing nihilism as it was a recognition—even then—of the inferno of human society devoid of a Christian heart.

“The Journey of the Magi” therefore echoes (the wise man) Eliot’s own journey. His own way was “deep and the weather sharp” and for him it was “the worst time of the year for a journey—and such a long journey.” And a “long and bitter agony.” Eliot’s use of symbols like the “three trees on the low sky” hints at the crosses on Cavalry and thus signals not only his own suffering, but his awareness of a Christianity more ominous than his family’s bright Unitarianism.

Meanwhile, his use of the symbolist technique of creating seemingly arbitrary images that spark a deep emotion conveys the intuitive and imaginative dimension to his pilgrimage. What, for example, does the poet mean by “an old white horse galloped away in the meadow”? What means the “vine leaves over the lintel” or the “six hands dicing for pieces of silver”? The images are evocative but remain elusive. They prod chthonic levels of awareness. Through them there is a call to a world beyond words—just as the mystics of historic Christianity beckoned to Eliot from the beginning of his journey.

But then in 1927 it all came into focus and became concrete. As he was baptized he “arrived not a moment too soon,” and in a classic understatement he acknowledged the lowly simplicity of his discovery: “The place was (you may say) satisfactory.” Eliot’s Christian conversion astounded and angered the establishment of London’s louche literary salons. Ezra Pound was dismayed. The atheist Bertrand Russell (who had probably bedded Eliot’s wife) laughed. Virginia Woolf mocked Eliot’s “liturgical appearance,” asking him publicly if he prayed. He remained rock solid in his faith, regretting “the summer palaces on slopes, the terraces and the silken girls bringing sherbets.” He lived what amounted to a private routine of remorse and penitence for his participation in the decadence and the debacle that was his marriage to Vivienne.

Eliot’s journey was a “hard and bitter agony” that culminated in the re-birth of his baptism. That re-birth meant the death of his old life, so that “this birth was like death—his death,” and his joyfully-understated postscript was the old man’s wry observation that “he should be glad of another death.”

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Editor’s Note: The featured image is “The Holy Three Kings on the Way to Bethlehem” (1846), by Joseph Binder, courtesy of Wikipedia France. The picture of T.S. Eliot is courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

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