The Religious Poetry of T. S. Eliot (with a particular focus on ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’)

isp_eliot_sketch_color
T.S. Eliot portrait by Baltimore Maryland artist Jerry Breen.

 

‘Journey of the Magi’ (1927) and ‘A Song for Simeon’ (1928) both arose from the poet’s spiritual struggles which eventually gave rise to his conversion to the Church of England.  In an essay first published in 1931, Eliot gives us a fairly vivid account of the process of conversion as he understands it:

The Christian thinker proceeds by rejection and elimination.  He finds the world to be so and so, but he finds its character to be inexplicable by any non-religious theory.  Among religions, he finds Christianity accounts most satisfactorily for the world, and thus he finds himself inexorably committed to the dogma of the Incarnation (Selected Essays, 408).

This description helps us understand Eliot’s personal development during the 1920s, and helps us see how his conversion was not a sudden transformation but an inevitable culmination of a long drawn out process.  His early poetry had been pervaded by a lament for his loss of faith and sometimes hinted that it might someday be recovered.  Thus, even a decidedly secular poem such as ‘The Love Song of J. Alfred Prufrock’ is interspersed with familiar Christian references.  In the poem we see references to Lazarus: ‘I am Lazarus, come back from the dead’.  Later we come upon a reference to St. John the Baptist: ‘though I have seen my head …. brought in upon a platter’.  Part of the greatness of Eliot’s Prufrock is that it depicts in a very honest way a personal state of mind and it also serves as an example of normal human misery and Roaring Twenties angst.  In the second section of Prufrock (‘The yellow fog that rubs its back…’) there is a beautiful, extended image of Prufrock’s own individual awareness.  For him, normal day-to-day apprehension is like a fog, but occasionally he feels that just beyond his field of vision there is a different order of reality – a parallel universe.

In ‘A Song for Simeon’ this order of reality is described and clearly defined.  What first strikes us is that Eliot very often has a peculiar tendency to express religious ideas in predominantly secular terms.  Both ‘A Song for Simeon’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ rely on this relationship between biblical and secular language.  Thus, ‘A Song for Simeon’ is based on the story of Simeon in St. Luke’s Gospel, (Luke 2:25 – 35) while ‘Journey of the Magi’ is modelled on St. Matthew’s account (Matthew 2: 1 – 12).  Both poems could be described as apocryphal, reminiscent of other written accounts of the life and works of Jesus during his life on earth, such as The Gospel of St. Thomas and others, which were seen by Church authorities as being of questionable provenance. 

773777-6
Journey of the Magi by Graham Pope

‘JOURNEY OF THE MAGI’ (1927)

St. Matthew begins his Gospel account with an elaborate genealogy that places Jesus as an ancestor of King David and Abraham. Here already Matthew shows his special interest and the intended audience for his Gospel. He is writing for a Jewish audience and presents Jesus as a King, better than David and a teacher greater than Moses.

It is Matthew that tells us about the Three Wise Men (Eliot’s Magi) that came to worship, bringing gifts fit for a king.  Matthew, in his powerful birth account, presents Jesus, in fulfillment of the prophecies and hopes of the Hebrew Scriptures, as the King of the Jews who has been given all authority in Heaven and Earth. He is Emmanuel, God with us.  Matthew, however, is making a powerful distinction for his Jewish audience – the Magi represent those outsiders, those wise men, magicians, or astrologers from the East, from Persia who will now be saved by this Christ child.  The Good News of Matthew, therefore, is that this Christ has come for all people and not just for the Chosen People of Israel.  Eliot sees in the Magi a metaphor for his own conversion – he too has made a long and tortuous journey and has finally made his decision to bow down before the Christian God.

‘Journey of the Magi’ – one of the great classic Christmas poems – is told from the perspective of one of the Magi (commonly known as the ‘Three Wise Men’, though the Bible makes no mention of their number or gender – although it does mention that they brought three gifts, gold, frankincense, and myrrh). The poem examines the implications that the advent of Christ had for the other religions of the time, and it emphasizes this pivotal moment in human history.  In the Christian calendar, the coming of the Wise Men or Magi is celebrated on January 6th – the Twelfth Day of Christmas.  It is often referred to as the Feast of the Epiphany, when Jesus is revealed to all, Jew and Gentile, as the Saviour of the World.

This is an apocryphal account of the journey made by the Three Wise Men which eventually led them to a humble stable in Bethlehem where the Christ Child lay.  It is narrated to us by one of their number, perhaps over a glass of wine, after their return home.  The story, and it is a beautifully told story, is told not in Biblical language, but in the language of everyday speech and with an amount of detail not found in the Gospel story of St. Matthew.

The opening quotation comes from one of Bishop Lancelot Andrewes’ Nativity Sermons, preached at Christmas during the 1620s. The speaker, one of the Magi, talks about the difficulties encountered by the Magi during the course of their journey to see the infant Christ. It is unconventional in that it  focuses on the details of the journey: their longing for home (and for the ‘silken girls’ bringing the sweet drink known as ‘sherbet’), their doubts about the purpose of the journey they’re undertaking, the unfriendly people in the villages where they stop over for the night, and so on. The hardships of the journey are recounted in some detail.  The details underline the absurdity of the journey in the first place but stress the strong impulses that made them undertake the journey in the middle of winter. The hardship is further stressed by the sharp juxtaposition between what they faced on their journey and what they had left behind in their ‘palaces’. 

Eventually, the Magi arrive at the place where the infant Christ is to be found. The weary travellers trek through a ‘temperate valley’ – a kind of Garden of Eden – and eventually arrive at a tavern with its drunkenness and gambling. The description of the valley is akin to a movie still – the camera pans slowly over the landscape lingering on sharply etched details such as the running stream, the watermill, the three trees, and the old white horse.  Then the camera moves on and picks out the gamblers and the empty wineskins.  There is no mention of Bethlehem or the stable in this account and the narrator simply states that they ‘arrived at evening, not a moment too soon / finding the place; it was (you may say) satisfactory’.  Neither is there any mention of the star which – the Gospels and a million children’s Nativity Plays tell us – guided the Magi to the spot where Christ lay in a manger. The words ‘not a moment too soon’ are important here because the narrator seems to realize that they, like Simeon later, because of their advanced years, were unlikely to survive to witness the Crucifixion or the Resurrection of Christ and that they can only count themselves lucky to have witnessed the beginning of this powerful new religious movement.

The poem ends with its narrator reflecting on the journey some years later, saying that if he had the chance he would do it all again, but he remains unsure about the precise significance of the journey and what they found when they arrived. Was it the birth of a new world (Christianity) or the death of an old one (i.e. the Magi’s own world)? The speaker then reveals that, since he returned home following his visit to see the infant Christ, he and his fellow Magi have felt uneasy living among their own people, who now seem to be ‘an alien people clutching their gods’ (in contrast to the worshippers of the newly arrived Jesus, who worship one God only, in the form of the Messiah). The speaker ends by telling us that he is resigned to die now, glad of ‘another death’ (his own) to complement the death of his cultural and religious beliefs, which have been destroyed by his witnessing the baby Jesus.

Jesus himself, however, is absent from this poem. One reason for this may be that we are, of course, all too familiar with the story of the Nativity and we don’t need reminding here.  Another possible reason is that the focus here in this account is on the journey, the quest, and the hardship of the search.  Eliot places himself here among and alongside the Persian astrologers as they seek out the face of the baby Christ. The poet empathises with the ‘Wise Men’ who are seeing their once deeply held beliefs being called into question by this new Messiah.

No study of the poem would be complete without reference to the imagery used by the poet.  In carrying out such an analysis we also need to remember that the narrator is one of a band of ‘wise men’, ‘astrologers’ who are learned in the study of signs and omens.  Sadly, it seems, the Magi miss the significance of almost all the images mentioned in the poem!  Much of the imagery foreshadows Christ’s later life: the three trees suggesting Christ’s crucifixion on Calvary; the vine, to which Jesus will liken himself; the pieces of silver foreshadowing the thirty pieces of silver Judas Iscariot will receive for betraying him; the wine-skins foreshadowing the wine that Jesus would beseech his disciples to drink in memory of him at the Last Supper. Even though the narrator is a priest or astrologer, someone trained to look for the significance in the things around him, to read and interpret signs as symbols or omens, he fails to pick up on what they foreshadow.  We, however, living in a Christian (or even a post-Christian) society, can read their significance all too well – and modern society, despite the aid of hindsight’s 20/20 vision seems equally oblivious to the significance of those momentous events in Bethlehem. At poem’s end, the narrator is left feeling perplexed and troubled by his visit and by the advent of Christ: he wonders whether Christ’s birth has been a good thing since his arrival in the world has finally signalled the death of his own old religion and the religion of his people. Now, he and his fellow Magi, like Simeon, are left world-weary and longing for life’s end.

So, therefore, ‘Journey of the Magi’ is partly about belonging, about social, tribal, and religious belonging: the speaker of the poem reflects sadly that the coming of Christ has rendered his own gods and his own tribe effete, displaced, destined to be overtaken by the advent of Christ and Christianity. It is tempting to see the poem – written in 1927, the year Eliot converted to the Anglican faith – as a metaphor for Eliot’s own feelings concerning secularism and the Christian religion, Christianity having itself been rendered effete in the face of Darwin, modern physics, and secular philosophy. The poem, about a people’s conversion from one religion to another, is equally bound up with Eliot’s own conversion.

Ron-DiCianni-Simeons-Moment-Full
Simeon’s Moment by Ron DiCianni

 ‘A SONG FOR SIMEON’ (1928)

‘A Song for Simeon’ relies heavily on the account given in the second chapter of Luke’s Gospel and phrases from this gospel echo throughout the poem.  Simeon comes to see the Christ child as he is being presented in the Temple by Mary and Joseph and he utters his famous Nunc dimittis: ‘Lord, now lettest thou thy servant depart in peace, according to thy word.  For my eyes have seen thy salvation, which thou hast prepared before the face of all people’.  Joseph and Mary marvel at this and Simeon addresses Mary: ‘This child is set for the fall and rise of many in Israel; and for a sign which shall be spoken against; Yea, a sword shall pierce through thy own soul also, that the thoughts of many hearts may be revealed’. 

The poem is not, however, a simple restatement of Simeon’s prophecy.  Indeed, the purpose of the religious references is not to analyse religious experience into a series of logical or dogmatic statements, but to reflect a state of mind.  Eliot diminishes somewhat Simeon’s role as a prophet and brings into focus his human characteristics.  The poem, therefore, has considerable realism.  Simeon is tired and old; like all ordinary men, he neither longs for martyrdom nor for the ‘ultimate vision’ of Christ’s triumph on earth.  He just wants to die peacefully, with no heroics and no rhetoric.  Eliot’s ‘Song’, unlike the original in Luke, is the ordinary prayer of a tired old man who has accomplished his task on earth and who hopes for God’s salvation.  This tone of contemplative piety is maintained until the end, ‘Let thy servant depart / Having seen thy salvation’.  Throughout the poem, the coming of Christ is seen as a victory over the powers of darkness.  Yet, characteristically, the advent of Christ is also seen as involving a painful transformation of attitude. 

This idea is central to all of Eliot’s religious poetry and in particular to ‘A Song for Simeon’; namely that all Christians must endure hardship and suffering in this life if they are truly Christ’s followers.  The quiet strength of the poem enables the allusions to suffering to be used in such a way that the reader is forced to pause and to consider.  Take for example the reference ‘And a sword shall pierce thy heart / Thine also’.  In his address to Mary, Simeon foretells her grief and that of Christ.  But here in their new context, the words extend in meaning to cover the sufferings of all Christians who bear the derision as well as share in the glory of the passion and resurrection.  Thus, Eliot suggests, every Christian enacts the martyrdom of Christ in his own life: this, now and in the future,  will be a prime condition of his life as a Christian. 

Simeon’s case, however, is a special one.  He is the only Christian whose life does not involve participation in the suffering and death of Christ (He will, after all, be dead long before the Crucifixion) – ‘Not for me the martyrdom … / Not for me the ultimate vision’.  Eliot sees Simeon standing at that unique crossroads in human history when the pagan world gives way to the Christian.  Simeon grew up in the old dispensation, and yet he has the foresight to welcome the new Christian age but he knows that he cannot share in it.  He has to be content with the ‘ultimate vision’, the consolation of recognising that he has achieved salvation in the figure of the Christ child whom he has held momentarily in his arms.

Any close analysis of this poem must involve some mention of Eliot’s use of symbols.  As his interest in religious topics increased he continued to invent a symbolic language so as to express his ideas in poetry.  What he does in ‘A Song for Simeon’ is to translate his experience partly into traditional Christian images, and partly into his own private symbols.  Throughout the poem, the presence of familiar Christian references is obvious enough.  Groups of them appear in the third stanza:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace.

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation,

Before the certain hour of maternal sorrow,

Low at this birth season of decrease,

Let the Infant, the still unspeaking the unspoken Word,

Grant Israel’s consolation

To one who has eighty years and no tomorrow.

Next to these familiar images, however, Eliot places various symbols which express very forcefully the waning of the old pagan world and the imminent coming of Christianity.  Stanza One, in particular, is filled with images drawn from nature.  The Roman world, the world of the old dispensation, continues to move in its accustomed way: the hyacinths are ‘blooming in bowls’, but the light of the old beliefs represented here by the winter sun is weak and fading – ‘The winter sun creeps by the snow hills’.  In the fourth line, Simeon is introduced to us using natural imagery – ‘My life is light, waiting for the death wind’.

Another significant feature of Eliot’s poetry after his conversion is his discovery of heroes – as opposed to anti-heroes like Prufrock.  Indeed, one modern critic has summarised Eliot’s religious poetry as ‘explorations of the meaning and nature of heroism’.  In ‘a Song for Simeon’, heroism is seen primarily in a Christian context.  Throughout the poem the coming of Christ is associated with images of desolation and hardship; he is the ‘wind that chills towards the dead land’; he brings ‘cords and scourges and lamentation’; he announces salvation to all men in terms of death and suffering.  The placid images of stanza one  (‘hyacinths’, ‘feather’, ‘dust and sunlight’, ‘snow hills’) give way to images of torment that represent the lives of all succeeding generations of Christians.  Death is the source of life (‘this birth season of decrease’).  This, says Eliot, is the law of sacrifice and renunciation, a law which can be seen mirrored in nature and which is the essence of the Christian way.  This is the essence of the challenge which Eliot outlines in ‘A Song for Simeon’.

Like Simeon, Eliot has longed to find Peace – ‘Grant us thy peace’.  Peace (Shalom) was a sacred word for Jews denoting a positive state of wholeness and productivity rather than our merely negative notion of an absence of hostilities.  It is in this wider sense that Eliot means the word to be understood.  Indeed, the entire poem must be seen in a Christian context, if its message is to be fully understood and appreciated.

________ *************________

Therefore, these two poems, ‘Journey of the Magi’ and ‘A Song for Simeon’, deal with different journeys: the Magi come from the East and traverse difficult landscape at an inhospitable time of the year to seek out their new Messiah.  The hardships experienced on their journey are emphassised by words like ‘cold’, ‘worst time of year’, ‘the ways deep’, ‘weather sharp’, ‘dead of winter’.  Simeon, too, has ‘walked many years in this city’ in order to carry out his religious and charitable works (‘Kept faith and fast, provided for the poor’).  Simeon also foresees persecuted Christians fleeing ‘from the foreign faces and the foreign swords’.  This is closely followed by the stark image of Christ’s journey to Calvary – probably the most poignant expression of the journey-metaphor in all of Eliot’s poetry:

Before the time of cords and scourges and lamentation

Grant us thy peace,

Before the stations of the mountain of desolation.

 Both poems are set in winter representing not only the old age of the narrators but also signifying the end of the ‘old dispensations’ and the advent of the new.  There is also, of course, the underlying notion of the journey which the poet has undertaken during the course of his conversion to his new faith.

To sum up, we can say that ‘A Song for Simeon’ and ‘Journey of the Magi’ mark a decisive turning point in Eliot’s religious faith.  They also mark a change in his poetic style as well as a total shift in his outlook on life. 

 Works Cited

Eliot, T.S., “The Pensées of Pascal”, Selected Essays (3rd Edition), London: Faber and Faber, 1951.

 

Advertisements