Journey of the Magi

by T. S. Eliot

‘A cold coming we had of it

Just the worst time of the year  
For a journey, and such a 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 we regretted  
The summer palaces on slopes, the terraces  
And the silken girls bringing sherbet. 10
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. 20
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 30
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. 40
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.  

Journey of the Magi — The title refers to the journey the magi (sometimes called wisemen or kings) took to from the east to see Jesus’ birth, as described in Matthew (the only one of the gospels to mention them). Note that nothing in the Bible says there were three of them; in the Eastern Orthodox church, they number twelve. Also, note that the singular of magi is magus.
‘A cold coming we had of it — Eliot takes the opening lines of the poem from the 1622 nativity sermon by Lancelot Andrewes (1555-1626), a renowned bishop of the Anglican church who played a major role in translating what became known as the King James Bible. Late in the sermon, Andrewes describes the magi’s journey: “Last we consider the time of their coming, the season of the year. It was no summer progress. A cold coming they had of it at this time of the year, just the worst time of the year to take a journey, and specially a long journey. The ways deep, the weather sharp, the days short, the sun farthest off, in solsitio [sic] brumali, the very dead of winter.” (The quotation marks in the poem are single because the poem was originally published in England.)
refractory — stubbornly uncooperative
regretted — missed, regretted leaving
dispensation — the way the world was given to humanity; the old dispensation is in contrast to the new dispensation of Christianity