Since some recent posts have involved "The Journey of the Magi,"
I thought it might be interesting to look at some correspondence TSE had about
the poem with a friend, Alan Porter. TSE had recently published the poem (1927)
when these letters were written.
In the Letters of T.S. Eliot (vol 3), Porter's letter appears as a footnote. Since Porter's letter was written first, I'm posting it first, followed by TSE's reply.
In TSE's reply, he gives us a tidbit of what he meant ("I meant that the Magi were drawn by a power which they did not understand"), although Peter will undoubtedly send in a post to tell me that TSE was only describing a mood and not revealing any of his intention regarding meaning.
-- Tom --
From the footnote listed on page 860-861 of Letters, vol 3:
(1)-Alan Porter's letter of 25 Nov. was largely devoted to his reading of TSE's poem Journey of the Magi; beginning from this second paragraph:
'I thought it was rather awkward and cowardly to leave you without saying how I had criticized "The Journey of the Magi". I took it as a very important poem, and tried to exhibit _why_, from the substance of what you wrote - not from technique or vividness or lyric quality at all. That is, as if you were _doing_ something, as if the poem were an action.
'And I said, "Alas for this nostalgia", very much as Richards seems to have said, "Hurrah for this nostalgia". Here is a myth, and you are remaking it, just as a Greek poet remade the myths he told. And what falls out of the story, what is put into it, how is it changed?
'There is no star, there are no gifts, there is actually no birth and no worship (or perhaps there was a birth, yes, certainly there was one; but not an overwhelming and ever remarkable birth).
'How would I like to see the myth? Or rather, how do 1 see it? As in fact the Three Magi were Zoroaster and Pythagoras and Buddha. As if the mysteries of the ancient world were something of supreme dignity and truth. As if this were the order of Melchizedec; suffering the shock of becoming Christian and having its meaning fulfilled, and transcended in fulfillment.
'Into Christianity came Plato and Aristotle, Trismegistus, Eleusis, the Vedas ... It was something to take the breath away, and make them humble; but are we to say they had nothing to bring, and they were left rootless after it had happened. I see it as if it were mankind at its firmest and greatest that was here confessing its insufficiency, and receiving its justification.
'I think you saw it as if the world were at a dead end; as if it were superseded rather than transcended; as if these were three more Jews, or rich young men.
'And if I am to take the poem as an attitude to life, I believe it would go like this - "The world certainly happens, and has to be accepted: but there is no certain perfection. It comes difficultly to us, and even trivially. I don't know whether there is an absolute meaning to it. I am forced to certain conclusions. Is there any guarantee that they are Right? And suppose they are right: are they very exhilarating?
'It was one of the Cairnses, I think, who used to get indignant at the phrase "too good to be true", holding that we should rather say "not good enough to be true". This looks to me like a good, buoyant, and creative feeling.
'Will you acquit me of impertinence in writing this? If I said "blasphemous", I must apologise; it was a swear word. Some-one asked me, "But do you think all that has anything to do with it as a _poem_"; and that is a point of view which is beyond me to handle.'
Here is TSE's response to the Porter letter:
To Alan Porter
13 December 1927 [London]
I am sorry that I did not get your letter in time to accept your invitation, and since I have been back I have been too busy with the question of the reorganisation of the Criterion to write to you. I shall be very busy from now until just before Christmas when I must go abroad again. Perhaps you will ask me again next year.
Thank you for expressing yourself so fully about my Christmas poem.(1) I value all that you say in praise of it, but I must say quite ingenuously that your interpretation of it gave me rather a shock. No doubt that is partly because we start with quite different fantasies of what such an occurrence would have been like. But as the whole story of the Magi is not, I believe, an essential matter of Christian doctrine, I felt a certain liberty to treat it according to my own fantasy of realism. I did not intend to put forward, and still do not believe that I did put forward, any view which would either conflict with Christian doctrine or any imagination which would tend to weaken belief. The notion that the three Magi were the three religious leaders whom you mention does not appeal to me because what little I know of their religions makes me unable to accept the imaginative possibility of such a tribute. I certainly do not accept the interpretation, interesting as it is, which you put on my verses in the third paragraph of your letter. If I may say so, I think that this interpretation is due rather to a reading of my previous verses than to this. I meant that the Magi were drawn by a power which they did not understand, and I used them as types of a kind of person who may be found at almost any period of history. I meant them to be pathetic as Dante's Virgil is pathetic.
When you speak of the Cairnses, do you mean the Cairds? I know the Cairnses only as a breed of terriers.
I certainly acquit you of everything if you will acquit me; but if the poem continues to make the impression on you that it did - then there is no possibility of acquitting it.
[T. S. Eliot]